Lost Greenwich (1) St Catherine’s Hermitage

Start of another occasional series today, folks. I’ve been reading Hasted’s History of Kent – The Hundred of Blackheath (well, ok, Henry H. Drake’s 1886 revisit.) A walloping great tome of a book, it took me ages to get hold of a copy and it’s the most unwieldy volume, both in size and obscurity, that I own.

It’s so big that there’s nowhere for it to live at my place, so it just moves around various surfaces/floors/knees, getting in the way, but, sad Phantom that I am, there’s nothing I like better than taking a small (usually random) section and worrying it to death. It’s no bedtime reading – quite apart from the fact that if that thing’s on my bed there’s no room for me, it’s actually more footnote than book – often a page will have a couple of lines of actual text (usually by Hasted as far as I can see) and several dozen close-typed notes ( generally by Drake trying to explain Hasted) – but it’s those notes which have the really good stuff in them.

Ooops – I’m tangent-ing again. Sorry. Back to Lost Stuff. Hasted/Drake quite often mention buildings and areas that are long gone, but which I can’t help feeling we’re the poorer for losing. And today’s has to be one of the oddest.

St Catherine’s Hermitage was, according to Hasted, “within East Greenwich” but that, of course, is not the East Greenwich we know. It was really what we now think of as Central Greenwich – in fact it was even west of that – it “abutted the east end of Deptford Bridge…by the road leading to the lime kilns” (I vaguely remember Greenwich South St used to be called Limekiln Lane?)

It was certainly no hovel – none of those caves that I generally think of when the word ‘hermitage’ is bandied about (odd, perhaps, given the number of real caves there were around.) It had a house, a chapel, a garden, an orchard and three acres of land called Hermitage Meadow. And it had a real, live hermit, though given the size of the country pile he was sitting on (certainly not of the dung variety) I can’t really see him in a ragged robe tied with string, wild hair and grizzled beard.

Hasted and Drake are a bit at odds as to exactly when it all began. Hasted tells us that Henry IV endowed “along two leagues of sandy shore” a hermitage dedicated to “the virgin” in 1399. He goes on to tell us that it was illegally rebuilt by one Matthew Danthorp at “Ravenserepourne” (Ravensbourne river?) but that “the place is now submerged.”

Drake reckons that Hasted confused this hermitage, which he suspects was actually at Dartford, with the one at Deptford (I had no idea how many hermitages we once had – it must have been mystics-a-go-go.) Things get very muddy for a bit, and I find it hard to work out from all the comings and goings what happened, but there is definitely a record of a man applying to the Bishop of Rochester for the job of hermit on 5th December 1518:

“I, Walter Cowmbe, layeman, promyse and professe here in the presense of God and his saynts and whiles my natural lyff shall endure I will live chaste of my body, in voluntary poverte and under obedience of you my seid ordinary in the Chapel of St Katherine in Debtford.”

The Hermit job-description (apart from living chaste in body and in voluntary poverte) seems to have involved assisting wayfarers at the edge of bridges, ferries or fords, looking after the stewards’ nags in the meadow and keeping the roads in good repair (tough manual work for a recluse, if you ask me) but it doesn’t mention robes or beards. Maybe the uniform was optional.

Hasted includes a long list of occupiers, not all of them men, and few of them sounding much like solitaries but he’s frustratingly obscure. Although it seems that Henry VIII ‘admitted’ a hermit there on Katherine of Aragon’s recommendation (recommending a hermit? I’m sorry but that just sounds weird…) and his deponents apparently “appointed hermits at their pleasure,” most of the occupiers seem to have actually bought or rented the place, and at least one of them is described as a gentleman.

Oliver Cromwell disapproved of hermits. St Catherine’s Hermitage was disposed of as part of the huge Greenwich car boot sale the roundheads held after the civil war. From there the place disappears into the annals of history.

I can’t even work out quite where it would have been. Creek Road feels too far north, but any further south and it starts moving away from what would have been East Greenwich.

But every town should have its own hermit, and to some extent I guess we still have one. Still boarded up in his falling-down house, as far as I know, David Herbert continues his battle of wills with the council. I covered it for a while last year here and here but the trail’s gone cold and I haven’t been down that way for a few weeks to see what’s happened (if anything) to the house. Anyone got any news?


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