Celebrated novelist Isabel Colegate explores the lives and works of those who've followed the call of solitude, from Lao Tzu and the Desert Fathers, to Wordsworth and Thoreau.
The quest for solitude - whether for social, religious, personal or intellectual reasons - dates back to ancient times. As a spiritual phenomenon it has its roots in Chinese, Hindu and Western philosophies; from the mystical Desert Fathers - the most famous of which was St Jerome - who cast themselves out into deserts and wastelands in search of spiritual revelation, to the Celts and Iona and Lindisfarne (who arrived with only onions to live on). Rosseau found solitude inspirational (but declared that he would die of boredom if he had to become a hermit himself, a view possibly shared by St Jerome who only managed to stay in the desert for two years).
Hermits and hermitages used to be a feature of rural and urban England (for example, Sir John Soane installed a hermit's cell in his house in Lincolns Inn), and generated plenty of contemporary mystique - at Hawkstone in Shropshire in the 1780s it was reported that a hermit was seen gazing at a human skull.