10 Places That Tell Stories of Isolation

Isolation and social distancing have shaped our past and places in many different ways.

Historic buildings and places are reminders of how people have lived, coped, struggled and sometimes even changed the world.

Here are ten places which have witnessed moments of self-isolation through history.

1. Woolsthorpe Manor House

The apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, where Sir Isaac Newton was born and where he developed his theory on gravity. Copyright: Historic England Archive. Ref: BB7908410
The apple tree at Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire, where Sir Isaac Newton was born and where he developed his theory on gravity © Historic England Archive. Ref: BB7908410

The scientist Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor. It was also here that he took an 18-month break from Cambridge University in 1665 to escape the plague.

During this time of solitude, he formulated his theory on gravity, aided by the apple tree which still stands in the garden.

He also developed his understanding of refraction when experimenting with a prism. He split light streaming through his window into the colours of the rainbow.

2. Crowland Abbey

Crowlands Abbey, Crowland, Lincolnshire © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP187441
Crowlands Abbey, Crowland, Lincolnshire © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP187441

The origins of Crowland Abbey begin around 700 AD when its founder, St Guthlac, sought self-isolation and became a hermit for religious contemplation.

Guthlac had learned about a remote island called Crowland set amidst ‘a most dismal fen of immense size’, where people couldn’t live because of the ‘phantoms and demons and terrors of various shapes’. It was the perfect hideaway for a deeply religious man.

However, Guthlac’s hopes for self-isolation were ruined by locals interested in his chosen life on the marshes. Far from leading a life of quiet and simple contemplation, Guthlac became the go-to prophet and healer of the day and put the previously unheard of Crowland on the map. 

3. Pontefract Hermitage

The Hermitage, Pontefract © Historic England Archive
The Hermitage, Pontefract © Historic England Archive

The hermit life of isolation and religious contemplation has been the norm for many throughout history.

Pontefract Hermitage was carved out of Carboniferous sandstone in 1386. Pontefract had hermits from the early 13th century, the earliest being Peter of Pomfret, who was executed by King John in 1213 for predicting his downfall.

The tradition seems to have continued for about three centuries, though this particular site was forgotten for many centuries after falling out of use. It was re-discovered in October 1854 by workmen laying a new sewer and now lies below ground under the Pontefract General Infirmary.

4. The Writing Hut of Henry Williamson, Georgeham

The wooden hut built by Henry William Williamson in Georgeham, Devon © Historic England Archive
The wooden hut built by Henry William Williamson in Georgeham, Devon © Historic England Archive

This hut was built by the author Henry Williamson in 1929.

Williamson was an important 20th-century writer of natural and social fiction. He built the hut using the prize money awarded for arguably his most famous work, Tarka the Otter.

It’s a humble but characterful little building, surrounded by trees which Williamson planted to create a sanctuary where he could continue his writing. He used the hut for many years and the field in which it stood became a bountiful natural habitat for local wildlife, something which was very important to the writer.

5. The Cabin in Bucks Mills, Bideford

The Artist's Cabin on the beach slipway at Bucks Mills, North Devon © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey
The Artist’s Cabin on the beach slipway at Bucks Mills, North Devon © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Sitting on the cliff above Bideford Bay, this cabin is a studio and summer cottage once shared by the artists Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards.

After meeting as students in London and falling in love, the artists travelled extensively throughout the country, painting and selling their work. The Cabin (a former 19th-century fisherman’s store) became their studio and retreat from 1924.

After Judith died in 1971, Mary Stella closed The Cabin and did not return. It has been left unchanged and was listed in 2017.

6. Jodrell Bank Observatory

The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP162270

Jodrell Bank Observatory was born out of the need for isolation and quiet.

The fields where the observatory now stands were once owned by the University of Manchester’s Botany department. In 1945, a young astrophysicist called Bernard Lovell escaped there when he found his attempts to decipher cosmic rays were being hampered by radio interference in central Manchester.

The observatory is one of the earliest sites for radio-telescopes and had a pivotal role in the development of the new science of radio astronomy, This was one of the first steps towards modern astrophysics, revolutionising our understanding of the universe.

7. Longstone Lighthouse

Lighthouse on Longstone. Image courtesy Michael Spiller via Wikimedia Commons

Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands is where the famous Darling family lived.

On 6th September 1838, a massive storm wrecked the SS Forfarshire near the lighthouse. The keeper William Darling decided to try and rescue any survivors. Together with his daughter Grace, they rescued nine survivors in their small rowing boat.

Grace subsequently became something of a Victorian heroine after the rescue. She even received fan mail asking for locks of her hair and pieces of the dress that she wore during the rescue.

8. Boscobel royal oak and priest hole

The Royal Oak at Boscobel House in Shropshire. Copyright: Historic England Archive. Ref: PLBN090103
The Royal Oak at Boscobel House in Shropshire © Historic England Archive. Ref: PLBN090103

Following the execution of King Charles I in 1649, his eldest son (Charles II) tried in vain to regain the throne.

Defeated at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, the young Charles fled and sought refuge at Boscobel House in Shropshire, hiding first in a tree, which is now known as The Royal Oak. He then spent the night hiding in a priest-hole in the lodge at Boscobel before escaping to France.

View through glass of priest hole in the attic of Boscobel House in Shropshire © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP129840
View through glass of priest hole in the attic of Boscobel House in Shropshire © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP129840

Priest holes, or hides, were commonly used by Catholic priests towards the end of the 16th century when it was high treason for them to be in Elizabethan England.

9. The fogou at Carn Euny, Penzance

Inside the round chamber towards the fogou at Carn Euny Ancient Village, Sancreed, Penzance, Cornwall © Historic England Archive
Inside the round chamber towards the fogou at Carn Euny Ancient Village, Sancreed, Penzance, Cornwall © Historic England Archive

The fogou at Carn Euny ancient village in Penzance, Cornwall is a mysterious place.

Fogous (from the Cornish word ‘ogo’, meaning cave) are underground passages and are found only in the far west of Cornwall. Around 12 are known to survive.

Their original use is unclear, but they are largely believed to have been refuges from attackers. They could also have been a place to store goods or sites of ceremony and ritual.

Fogous are thought to have been used from the Iron Age to the Roman period and this particular example dates from the 3rd-century BC to the 1st-century AD.

10. Former Second World War IN-Station, Norwich

Inside the WWII secret wireless station, or IN-Station in Norwich © Norfolk Historic Environment Service
Inside the secret Second World War wireless station, or IN-Station, in Norwich © Norfolk Historic Environment Service

Discreet military activities usually require isolation and secrecy.

During the Second World War, a series of underground wireless stations were built as part of a secret communications network set up by Churchill in response to the increasing threat of German invasion.

The recruits in ‘Churchill’s Secret Army’ (also known as the British Resistance Organisation) had to verbally swear to secrecy and communicated with the army by a secret wireless network. Messages were transmitted from OUT-Stations in enemy-occupied areas to IN-Stations, which were outside the occupied area and manned by the military.

There are thought to be 32 IN-Stations in England, though only 12 have been found. This one in Norwich is complete with a fake bookcase to conceal the wireless room and an escape tunnel.

What have we missed? Let us know more places with stories of isolation in the comments below.

Further reading:

7 responses to 10 Places That Tell Stories of Isolation

  1. jfleming says:

    Turves Fenland had two young military recruits to maintain wireless/wired communication. Adjacent to false airstrip of Whittlesey Dyke. Importance discovered by laying of new cables

  2. Dr Charles Kightly says:

    Thank you, very interesting and topical! Some fascinating ‘new’ [to me] sites

  3. I’d like to suggest that you add prisons and workhouses to your list. Both were inherently about isolating groups from society – criminals and the poor – and within each there were areas for particular isolation either for punishment (eg solitary confinement) or to deal with infectious disease (receiving wards in workhouses). We have examples of both institutions in historic buildings in Ripon, North Yorkshire, now presented as museums.

  4. Sally R says:

    Why no links to or mentions of the organisations which fund the care of these places and open then to your public? With the tourism industry on its knees, you might at the very least do them common courtesy.

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