The village of Hermitage sits on the B4009, five miles (eight kilometres) north east of Newbury in the heart of the North Wessex Downs, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is easily reached from the M4, A4 and A34. It has a population of around 2000 and approximately 800 dwellings.
Hermitage is a civil parish incorporating a number of settlements: Hermitage village, Little Hungerford* and Wellhouse*. It is within the jurisdiction of Newbury district council and West Berkshire county council.
For such a large village, Hermitage has very little history before 1835, the year that Adelaide Chapel, now the Holy Trinity Church, was built under the patronage of Queen Adelaide. In fact this chapel was built not for the very few residents of Hermitage but so that those from Little Hungerford, Wellhouse and also Bucklebury Alley had less distance to travel.
Until the Adelaide Chapel was built, and for a short time afterwards, the area was part of the parochial parish of Hampstead Norris (sic) with no separate parish records. It became a separate parish in 1840 although Hermitage was still very sparsely populated and the name referred only to the area at the southern end of the modern village.
The northern end of the present village, generally around the triangle formed by the B4009, Yattendon Road and Chapel Lane, and latterly further north of this triangle, was an area known as Little Hungerford. (This area was still known as Little Hungerford as recently as the 1960s on postal addresses.)
In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Hermitage like this: HERMITAGE, a chapelry in Hampstead-Norris parish, Berks; 4¼ miles NNE of Newbury r. station. It was constituted in 1840; and it has a post office under Newbury. Pop., 434. Houses, 95. The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Oxford. Value, £135.* Patron, the Marquis of Downshire. There are a Wesleyan chapel and a free school
However the first mention of Hermitage in any known historical source is in 1641 but then only in passing as ‘some land at the Heath, Hermitage’ as part of a larger bill of sale centred around Oare. The first map with a reference to Hermitage and Little Hungerford seems to be that by Rocque published in 1761.
Some sources state that the name of the village originated much earlier from the presence of a hermit in the area. This, probably apocryphal, tale is taken further by suggestions that the hermit may be one John Quynton, known as the Hermit of Thatcham, and listed as such in Salisbury in 1388. The hermit story is then taken to an extreme by some sources which state that the hermit lived by a natural spring in the grounds of the present day Hermitage House, the waters of which were said to have healing and magical properties. The truth is that the origins of the name Hermitage are unknown.
After the hermit, and before the building of the Adelaide Chapel, there is some possibility that parliamentary forces passed through the area on their way to North Heath during the Civil War. More certain is that farm workers from both Hermitage and Little Hungerford took part in the Machine Riots of 1830, which resulted in a wage demand for a rise of one fifth being agreed by the farm owner at Hampstead Norris. Family names mentioned in documents from the 17th and 18th Centuries include Matthews, Pocock and Lousley.
Local Directories, such as Kelly’s and Billing’s, refer to a small settlement at Hermitage in the middle years of the 19th century. Kelly’s of 1847 talks of the hamlet with a Free School and a Wesleyan Chapel. Several local names such as Deacon, Burgess and Dines are mentioned. Billing’s of 1854, tells of the Methodist Chapel (in Chapel Lane), a Parochial School with up to 50 pupils, and the White Horse and the Fox Public Houses. Both of the entries come under the jurisdiction of Hampstead Norris though by 1895 Hermitage had a separate entry in Kelly’s. Interestingly, the Merritt family owned the Fox throughout the period covered by these directories. The school mentioned in these directories was situated on the site of the present village hall. The current primary school was built in 1913.
The lack of old properties in the village gives a clue to its recent origins. The major factors which have influenced its growth have probably been the coming of the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton (DNS) railway in 1882 and, more recently, the opening of the M4 in 1971.
Given that the village owed its existence to being ‘a place on the road to somewhere else’ the influence of the railway and the motorway on the current village is probably in keeping with history.
Before the advent of the railway, the area had a long history of brickmaking, based on the local clay of the Reading beds – albeit on a cottage-industry basis. However, the DNS seems to have been the spur for the rapid development of the Pinewood Brickworks at the northern end of the village.
The exact date that production started is not known but at its peak 50,000 bricks a week were transported by rail from a dedicated siding there. The brickworks were probably only in use for about 70 or 80 years, closing in 1967. However there is some suggestion that bricks from the works were used in the construction of bridges on the DNS railway, suggesting a slightly longer life. This is put into doubt by the fact that the site doesn’t appear on Ordnance Survey maps until 1912. Probably the best example of a building made from Pinewood bricks is St. Joseph’s Church in Newbury built in 1935.Other local businesses of note include Wernham’s bakery, which was run by the Wernham family from about 1850 until its closure in 1966, and the building and carpentry firm run by the Burgess family from the eighteenth century until the 1990’s.The effect of the DNS railway on the local growth is hinted at in the Victoria County History, which tells of ‘a station and brickworks at Hermitage, where a number of villas have lately been erected.’
As well as Hermitage station, Pinewood Halt served the northern, Little Hungerford end of the village, situated close to the brickworks. The sudden wealth of the area is also hinted at by the formation of such institutions as the Hermitage Provident Club, which distributed charitable gifts to the poor in 1888. In 1971 the opening of the M4 Motorway brought about a similar influx as the village suddenly became a prime commuter area.
The DNS railway was never a commercial success and was closed in 1967 under the government’s Beeching Plan which drastically cut railways in the 1960s. However, it did come into its own during the Second World War, when munitions and supplies were transported . This was especially important in the build up to the Normandy landings. A further Hermitage landmark also resulted from these landings. The School of Military Survey (SMS) was originally prepared as a US Hospital intended for the casualties of the landings, although in the event these were not as great as expected. After the war it became a camp for (mainly) Polish refugees, and was taken over by the SMS in 1949. Awarded the Royal accolade in 1997 the RSMS is now part of the Defence Intelligence and Security Centre providing training in geospatial information management ad geospatial exploitation.
Present day Hermitage now dwarfs its former overlords of Hampstead Norreys and Oare but, sadly for such a sizeable village, few people of note have lived here, though DH Lawrence stayed in the village several times from 1917-19 and possibly based some of his writings on the area. In the early nineteenth century the area now known as Hermitage was still dominated, and even administered by the more important settlements of Oare, Curridge and Hampstead Norris (sic). The Chapel at Oare is mentioned as far back as 968 AD and details of Curridge Manor appear in the Domesday Book. The Quaker Meeting House and burial ground on Oare Common played an important part in the spread of Quakers from the North, appearing from about 1678.
But the Iron-age earthworks at Grimsbury* Castle show that the area was inhabited thousands of years ago and there have been ambiguous reports of wooden structures, possibly lake dwellings, both near Grimsbury and in the middle of Faircross* pond. However there is debate as to whether these really are the remains of dwellings from prehistory, or simply fallen trees. It seems likely that the remains found in the centre of Faircross pond represent some type of structure, but those rumoured to have been found near Grimsbury remain unsubstantiated, and may be the result of a natural event.
There were certainly Roman settlements throughout the area, including a significant villa at Wellhouse, and Roman coins and other artefacts have been found. Some of these were found in the vicinity of Doctor’s Lane or Doctor’s Row, which formed part of an important route a few centuries ago. It is, in fact, these old routes which seem to give a clue to origins of modern Hermitage. For example, probably three Roman routes ran to and from Grimsbury.
It is likely that the Faircross area of the village got its name from a point at which two or more old routes crossed, although it is also possible that it got its name from the fact that it was a crossing point for the marsh or bog that covered much of the area at that time. This was mostly removed by drainage work sometime in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
The old routes and Green Roads which passed through or near the village include Old Street, the West Ridgeway and Long Lane. The old Roman roads and the Green Roads form the basis of the present road system in the village and by the seventeenth century the road layout was virtually the same as today. Indeed by the 1881 census the major routes are effectively identical to modern Hermitage.
*Ordnance Survey map 158 Newbury & Hungerford shows the areas known as Faircross, Grimsby, Little Hungerford and Wellhouse as well as the neighbouring villages of Curridge, Oare and Hampstead Norreys.