Former objects of the month: On the trail of the Skiddaw Hermit

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Social History - Moot Hall 1870

Wandering through Keswick Museum to familiarise myself with the lovely place I  now find myself working, the painting of Keswick Main Street, 1870, by Joseph Brown caught my eye. I was especially drawn to the barefoot man with his walking stick in the centre of the painting. Who was he? Why is he barefoot? I remember smiling to myself as his face looks slightly like the famous German Mountaineer Reinhold Messner with his beard and long curly hair. Looking at the key to the painting he turned out to be a famous Keswick character known as the Skiddaw Hermit, a man called George Smith. After further investigations I came to the conclusion Messner and Georg Smith definitely have one thing in common, both of them appeared to have a deep connection with the mountains and their nature. While Messner lives in a castle, the Skiddaw Hermit lived literally in, or should that be on, the mountains.

Over 200 years ago the hermit had a makeshift house on the slopes of Dodd,  a nearby hill around  500 metres high, which looked like a birds nest. “That is exciting” , I thought. ” I definitely need to find out more about him and his way of life. Why did he decide to live alone in the hills?” Ros Roberts’ book which is available in the shop at the museum, about the painting gave more information. I found out he was a religious and well educated man from Aberdeen who had to leave home after his father died.  I was getting more intrigued about his life and I decided to investigate the Dodd. 

After arriving in the car park and sampling an essential fruit scone with coffee in the tea room, we started on our mission up the hill. Well we followed the really clearly signposted path, with green signs, that takes you to the summit. We enjoyed a beautiful walk through the woodland, gradually leading us up to the top. He must have experienced this as well, because there were  trees  during his time too. I started to think that we would never find the exact spot where he lived as it was only a hut with little evidence that might survive, but I wanted to have a sense and an idea of being a hermit, if only for an afternoon. 

The gradient led us out of the forest, spiralling round the Dodd with constantly changing scenes and there was maybe a little rain, but we didn’t notice as we explored. On reaching the summit we were  rewarded with breathtaking views with mountains and lakes in every direction, who wouldn’t want to live here, I thought. What a great afternoon, I might not have found where the Hermit lived, but I might be able to understand what he saw in this landscape and where his connection to nature came from – we  shared this special place for a while, I’ll look at that picture differently now, remembering the trees and views . 

Why did we leave such a magical place ? To  be honest our way down was dictated by quite modern needs though quite essential… the need to get to Friars sweet shop in Keswick before closing time. Well we’d built up an appetite!