More quintessential English countryside has cropped up on my latest wanderings, this time south of London in the verdant and chocolate-boxy Weald of Kent, with a return through the comparable leafiness of East Sussex. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that this little island squeezes in 63 million people (still growing) as even in the most densely populated region, the south-east, there’s room to breathe and swing plenty of proverbial cats. Even better, a lot of the uninhabited countryside is fiercely guarded by an institution by the name of the National Trust.
Like it or hate it (I find it’s too often a smug club for middle-aged middle Englanders clad in grey-beige, sipping tea, because there’s inevitably a tea-room attached), the NT does wonders for maintaining some spectacular historical properties and, above all, their gardens.
Scotney Castle in Kent is one of them (which eagle-eyed followers of this blog may remember from a few years back, see here), a bizarre but very beautiful combination of a whacking great Victorian country house of locally quarried sandstone overlooking more than 700 acres of woods and parkland. I haven’t been there in May / June, but that’s when huge banks of rhododendrons and azaleas produce technicolour clouds of blooms. It wasn’t bad last weekend, as hydrangeas blazed in fearless pinks and purples, and great clumps of briar roses massed along fences and walls.
With hide-and seek sun between scudding woolly clouds, oh so English, we trotted down magical pathways lit by shafts of light to reach the best part of Scotney, the 14th century moated castle. It’s got to be the iconic ruin, with its watery reflection in the moat between carpets of water-lilies surrounded by gardens just naturalistic enough to earn their epithet of “the most romantic garden in England”. Well we’ve seen a few, and I’d probably agree. And beyond are fields of cattle and sheep – what more could you ask for.
Best of all we arrived there by chance on the dot of 11 a.m., at opening, so for a precious half-hour had the postcard ruin and ducks to ourselves – a privilege and an enchantment. Even the boathouse beckoned picturesquely.
Next day, we stopped off at Rudyard Kipling‘s old house, Bateman’s, hidden in a deep fold of the Sussex Weald. A decade or so ago, when I lived nearby, I’d occasionally drive that way to an excellent, eccentric farm-shop (at Stonegate for anyone interested). But I systematically got lost. The High Sussex Weald is a pocket of winding country lanes flanked by high hedgerows, where crossroad sign-posts show distances in 1/4 miles – seductively vintage but not always helpful as I’d swear that some of those road-signs point in the wrong direction.
On raising this with a local farmer once, he replied that yes, they were, and that this was a left-over from the Second World War, intended to divert invaders… Ha ha. If it’s true it’s amazing that in 70 years nothing’s changed. I bet the locals chuckle long and heartily over their pints at the village pubs.
Anyway, sure enough, we did get lost, but somehow found our way down to Bateman’s, a stunning Jacobean (17th c) house, all chimneys, mullioned windows, beams and oak-panelling, set in extensive, idyllic gardens which include a bountiful vegetable garden. After India, the US and Devon, Kipling lived here with his wife Carrie from 1902 until his death in 1936, and once she died, in 1939, the house was left to the NT.
Good news for all of us, as Bateman’s is a fascinating time capsule and a virtually untouched treasure trove of Kipling mementoes covering his eventful life, as well as original furniture. The library is of course impressive, chock a block with fascinating old tomes as well as an ancient record-player that can still blast noisily (volume control is by sock stuffed into the trumpet). One element that I loved was the embossed Cordoban leatherwork blanketing the walls of the dining-room. Here it is – with Kipling’s chair.
Strangely enough, my next trip is NOT to Cordoba, but it will be again soon, so I`ll raise a glass to Kipling.