My home county of Derbyshire is famed for its stately homes, magnificent mansions built centuries ago by the idle rich to show ordinary folk how well-bred, wealthy and successful they were. Chatsworth House, for example, ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire, dates from the 18th century and is reckoned to be one of the finest of England’s great houses.
Then there’s Hardwick Hall, built between 1590 and 1597 for relentless social climber Bess of Hardwick. It was the wonder of its day, celebrated in the phrase “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall” for its unprecedented number of windows – glass was prohibitively expensive in the 16th century! It still looks spectacular today.
And let’s not forget Kedleston Hall, a mid-18th century neo-classical masterpiece which the National Trust describes as “a show palace built to impress,” noting that it “was built to wow guests with lavish details and luxurious surroundings.” I’ve previously written about Kedleston Hall and the park in which it sits in this post.
But I wouldn’t wish to mislead you into thinking that Derbyshire is all about grand mansions. Last year we visited the remains of two very different, but equally fascinating dwellings, the largely forgotten, hidden homes of long-dead hermits.
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The Dale Abbey hermitage, hidden in woodland on the outskirts of the village of Dale Abbey, dates from the early 12th century. The story goes that one day around the year 1130, a baker called Cornelius living in the nearby town (now city) of Derby had a vision of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin told him to make his way some 7 miles (11km) to a place called Depedale, where he should devote the remainder of his life to God.
Upon arrival, Cornelius discovered Depedale to be uninhabited, simply an area of marshland in the bottom of the valley (dale). On its southern side was a steep sandstone bank, and here he excavated a cave in which he would live and worship in peaceful seclusion for around 20 years.
Nearly 900 years later, the results of the baker’s efforts are still plain to see. The simple cave has a sizeable interior, and boasts openings for a door and several large windows. Its construction by just one man using rudimentary 12th century tools must have required a huge amount of effort.
The interior walls of the cave-house are covered with countless graffiti etched into the rock. Amongst these, and now highlighted with a modern coat of fading yellow paint, is an engraved cross. Despite the thoughtless desecration by vandals, it feels as if the hermit Cornelius speaks to us across the centuries. Here, he seems to say, in a world unimaginably different from your own, lived a simple, holy man. Look around you, and see how I toiled to honour my God. Remember me!
As stories of the hermit spread, Depedale became a place of growing religious significance. In the 13th century, perhaps attracted by accounts of Cornelius’s exploits, some Augustinian canons founded a monastery on land not far from his hermitage. This was Dale Abbey, which gave the surrounding area the name by which it is now known.
Once a grand and imposing building, Dale Abbey has now all but disappeared thanks to King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. However the modest hermitage lovingly excavated by Cornelius the baker still survives, proof should anyone require it that big is not always best.
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Derbyshire’s second hermitage can trace its origins back even further back, and may have royal connections.
The Anchor Church cave in South Derbyshire, around 14 miles (22km) from Dale Abbey, is hollowed out of a sandstone outcrop close to the River Trent. Although the hermitage may have started life as a small cave carved out naturally by the action of the river, human intervention has made it what it is today. It comprises a series of impressive internal spaces (“rooms”?) and pillars, all accessed by a large doorway and lit by several substantial window openings.
Astonishingly, research published in 2021 indicates that the cave-house can be dated back to the Saxon period, making it one of the oldest intact domestic interiors ever found in the UK. More intriguing still are suggestions that it may have been the home of Eardwulf, who was deposed as king of Northumbria in AD806 and died in exile around AD830.
Eardwulf, however, may not have lived in the cave voluntarily. Rather, it appears he was kept there by his enemies under some Saxon form of house arrest. His cave-dwelling lifestyle and spirituality set him apart from his fellows, and in due course he became known to history as Saint Hardulph.
The cave-house continued to be used long after Eardwulf’s death, and in the 18th century was re-purposed as a summerhouse by the Burdett family, the owners of the land in which it sits.
The Burdetts are also thought to have widened openings into and within the cave to allow well-dressed ladies to pass through more easily. They seem to have had scant regard for the cave’s history but, fortunately, their overall impact on the structure was slight, and with a little bit of imagination the visitor can still detect Eardwulf’s presence.
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Neither the Anchor Church cave nor Dale Abbey hermitage are obvious 21st century visitor attractions. Neither is classically beautiful, or even quaintly pretty. Neither has a tea-room, or a gift shop, or even a car park – both must be reached via a short hike through the countryside.
Both, however, offer fascinating insights into lives that are totally alien to our own, comfortable 21st century existence. Magnificent mansions are an important part of Derbyshire’s “visitor offer”, but there’s so much more to our county’s history than the gilded mansions of the idle rich, if we only care to look.