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


 

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