Sunday, 21 September 2014

Ightham Mote by Imogen Robertson



Where has she taken us now?
One of the best holidays I had before I left home was when my brothers were travelling far afield and Mum and Dad offered to take me to Shropshire in the caravan. They sweetened the deal by saying they would take me to as many stately homes as I could handle. I can handle a lot of stately homes. 

I’d sit in the caravan of an evening with the National Trust handbook saying ‘I want that, and that and that’, rather in the manner of a Russian oligarch with a copy of the Lady Magazine - though perhaps they don’t do their house choosing in a caravan. 

I stopped studying history at school at fourteen, but had a voracious interest in the matter of history - the houses, the furniture the silted layers of story found in houses made and remade, in the blocked up windows, the great halls with medieval carvings, Tudor panelling and Victorian battle banners. 

I’m not sure I ever really wanted one of my own - though if anyone wants to offer me an estate, I’ll give it a go, but I wondered even then about living under the weight of so much history. It would be like living in your own 3D memento mori. Also my father used to tell us about going to see Lord Barnard - must have been the father of the present one - to give the staff a quote for moving some furniture down to London from Raby Castle, and described him as sitting in one of those deep porter’s chairs in a cavernous hall next to what my father described as ‘rather a meagre fire’. The way he told it made the caravan feel very cosy.

Anyway, my love of snooping around National Trust Properties hasn’t abated with age and I’ve married a man who likes scrabbling around in old stuff too. Neither of us drive though, so when Mum and Dad offered to take us out for a day in Kent and asked if there was anywhere we wanted to go, I was straight on the National Trust site and nominated Ightham Mote near Sevenoaks. 

It’s a gem. A 14th century moated manor house build of Kentish ragstone with a great hall which is still watched over by an oak carving of a green man. There is also some civil war armour in there which they found in the 1890s in the moat. 

Part of the fascination of the place is that it was continuously inhabited from when it was build until the twentieth century, the fabric has not been dramatically altered - only adapted. The Trust has not tried to impose a particular period on the house, so upstairs one finds a former solar set up as a 20th century sitting room and you are encouraged to sit there and read more about the house by the Vicrtorian fireplace by the light pouring through the leaded windows. 

The hand-painted wallpaper 
You go via an Edwardian bathroom to a chapel with 16th century German stained glass and ceilings painted with Tudor roses and into a long drawing room with 18th century hand painted wall paper and a Tudor fireplace. The fireplace was found to be far too large for the room when it was delivered to the house, so the owners raised the roof of that wing to accommodate it. The volunteer guides were enthusiastic and well-informed and had a tangible love of the place. 

The house was nearly lost when it was put up for auction in 1951. The proposal was to demolish it or convert it into flats, but three local men bought it to prevent that happening. They hung onto it until a buyer they could trust with the funds to conserve the house could be found. The eventual purchaser was an American gentleman in who took it on, loved it, and left it to the National Trust on his death.  

I had another reason for going to Ightham Mote though beyond curiosity and the need for a bit of fresh air. I think it will be the model of the house in a novel I’m working on at the moment. I’m not the first to be inspired by the place - wikipedia tells me that both Anne Easter Smith and Anya Seaton have both set novels there. Fair enough, I think I’ll be transporting it to Suffolk and renaming it, but I’ll be keeping the rest from the painted chapel to the fish-filled moat, the surrounding woodland to the medieval orchard and this will be the house my characters live in. I shall give them the glamour and the draughts and observe what happens from the comfort of my centrally heated London flat.

Yes, that is a Grade I listed Doghouse in the courtyard

www.imogenrobertson.com

15 comments:

Ms. said...

Nice you've found a mate who loves what you love...it is a swell location too.....happy writing!

Sue Purkiss said...

Hadn't heard of this place - it looks lovely!

Joan Lennon said...

Thanks for this!

carol drinkwater said...

I spent some of my English childhood in Sundridge Park with an uncle who lived near Sevenoaks and I have never heard of this place before. I must go and see it next time I am over. I love grand old piles, visiting them, weighing them up as possible locations in books and dreaming of owning them. Great stuff, Imogen, thank you for the discovery of Ightham Mote.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I became 'familiar' with Ightham Mote via the wonderful Anya Seton novel Green Darkness. Lovely to see these photos of it and thanks for the nudge to my memory!

Tanya Landman said...

I love Ightam Mote! We used to get taken there for days out when I was a child. Thanks for bringing back some happy memories!

Sally Zigmond said...

I, too, gave up school history when I was 14 and it was historical fiction (Jean Plaidy) in particular) that brought me back. Fortunately, both my husband and I are life members of the wonderful National Trust and try to organise our holidays around a visit to one or five of their properties, be they large or small, grand or humble. For instance one of our favourites is Isaac Newton's home near Grantham. It really bought this remarkable man to life for me. On a much grander but less ancient scale, you can't beat Cragside near Rothbury, Northumberland for its Victorian splendour - and the first domestically electric light in England. It gives a wonderful feel of Victorian grand living and its grounds and gardens are stunning. The National Trust is indeed a treasure trove for all historical novelists.

PS> Can't wait to read the novel, Imogen!

Sandy said...

It's now on my list - thank you.

Ann Turnbull said...

I grew up in north Kent but was never taken to Ightham Mote! It looks wonderful. And isn't it great to find the perfect house and move it to wherever your story needs to be? I'm about to re-locate a nearby manor house for the second time in my new story. Last time I moved it to Oxfordshire and had to rebuild it in the local stone; this time it will need interior changes, but it's always good to have the basics there.

Jean Bull said...

I loved reading about Ightham Mote in Green Darkness, but I've never been there. I'll have to put it on my list.
Looking forward to reading your book too.

Susan Price said...

I bet you know Stokesey Castle?

Imogen said...

Great to find lots of National Trust fans here! Those who don't know Ightham should definitely visit. And I haven't been to Stokesay Castle. Shall do that and read Green Darkness at once.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Amazing - and shocking - to think such a historic place was nearly destroyed! I don't think it would happen now. When I was last in England, I was amazed at how many historic places were still in us, and not only grand manors. You'd pass a pub with a plaque on it to say it was five hundred years old - and still a pub!
One of our local heritage places, the childhood home of Ned Kelly, was sold recently and I was horrified to see in photos how damaged it has been allowed to become. :-(

Kate Lord Brown said...

Wonderful (and love the kennel!)

Ann Palmer said...

This is one of those stories that makes me want to book the next Ryanair flight to London and hare on down to see what you saw. I hope the 18th century painted wallpaper finds itself in your Suffolk re-creation of the house. I've got a thing about old wallpaper. On 25 April 1974, in the big bedroom of my flat in Porto, the owners wrote a hail to freedom and the end of Salazarism on the wall before pasting on their new orange and yellow paper. The now grown up son was sure it would have still been there when my builders redecorated the room. If only I'd known.