‘Ménage à trois’ . . . ?

During our recent trip to East Sussex and Kent, we visited three National Trust properties that are linked by family and membership of or association with the Bloomsbury Group (or Set) – check the map:

  • Knole, on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent, family home, since the 16th century of the Sackville and Sackville-West families;
  • Sissinghurst Castle and Garden (24 miles southeast of Knole), home of poet, novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West and husband Harold Nicholson; and
  • Monk’s House  at Rodmell on the south coast near the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap (see map), the home of writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, prominent members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Top: Knole; bottom left: Sissinghurst; bottom right: Monk’s House

The Bloomsbury Group was a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century.

What was their ethos? Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.

So what is the particular connection, the ‘ménage’ as I’ve called it, between Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House?

Left: Vita Sackville-West (and husband Harold Nicholson); middle: Eddy Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville; right: Virginia Woolf.

Vita Sackville-West was the daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville. She was born at Knole in 1892. As a woman, Vita could not inherit Knole on her father’s death. Instead, Knole and the Sackville title passed to Lionel’s younger brother Charles. His son Edward (‘Eddy’), Vita’s cousin, became the 5th Baron. Although he was not a core member of the Bloomsbury Group, many of its members and ‘hangers-on’ were frequent visitors to Knole as shown in the guest book on display in the rooms that Eddy occupied in the Gatehouse Tower there.

Vita and her husband purchased derelict Sissinghurst Castle in 1930 and set about creating a garden that has received acclaim worldwide. Sissinghurst had been the home of one of Vita’s ancestors, Cicely Baker, who married Thomas, Ist Earl of Dorset in 1555.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf were lovers.

It’s not my intention here to discuss nor describe further the ancestral, social, or sexual links between all involved. I cannot comment either on the literary output of Vita and Virginia as I have not read any of their works, although I know what they wrote and the genre.

Instead, let me just describe some of my impressions of Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House.


It took less than an hour to drive north on the A21 to Sevenoaks from our holiday cottage near Robertsbridge. Driving along the High Street (A225) at Sevenoaks, it’s hard to believe that just behind the houses lies a 1000 acre parkland, with Knole and its gardens at the center. The park has herds of fallow and Japanese Sika deer, descendants of the deer introduced centuries ago.

Knole is a large house, but the public has access to just a few rooms. But what a feast for the eyes therein. Treasures aplenty! The items on display inside the house: oil paintings by the dozen, rare furniture and many others remain the property of the Sackville-West family that continues to live at Knole, under a 200-year lease from the National Trust. Robert Sackville-West is the 7th Baron.

No photography is permitted inside the main house; but no such restrictions hold in the Stone [4] and Green Courts [2], or from the roof of the Gatehouse [8]. Likewise photography is permitted in the Orangery [3].


Sissinghurst Castle Garden is a delight. But hard to appreciate fully when there are so many visitors. And on the day we visited, it wasn’t as busy as it must surely get!

Designed by Vita and Harold, Sissinghurst must be on every gardener’s bucket list. Like the garden we saw at Greys Court two years ago, Sissinghurst is also a series of rooms open to the sky, and best seen in their entirety perhaps from the top of the double turret tower, Vita’s Tower.

The White Garden from Vita’s Tower.

The South Cottage from Vita’s Tower.

Vita loved her tower, and had a writing room there. There’s no access to the room, but I visitors can look through a grille to see its layout.

The Library is open however. Over the fireplace there is a grand oil painting of Vita. It’s a comfortable room where no doubt she and Harold entertained their Bloomsbury friends.

Vita and Harold had a turbulent marriage, and both had same-sex affairs. Vita’s affair with Virginia Woolf was perhaps the most notorious. But their marriage survived, and together they worked on creating their garden at Sissinghurst.


Visitors to Monk’s House in the small village of Rodmell new Newhaven make a beeline to Virginia Woolf’s writing room in the garden.

Virginia and husband Leonard shared a 16th century cottage. On the walls are paintings by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell (VB) and the person (TR) who became Leonard’s companion after Virginia’s suicide by drowning in 1941 (aged 59) until his death in 1969, Trekkie Parsons.

The ashes of both Virginia and Leonard were laid at the base of a wall in their small but attractive garden, with its views over the South Downs.

Before our visit to Monk’s House, the name of Virginia Woolf was familiar to me, but I knew very little of her life and associates. It was fascinating, however, to see the environment and work room that gave one of the great writers of the 20th century inspiration to continue, even though she suffered mental health problems all her life. For some of visitors I had the sense that their visit to Monk’s House was almost a pilgrimage.


Leaving Monk’s House to drive back to Robertsbridge, we chose a route that would take us down to the coast at Birling Gap where we hoped to have a good view of the chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, where the South Downs meet the sea. It was a sparklingly bright afternoon, and we were not disappointed.

From the National Trust car park there was easy access down to the beach, where we could sit and take in the magnificence of that landscape.

Continuing our journey on from Birling Gap, we passed Beachy Head, although we didn’t stop. The short video below shows our departure from the car park at Birling Gap, and the climb on to the cliffs, passing the Belle Tout Lighthouse (now restored as a bed & breakfast establishment), and finally dropping down into Eastbourne, with Pevensey Bay in the distance, where the Normans landed in 1066. From that drop into Eastbourne you can appreciate just how high the chalk cliffs are at Beachy Head, at more than 530 feet (162 m).


Check out these photo albums:


 

1066 and all that . . .

It’s the morning of 14 October 1066.

On Senlac Hill (or Senlac Ridge), about six miles north of the coast in Sussex (map), a Saxon shield wall prepares to engage the Norman-French invaders under Duke William of Normandy.  The Saxons, under King Harold Godwinson, have just arrived after marching south from Stamford Bridge in the East Riding of Yorkshire where, just three weeks earlier, they had defeated another invading force under King Harald Hardrada of Norway and his ally, Harold’s brother Tostig.

Exhausted and possibly out-numbered, this is a make or break stand for Harold’s Saxons. But, if they stand their ground, they are better positioned than the Normans who must cross a shallow valley then climb Senlac Hill to engage the Saxons.

This is the view from just below Senlac Hill looking south to where the Normans were mustered on the ridge in the distance. They had to cross this shallow valley to engage the Saxons.

For most of the day the battle (of Hastings as it has come to be known) ebbs and flows with neither side gaining an advantage. Until, late in the day, the Normans appear defeated and in retreat. The Saxons break rank and chase the fleeing Normans. But it’s all a feint. The Norman cavalry in small groups of five or six riders turn on the pursuing Saxons, and cut them down. Harold is killed (by an arrow through his eye, so the story goes), and William is victorious.

And so begin several centuries of foreign rule of England, first under the Normans and then under the durable Plantagenets who reign until the death of Richard III (the last Plantagenet king) in 1485 on Bosworth Field in Leicestershire.

Shortly after the Battle of Hastings, Duke William (now crowned King William I, the ‘Conqueror’) founded Battle Abbey, a Benedictine institution, although he died before it was completed.

The abbey endured until 1538 when, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, under Henry VIII, the abbey was closed, the church demolished, and the lands sold off.

Today, Battle Abbey and the battlefield are owned by English Heritage, and there are many quite well-preserved ruins to explore. From the magnificent gatehouse there is an excellent view not only over the ruins and battlefield but also over the small town of Battle that grew up around the abbey.

The gatehouse (above) and the view over Battle (below)

Among the best preserved buildings is the Dormitory, and beneath it, the Common Room.

At the east end of where the Church once stood, the Crypt is now exposed revealing several chapels.

After the Dissolution, the Abbey passed through several families.

The independent Battle Abbey School now occupies part of the site of the former abbey.

For more photos of Battle Abbey and the battlefield, please take a look at this album.


Dover Castle sits high on the cliffs overlooking the town and modern port. The site has been fortified since at least the second century AD, when the Romans (who invaded in AD43) built a lighthouse (or pharos) there. But there is evidence of much earlier occupation back to Iron Age times.

From near Langdon Hole on the White Cliffs of Dover, looking west, this is the keep of Dover Castle on the right, and the Saxon church on the left.

The pharos still stands proudly beside a Saxon Church of St Mary in Castro (built around AD1000), and was once used as the bell tower.

A century after the Conquest, Henry II (great grandson of William the Conqueror) launched a major building program at Dover Castle. The keep was erected and much of what we see today began to take shape between 1179 and 1188.

Dover Castle has remained an important link in the chain of defences on England’s southern coast. During Tudor times, it was an important castle for Henry VIII. In the 18th century further garrisons were built to house soldiers sent there to face the threat of invasion from France. And it played an important role during the Napoleonic Wars that ended with Napoleon’s defeat and exile to St Helena in 1815.

The castle also played its part during the Second World War. There are antiaircraft guns mounted on the battlements. And deep under the castle there is a series of tunnels used during the war. These are quite separate from the extensive medieval tunnels on the north side of the castle, which we had the opportunity to explore.

We must have spent four hours or more exploring Dover Castle. It’s an excellent destination for anyone interested in England’s post-Norman history. And also a mecca for families with children. English Heritage makes great efforts to bring history alive.

More photos can be found in this album.

I mentioned that Dover Castle stands high above the town. Here are two short videos of the drive up to and down from the castle. They give a good impression of just how strategic its location is.

Just a couple of miles to the east are the White Cliffs of Dover. We walked only as far as Langdon Hole, but still managed a good view of the Cliffs and, once the haze had lifted, a view across the English Channel (La Manche) to the cliffs on the coast of northern France. Just twenty or so miles. It clear why Dover Castle was so important for the defence of the realm.

The White Cliffs of Dover are a National Trust property.


Near Lamberhurst in Kent stand the ruins of a Premonstratensian monastery, Bayham Old Abbey, that Steph and I took in late one afternoon on our way back to the holiday cottage near Robertsbridge (just 13 miles south).

Bayham Old Abbey was founded around 1207 and, like the abbey at Battle, survived until the mid-16th century.

The ruins, some of the best preserved in southern England, stand proudly alongside the River Teise. We enjoyed them by ourselves in the late afternoon sun.

Check out more photos here.


Once the Normans and their successors had their feet under the ‘English table’, so to speak, Saxon lands were confiscated and given to Norman families. Throughout southeast England, and more widely over the country, many of the estates we see today came from the spoils of conquest 1000 years ago.

During our exploration of National Trust and English Heritage properties in East Sussex and Kent, we took in three moated castles built in the 14th century.

Bodiam Castle was built around 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, a knight formerly in the service of King Edward III (third great grandson of Henry II). It was occupied for almost three hundred years, until it was slighted (partially dismantled) during the Civil War of the 1640s.

Ask any child to draw a castle, and something resembling Bodiam is what they are likely to produce.

With towers at each corner, and imposing gatehouses, Bodiam Castle is surrounded by a deep moat full of large fish, probably carp. Unlike many castles, Bodiam does not have a central keep. The living apartments were built on the inside of the castle walls.

Owned by the National Trust, much of the castle is open to explore, and visitors can climb a couple of the towers, and enjoy the views over the moat and the central courtyard.

I have posted more photos and plans of the castle in this album.

There is a link between Bodiam Castle and the Second World War, and I now regret not taking a photo.

Alongside the path leading to the castle from the ticket office, there is a pillbox (a type of concrete blockhouse) that was constructed some time after September 1939 to help protect Bodiam bridge over the River Rother against a potential German invasion, although I’m not sure how this could have been successful in the face of a serious onslaught.


The moated manor house at Scotney Castle was built around 1380. It stands some distance from a large country house that was built between 1835 and 1843, known as Scotney ‘New Castle’.

You can just see the round tower of the ‘Old Castle’ in the valley below the terrace of the New Castle (L) and the ‘New Castle’ from the causeway on to the island of the ‘Old Castle’ (R).

The ‘Old Castle’ has not been occupied for a long time, and part of the castle has been completely demolished. Although begun in the late 14th century, the buildings date from different periods in the 16th and 17th centuries as well.

See the full set of photos here, including many photos of the interior of the ‘New’ castle. It’s a National Trust property.


Just east of Sevenoaks in Kent, Ightham Mote is one of the most delightful moated manor houses I have ever visited¹. It must be one of the most complete still standing. Over the centuries it has been owned by several families, each generation adding to its architecture (click on the image at right for a larger version), although the Selby family who purchased Ightham in 1591 resided there for almost 300 years.

But perhaps one of its most interesting periods dates from just over 60 years ago, when an American, Charles Henry Robinson (from Portland, Maine), purchased Ightham and lived there for some years. It passed to the National Trust when he died in 1985.

During our recent visit, we watched a short video about the conservation restoration of one of the wings of the house that the Trust commenced in 1989, and was finally completed 15 years and £10 million later. But how it was worth it!

Inside the house, the Great Hall, the New Chapel (with its ceiling panels painted to celebrate the marriage, in 1509, of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon), and the Drawing Room (with its exuberant fireplace and raised ceiling to accommodate it), decorated with 18th century hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, are of particular interest.

A visit to Ightham Mote is a stroll through 600 years of history, and the architectural and design interests of several families. What I particularly like about properties such as this are the small details that catch my eye, in the woodwork, the furniture, the wallpaper. The chapel ceiling immediately connects you with early Tudor times, for example, yet in other parts of the house, it’s clear that this was a home until just 35 years ago. Ightham Mote has a remarkable lineage.

Check out the full set of Ightham Mote photos and floor plans here.


¹ Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire (also a National Trust property) has to be the other. We visited there in 2013.

“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life”. Charles Darwin

It is clear from our recent visit to Down House in Kent, the Georgian manor that Charles and Emma Darwin called home for 40 years until his death in 1882, that Darwin certainly did discover the value of life.

Charles Darwin, naturalist and confirmed agnostic, turned the world upside down in 1859 with the publication of his seminal On the Origin of Species, published to great claim, and controversy. It was written at Down House as was much of his prolific output.

Born in Shrewsbury in 1809, the son of a doctor and successful businessman, Robert Darwin, he had two illustrious grandfathers: natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, and potter Josiah Wedgwood, both anti-slavery abolitionists and members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Darwin never knew his grandfathers, as both passed away before his birth.

Coming from a wealthy background and supported by his father and the Wedgwoods, Darwin had no need to find other employment. He could concentrate on developing his theories and publishing his ideas. He did not have to sell many of his precious specimens as was often the case for many naturalists like Darwin’s ‘rival’ Alfred Russel Wallace, for example, to keep body and soul together. Many items of Darwin memorabilia are on display at Down House today.


Darwin married his first cousin Emma Wedgwood in January 1839, and over the next seventeen years had ten children. Moving from a cramped house in London in September 1842, Down House was the ideal location for the Darwins to raise their growing family, and for Darwin himself to have the space and tranquility to develop his theories on evolution and natural selection.

When they moved to Down House, the Darwin’s were already the proud parents of a son, William (b. 1839) and a daughter Anne (b. 1841). Another daughter, Mary was born at the time of the move, but lived for less than a month.  Their last child, Charles W. (b. 1856), died in infancy aged 18 months. Anne succumbed to tuberculosis in 1851.


Our visit to Down House was the first stop in a recent week-long break in the southeast. From home in northeast Worcestershire to Down House is a journey of 156 miles, under three hours by road, almost entirely on motorways (M42-M40-M25). Leaving the M25 at Junction 4, we took to the narrow lanes to cut across country to the Kent village of Downe.

 

Just four rooms are open to the public on the ground floor: Darwin’s Study (one can stand there in awe), the Dining Room (that Darwin, as a local Justice of the Peace, used as his court room), the Billiard Room, and the Parlour. No photography is permitted inside the house because all the items on display still belong to the Darwin family.

In the Dining Room there are two fine oil paintings of grandfather Erasmus. The porcelain on the dining table must surely be Wedgwood?

On the first floor (there’s no access to the upper floor) several rooms are filled with Darwin memorabilia, his journals, awards and the like. It’s a snapshot of Darwin’s life. One room was filled with wood engravings by Darwin’s granddaughter Gwen Raverat.

Another room, supposedly the Darwin’s bedroom, with a magnificent bow-window view over the garden, has been reconstructed by English Heritage, and photography is permitted there.


Down House has quite modest grounds, including an orchard. In the walled garden where Darwin conducted many of his experiments, the lean-to greenhouse has a small but fine collection of carnivorous plants and orchids.

At the far end of the garden, and parallel to the house and terrace, is the Sandwalk, a gravel path where Darwin (a creature of habit) would take a walk every day and work through all the ideas swirling around his mind. It’s not hard to imagine Darwin strolling along the Sandwalk.


As an evolutionary biologist who has worked on the variation in domesticated plants and in nature (addressed by Darwin in Chapters 1 and 2 of his On the Origin of Species) in potato and rice and their wild species relatives for much of my career, I had long been looking forward to this visit to Down House.

And I was both pleased and disappointed at the same time. It was incredible to see where Darwin had lived, and formulated one of the most important scientific theories ever, to see his journals and many other personal items, to learn something about his family and family life. Darwin often suffered from ill health, almost considered a hypochondriac. Now it’s thought that he may have been suffering from recurring bouts of Chagas disease that he picked up in South America during his voyage there on HMS Beagle.

On the other hand, I came away feeling that something had been missing. I didn’t feel much emotional connection to Down House as I have experienced in visits to other properties (such as Chartwell or Bateman’s, to mention just a couple). I know Darwin had lived in Down House. There was all the evidence in front of me. It just didn’t feel as though he had.

I mentioned that photography is not permitted inside Down House. Visitors are greeted at the entrance with a sign stating that photography is prohibited. Prohibited! Perhaps English Heritage could tone down the ‘request’. A more welcoming approach would be more appropriate.


Before visiting Down House, I decided to re-read On the Origin of Species, which I had first read many decades ago. I didn’t make good progress. It’s not that the subject matter is difficult. After all, Darwin’s ideas were ‘meat and potatoes’ to me during my working life. It’s just that Darwin’s style of writing is challenging, not helped by an extremely small font in the version I have. I’ll get there, eventually.

“The Glory of the Garden lies in more than meets the eye.”

So wrote Rudyard Kipling in his 1911 poem The Glory of the Garden, with its ages old image of a kingdom, state or community as a garden, with all its accompanying connotations of natural growth and development, seasonal change, decay and rebirth.

Rudyard Kipling.  Journalist, short-story writer, novelist, poet—one of the greats of English literature, the 1907 Nobel Laureate in Literature. He died in January 1936, a couple of weeks after his 70th birthday.

During our recent holiday in East Sussex and Kent, Steph and I enjoyed a visit to Bateman’s, the home that Kipling bought in 1902 and where he and his family resided until his death 34 years later.

The House and Quarterdeck (8 on the map below)


Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay (Mumbai) on 30 December 1865, the son of John Lockwood Kipling and Alice (née MacDonald). Rudyard. Such an unusual name for a baby boy.

So the story goes, his parents met at a picnic at Rudyard Lake (actually a reservoir to feed the Caldon Canal) in North Staffordshire, less than three miles northwest of my hometown of Leek. It had become popular destination for outings in the 19th century, and still was when I was growing up in the 1950s.

Kipling’s father was working in Burslem in the pottery industry as a designer. John and Alice married in 1865 and moved to India where John had been appointed professor of architectural sculpture in the Jeejeebhoy School of Art in Bombay. He later became its principal.

Inside Bateman’s there are two small paintings, in the Parlour on the ground floor and Kipling’s study upstairs, showing similar scenes of Rudyard Lake, which I am reliably told show an inlet near the dam.

Although raised in India, Kipling returned to England for his early education. He returned to India in 1882, and it was during his time there that he wrote many of the short-stories for which he perhaps became most well-known.

In the exhibition room at Bateman’s there are six first edition copies of stories he published in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh in 1888.

Back in England, Kipling married Caroline Starr Balestier from Vermont in 1895, but they spent the first years of their marriage in the USA, returning to England in 1896. Two of their children, Josephine and Elsie were born in Vermont, and John in Sussex. Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899 during a visit to New York. John was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Irish Guards aged 16 in 1914, and was killed a year later at the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

Christmas cards to the children in 1897, hanging in the Parlour.


Bateman’s is an elegant Jacobean manor house, perhaps the most elegant of all the houses we visited during our week away.

Apparently Bateman’s had no running water or electricity in 1902, and Kipling installed both. He replaced the water wheel at the nearby mill with a turbine, in order to generate electricity. During our visit, the Mill Pond was empty and undergoing conservation work. The National Trust hopes to have the Mill operating again later this year, and milling flour powered by the water wheel.


Inside the house, four rooms on the ground floor are open to the public.

In the Dining Room, the walls are lined with painted leather panels, apparently very old.

At the foot of the stairs, there is an elegant bust of Kipling on a side table, and several paintings adorning the walls.

On the upper floor, the main rooms are Kipling’s study, and John’s bedroom. Another room is full of Kipling memorabilia, including his Nobel Prize citation.

Kipling’s study

Take a look at more photos of the house and gardens here.


Although I’m familiar with what Kipling wrote, the Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, and many others, I have to admit that I have never read any of his works. Having been inspired by Bateman’s, perhaps now is the time to load my Kindle and enjoy many of these stories a century or more after they were first published.

Chartwell: a family home where history was written

A recent visit to Chartwell, the family home of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill (he became Sir Winston, a Knight of the Garter, only in 1953) has left a deep impression on me.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with Churchill’s contribution to national life and politics over decades. His life must be one of the most thoroughly documented of any statesman in this country. Not least because of the various memoirs that he wrote, from his early adventures as an army officer in India and South Africa to his long life in politics, and the many biographies penned about him.

At Chartwell, that history becomes tangible. So many personal possessions, awards, and other memorabilia fill the house. There’s a real sense of connection with the great man.

During his lifetime Churchill attracted his fair share of controversy, and in some respects that has not waned. I’m no apologist for Winston Churchill. What is incontrovertible, however, is the crucial role that he played in securing victory over Nazi Germany during the Second World War. He took the helm of government when the nation demanded decisive leadership. Oh, for such a leader today!


A visit to Chartwell was at the top of the list of National Trust properties during our recent holiday in Kent and East Sussex.

Chartwell lies on the southern outskirts of Westerham in Kent, just five miles west of Sevenoaks (see map).

Chartwell is a rather unprepossessing redbrick house. I’m sure the Churchills did not purchase it (in 1922) for its ‘looks’. More for the views south over the Kent countryside from the terrace (off Lady Churchill’s sitting room on the ground floor), or from the walled garden, which are truly spectacular on a fine day.

The view from the Terrace, overlooking Churchill’s studio, and further southeast over the Weald.

However, there was once feature of the house that did catch my attention. From a distance, the columns either side of the front door look like stone. On closer inspection, they are clearly carved from wood.

Inside Chartwell, however, is a different matter. This was a family home, and we can see it today more or less as the Churchill family lived there in the 1930s. Lady Churchill and one of her daughters advised the National Trust how the rooms should be presented. Much of the furniture is apparently original to the house.

On the ground floor, there are three rooms open to the public: Lady Churchill’s Sitting Room; the Drawing Room; and the Library.

Above the fireplace in Lady Churchill’s Sitting Room is a fine oil painting of her husband of 57 years, one of many paintings and sketches around the house.

There’s a door leading out on to the Terrace from this sitting room.

The Drawing Room is the ‘jewel’ of Chartwell, and it’s not hard to imagine the Churchills entertaining the great and the good in this room.

Over the fireplace is a painting of Colonist II, the French grey thoroughbred colt that Churchill purchased in 1949 when it won its first race for him, and seventeen more during its twenty-four race career.

On the opposite wall, a 1902 painting, Charing Cross Bridge, by Claude Monet, was gift to Churchill. There is also a large painting of Lady Churchill. On a side table behind the sofa stands a large crystal cockerel (probably made by the famous French glassmaker René Lalique) that was a gift to Lady Churchill from Charles de Gaulle.

Also on the ground floor is the Library (not a large room), with two significant exhibits: a bust of US President Franklin D Roosevelt, and a large model (hanging on the wall) of the Port of Arromanches, one of the artificial harbours that played an important role in the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

Moving to the first floor, two rooms, Lady Churchill’s Bedroom and Churchill’s study are open to the public. Two other rooms contain exhibits of the many awards and gifts that Churchill received, and the uniforms he wore.

There are some exquisite Potschappel porcelain figures in the bedroom, but what caught my eye in particular, on a desk at the foot of the bed, are two small framed photographs. One shows his third daughter, and fourth child, Marigold who died in 1921 aged two. The other, equally small photograph is purported to be the last photo taken of Churchill shortly before he died in 1965.

In an Anteroom outside the bedroom there’s a cabinet of Dresden porcelain (one with a portrait of Napoleon, a face seen throughout the house; Churchill was a great admirer of Napoleon), and a wall covered in signed photos. I managed to take photos of two significant figures from the war: General (later Field Marshal) Sir Bernard Montgomery and General Charles de Gaulle.

In the Museum Room, Churchill’s Nobel Prize for Literature (1953) citation and medal, his Honorary US citizenship, and many, many other awards and gifts, too many to mention individually are on display.

Napoleon sits proudly in the center of Churchill’s desk in the Study. On one side of the room, against the wall, stands a mahogany lectern at which Churchill would work, standing up, dictating to one of his secretaries. He apparently had a small army or researchers helping him with his prodigious literary output. Among the most precious artefacts, hanging from the ceiling, is a Union Jack flag, given to Churchill by Earl Alexander of Tunis, who became Supreme Allied Commander Mediterranean. This flag was hoisted over Rome, the first Allied flag flown over a liberated city in Europe.

The Dining Room, on the lower ground floor, overlooking the garden, is simply furnished, with two round tables. Churchill insisted on round tables as they encouraged conversation. I commented to another visitor that we could do with a few more round tables in Parliament these days.

Lord Camrose

There is also a painting of William Ewart Berry, Viscount Camrose. Why?

In July 1945, even before the war with Japan had ended victoriously for the Allies, a General Election was held in the UK. Churchill was booted out of office. Extraordinary really, considering the experiences of the previous five years. Worse still for Churchill personally was that he was bankrupt. And to sort his financial predicament he was faced with selling his beloved Chartwell. That’s when an anonymous group of seventeen wealthy individuals¹, headed by Lord Camrose, came to the rescue, and purchased Chartwell for the nation, with the proviso that the Churchills could live there as long as they wished. The names of these benefactors were eventually published in a newspaper; there’s also a plaque with their names at Chartwell.

The National Trust took over Chartwell in 1946/47


Churchill’s studio just below the house is full of many of his oil paintings. This became a serious hobby, and after leaving office in 1945 he thought of selling up and moving to the south of France, and paint all day long.

Many of his paintings that line the studio walls depict Mediterranean scenes.


The gardens and grounds are extensive.

Another of Churchill’s hobbies was brick laying, and he constructed part of one of the walls of the Walled Garden near the Studio.

From the terrace at the top of the Walled Garden is one of the best viewpoints in the whole of Chartwell.


We had arrived to Chartwell just after the café opened at 10 am, and enjoyed a welcome cup of coffee before exploring the gardens. Entry to the house itself is by timed ticket. We opted for the 11 am entry. This system ensures that, with a normal flow of visitors through the house, nowhere becomes particularly congested.

I was amazed that photography was permitted throughout the house and studio. Please look at the more extensive album of photos that I took.


Chartwell had long been on my bucket-list since I read (about 15 years ago or so) an excellent biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins. Mission accomplished!

The visit to Chartwell was undoubtedly the highlight of our holiday in East Sussex and Kent. The NT staff and volunteers were very welcoming—as always—and knowledgeable. Always ready and keen to answer any question, however mundane. They make each visit so much more interesting and worthwhile.


¹Lord Camrose
Lord Bearstead
Lord Bicester
Sir James Caird
Sir Hugo Cunkiffe-Owen
Lord Catto
Lord Glendyne
Lord Kenilworth
Lord Leathers
Sir James Lithgow
Sir Edward Mountain
Lord Nuffield
Sir Edward Peacock
Lord Portal
J. Arthur Rank
James de Rothschild
Sir Frank Stewart

From the Second World War to the Cretaceous: exploring East Sussex and Kent over 84 million years

We live in the northeast of Worcestershire, shown in red, 180 miles from Robertsbridge.

. . . as well as corners of West Sussex and Buckinghamshire.

Steph and I have just returned from a week’s holiday in the southeast of England, a part of the country neither of us is familiar with, where we rented a one bedroom cottage near Robertsbridge in East Sussex (just 10 miles north of Hastings). This was our base for visits to National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) properties. It lies at the heart of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

There are so many NT and EH properties to visit in the southeast, far too many for just one week. In the end we took in eighteen, including one on the trip south (to Down House, home of Charles Darwin in Kent), and Hughenden Manor north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, the home of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, on the return journey. And, during the week, we crossed briefly into West Sussex, to Standen House near East Grinstead.

Check out this map for more details, including links to the NT and EH web sites for each property. I’ll also be writing about our visits to these properties in several posts over the next week or so.

What a week! Great weather. Lots of history, and beautiful landscapes, from the chalk cliffs at Dover and the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap, to the heavily wooded High Weald.

The view southwest over the Weald from Emmetts Garden.

At Langdon Hole on the White Cliffs of Dover; and the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap.

Our holiday home, Hop Cottage, was situated at the end of a half mile unpaved road, set among trees alongside a couple of other cottages. We had the site to ourselves.

And what a feast of bird song to entertain us. I’ve not heard a song thrush (right) for a long time. But, each morning, we awoke to one singing his heart out, perched high in the early morning sun. I thought I’d try my luck recording his song on my smart phone. Just click here to listen to my short (2 minutes) recording. Not bad for a first attempt.


As an evolutionary biologist, I couldn’t resist calling at Down House on the way south, the house Charles and Emma Darwin called home for many decades, and where they raised their large family.

It’s where he wrote his seminal On the Origin of Species, published to acclaim—and controversy—in 1859. We had free range of the gardens, but photography was not permitted inside the house except for a reconstructed bedroom on the first floor. Most of the items on display downstairs still belong to the Darwin family.

The Sandwalk (at the far end of his garden), where Darwin walked daily and pondered his ideas about natural selection and evolution.

While it was a great privilege to wander around Darwin’s house and garden, seeing many of his treasured possessions, his journals, we came away feeling there had been something lacking. I felt no emotional attachment to Down House as I have experienced at other properties, and which I did later in the week when we visited Chartwell, for example, the home of wartime Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill, or Hughenden.


Our longest excursion, on the first full day, took us to Dover to explore Dover Castle, after which we continued on to the famous White Cliffs.

Built in the late 12th century by King Henry II, the first Plantagenet king and great grandson of William the Conqueror (see below for comments about the 1066 Battle of Hastings), Dover Castle has been occupied continuously in the intervening centuries, right up to the Second World War (1939-45). We didn’t visit any of the WWII tunnels at the castle or defences further along the White Cliffs. But on the day after our return home we learned all about them in a Channel 4 program about Dover and its defences, presented by Professor Alice Roberts.

Henry II was not the first to fortify Dover. There’s a Saxon church within the castle walls and, alongside that, the ruin of a lighthouse that the Romans built almost 2000 years ago. In a chain of defences along the south coast Dover Castle has always been one of the most important, and throughout the castle, its long history of protecting England’s coast is on display.

We only walked a short distance from the NT car park along the White Cliffs as far as Langdon Hole. Just above the cliffs, near the Coastguard Station, two original radar towers from WWII (on the left), are still standing.

As the hazy conditions over the English Channel improved, we could clearly see the coast of France, just 20 miles due east of where we were standing. Such a short distance yet such a cultural chasm.

On our way back to Robertsbridge, we made a detour via Dungeness, a large shingle beach jutting out into the English Channel. I’ve always wanted to visit Dungeness. It’s a unique landscape of pebbles with scattered vegetation. A small hamlet has grown up along the shingle, and its most notable house is Prospect Cottage, once occupied by film director Derek Jarman.

Prospect Cottage

You can see more photos from Dungeness here.

The old lighthouse and decommissioned nuclear power station at Dungeness.

But what I hoped to see at Dungeness, perhaps more than anything else, was the 15 inch Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. We’d crossed the tracks a couple of times while driving to the end of the road at Dungeness. While there was a diesel-pulled train just departing as we arrived, a few minutes later, Hercules steamed into the station.

Then, as you will see in the short video, we saw another train, pulled by three locomotives heading for Dungeness. As we were stopped at a level crossing, I had to quickly jump out of the car and hope I’d catch the action as the train passed by. Unfortunately I didn’t attach the lens hood properly, so part of the image is obscured – much to my annoyance.


Later on in the week, we had the opportunity to look into the lives of two literary giants, Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill, both Nobel Laureates in Literature (in 1907 and 1953, respectively) when we visited Batemans and Chartwell.

Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill

Batemans, just a few miles from our holiday cottage, is a delightful Jacobean house that Kipling bought in 1902 and remained there until his death in 1936.

Looking around his study on the first floor and an exhibition room, it’s remarkable just how many possessions from his India days have been preserved. I was particularly impressed by a set of six first edition novels, from Allahabad in 1888, in one display cabinet.

What can I say about Chartwell? I was overwhelmed. I was amazed at how many of Churchill’s belongings were on display. Priceless treasures of national importance. A great tribute to a great man. And one of nation’s greatest Prime Ministers? He certainly was a man of his times, and in the right place at the right time.

Most of the rooms have original furniture, and the layout is the same as when the family lived there. I was also amazed—and very pleased—that photography was permitted throughout the house, and in Churchill’s studio where many of his oil paintings are on display.

The house from Churchill’s studio, and his study where he wrote, standing up, at a desk along the right hand wall.

Undoubtedly, this visit to Chartwell was one of the best NT visits we have made.

Benjamin Disraeli was, apparently, Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister. She certainly held him in high regard, given the number of gifts from her that are on display at Hughenden Manor.

The red brick house is not particularly attractive from the exterior, but as one walks through the various rooms open to the public there is certainly a sense of history that was experienced there.

His study, on the first floor, is the most complete of all the rooms at Hughenden. As custom dictated, Queen Victoria did not attend Disraeli’s funeral in April 1881. However, she did visit Hughenden a few days later, left a wreath of promises on his tomb, and spent a short while alone in his study.

Besides being a prominent politician, it should also be remembered that Disraeli was a prolific author, publishing more than a dozen novels besides political tomes as well.


Leaving Chartwell, we had to pass through the small town of Westerham, so decided to take a look at Quebec House, the boyhood home General James Wolfe, the 18th century army officer who defeated the French in Canada in 1759.

I’d not done my homework carefully enough. Quebec House was closed, but we could walk round the house and small garden.


Continuing the literary theme, we visited three properties connected with the Bloomsbury Set, a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century: Sissinghurst (home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson), Monk’s House, the home of Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, and Knole, ancestral home of the Sackville family since the late 16th century.

The images below show Vita’s Tower from the garden created by Vita and Harold at Sissinghurst (left), Virginia Woolf’s writing room (A Room of Her Own) at Monk’s House, and the majestic entrance to Knole outside Sevenoaks in Kent.

Vita Sackville-West was the daughter of the 4th Lord Sackville. She could not inherit Knole on his death. Instead, Knole passed to her cousin ‘Eddy’ who became the 5th Lord Sackville. In his rooms in the Gatehouse, there are original guest books with the names of many of the Bloomsbury Set who were frequent visitors. One of Vita’s ancestors, Cicely Sackville (nee Baker, died 1615) married into the Sackville family becoming Countess of Dorset. She was originally from Sissinghurst.

When Vita and Harold purchased Sissinghurst it was derelict. They turned it into a family home and created one of the most renowned gardens visited by multitudes of gardening aficionados annually. It was quite busy on the day of our visit, but manageable.

Vita and Virginia Woolf were lovers. The various permutations of relationships are not ignored in various displays at these three properties.

No photography of the wealth of treasures at Knole is permitted as they are still owned by the family. All I can say is that they are remarkable – paintings, furniture (some silver, a gift from Louis XIV of France), and many other items.


Going a little further back in time, we visited Battle Abbey and site of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, where the Normans under William, Duke of Normandy (who came to be known, infamously, as William the Conqueror) defeated the Saxon king Harold Godwinson.

After his victory, William established the abbey at Battle, and the site of the high altar in the abbey church (no longer standing) is said to mark the spot where Harold was slain on Senlac Hill (where the Saxon shield wall had been formed). While the church has disappeared, many other buildings with fine vaulted ceilings adorn the site.

Just 16 miles northwest from Battle (less as the crow flies), Bayham Old Abbey lies in ruined splendour, one of the finest examples of a Premonstratensian monastery type in southern England. It was founded around 1207, and flourished until it was closed during the reign of Henry VIII.


Three moated properties were on our itinerary: Ightham Mote, a fine manor house built around 1320; Bodiam Castle (built by Sir Edward Dallingridge to defend against a possible French invasion) in 1385; and finally, Scotney Castle a fortified manor house that was built around 1380.

Ightham Mote

Bodiam Castle

The ‘old castle’ at Scotney Castle


There are, however, two houses at Scotney. The ‘old castle’ was abandoned a long time ago, and in 1837 another was built in the Elizabethan style for the Hussey family. Scotney also has extensive gardens.

From the terrace of the house you can see the round tower of the old house in the valley below.

Standen House and Garden date from the 1890s, created by James and Margaret Beale, and decorated throughout in the Arts and Crafts style by the design firm Morris & Co. Throughout the gardens there are fine views over the surrounding countryside.

The layout of the rooms today is more or less as the family would have enjoyed them in the 1920s.

Finally, we enjoyed a visit to the Edwardian garden, Emmetts (’emmett’ is a local word for ant), created by banker and scientist (and keen plantsman) Frederick Lubbock. After his death in 1927, it was taken over by American geologist Charles Boise.


A week passed by all too soon. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and apart from a few brief holdups on the M25 motorway on the return journey, we met with no traffic problems at all.

However, I think we have only scratched the surface of what the National Trust and English Heritage have to offer in this part of England, and I’m sure we’ll be returning at some future date to explore and take in the beauty and heritage of the southeast.


Do check these photo albums:

National Trust properties
Batemans
Birling Gap
Bodiam Castle
Chartwell
Emmetts Garden
Hughenden
Ightham Mote
Knole
Monk’s House
Quebec House
Scotney Castle
Sissinghurst
Standen House
White Cliffs of Dover

English Heritage properties:
Battle Abbey and Battlefield
Bayham Old Abbey
Dover Castle
Down House