We present the analysis of Lick absorption-line indices from three separate long-slit spectroscopic observations of the nearby isolated elliptical galaxy NGC 821. The three data sets present a consistent picture of the stellar population within one effective radius, in which strong gradients are evident in both luminosity-weighted age and metallicity. The central population exhibits a young age of ~4 Gyr and a metallicity ~3 times solar. At one effective radius the age has risen to ~12 Gyr and the metallicity fallen to less than ~1/3 times solar. The low-metallicity population around one effective radius appears to have an exclusively red horizontal branch (RHB), with no significant contribution from the blue horizontal branch evident in some globular clusters of the same age and metallicity. Despite the strong central age gradient, we demonstrate that only a small fraction (≤10 per cent) of the galaxy's stellar mass can have been created in recent star formation events. We consider possible star formation histories for NGC 821 and find that the most likely cause of the young central population was a minor merger or tidal interaction that caused NGC 821 to consume its own gas in a centrally concentrated burst of star formation 1–4 Gyr ago.