|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