I came upon it, suddenly, as many have. A lichen-covered pile of honey-colored sandstone, nestled in the lee of a narrow valley, girt by yew hedges and fringed about by oaks that looked as if they had given shade to the Legions. The date on the cartouche above the door says '1634', but the heavy burden of history it carries make it seem, somehow, centuries older.
A Jacobean ironmaster had caused it to built, at a time when the oaks of the Weald were being felled for charcoal, and local ironstone smelted into molten iron to be cast into guns for the King's ships. It is little known that before Ironbridge Gorge and the coming of the Industrial Revolution, before the blast furnaces of Sheffield, and the rolling mills of South Wales, that there was Sussex iron.
In 1902, Carrie and Rudyard Kipling were seeking a permanent home in England; they had seen an advertisement for Bateman's, a house in the valley of the River Dudwell in Sussex. They were driven there in their quirky, unreliable, Massachusetts-made steam-powered Locomobile, a vehicle that Kipling himself had described as 'a nickel-plated fraud', through dark woods and leafy lanes, through the neat village of Burwash, past the 1000-year-old church of St Bartholemew's, and then down a steep, winding, narrow access road to the house. As soon as they saw it they knew - 'That's She! The Only She! Make an honest woman of her - quick!'. The deal was done, and the agent said later, ruefully, that had he realized that Kipling was a motor enthusiast and would be using one of those new-fangled cars to travel about in, rather than a pony and trap, he would have increased the price!
As a visitor - and I have been many, many times - you approach the property from a strange angle, your first view of the house being obscured by the new National Trust ticket kiosk and office; however, all is forgiven, as you slowly saunter down the slope through a lush herb garden, your nostrils beguiled by heady clouds of golden thyme and furry mint. Stay a while, and turn up a stone path to sit in an arbor, backed by a fan trained pear busy with bees - close your eyes, and it is almost as if you can hear the voices of the children in 'They' (1904), playing in the garden of the big house.
The sound of cheery local Sussex voices, the clink of china and the smell of fresh baking draw you inexorably towards the Tea Room (housed in what was an old outbuilding), but the first time I came, I was distracted. Half way across a lawn, in the shade of yet another ancient oak, there is an old well. It is capped by a timber cover - to prevent accidents - and as I walked towards it I realized that this was THE well, the one commissioned by the Master himself, and dug with bare hands and a short-handled hoe by two local workmen. "When we stopped, at twenty-five feet, we had found a Jacobean tobacco-pipe, a worn Cromwellian latten spoon and, at the bottom of all, the bronze cheek of a Roman horse-bit"; this, from the autobiographical 'Something of Myself' (1935). There we have it, the basis for all that followed. I gently dropped an old sixpence into the well, the one that I had carried with me for years, minted in the year of my birth when they had still made the coin with silver, so it rang like a tiny fairy bell as you flicked it into the air with your thumb - it was not a golden shield thrown into the Thamesis by a Celtic chieftain, but it would have to do.
Kipling seemed to see the whole valley as nothing more than a palimpsest, on which the history of this part of the Isles had been written, over and over and over again, never to be washed completely away by time's flood. The two works which reflect this, and which were based on Bateman's itself, were Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and its sequel, Rewards and Fairies (1910), in between which Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1907). The author described these two books as 'children's tales for adults', and there is no doubt that they may be read as such. Una and Dan, the two protaganists, accidentally summon the Shakespearean sprite Puck, who allows them to interact with characters from history, from an Iron Age sheep herder on the Weald, to Elizabeth I, all of whom are shown to have intimate connections with Sussex. Kipling uses vignettes in groups, e.g. three on the Norman knight, Sir Richard Dalyngridge (think of the Pre-Raphaelite painting, 'A Dream of the Past: Sir Isumbras at the Ford', Sir John Everett Millais, 1857) and three concerning the Roman centurion, Parnesius. Also, Kipling focusses the reader on physical objects, such a crooning, rune-covered sword, forged by Weland the Smith, or a store of gold dust and bullion brought back from Africa by Sir Richard Dalyngridge, and uses these to link episodes, sometimes a hundred years apart. These 'facts' illuminate only a few facets of the history of Britain, but Kipling wants us to fill in the dark periods between for ourselves. Thus, are the warp and weft of an historical tale woven, and the cloth revealed to us, whole.
To enter Bateman's is to travel back in time. Here is a framed map of the small world of Dan and Una, there a wolverine pelt, brought back from Rudyard and Carrie's sojourn in Vermont, and all around you, startling terracotta bas-relief panels by John Lockwood Kipling - the author's father, and a noted designer, author, artist, curator and educator - of scenes from 'The Jungle Book' and 'Kim' (you may recognize them from the early Macmillan editions). When you enter Kipling's study, with his desk and book collections, the beautifully inlaid wooden box with the inscription 'By Oak, Ash and Thorn', and his day bed, where he awaited the inspiration that came from 'my daemon', it is to know a little of the man, himself. Step softly, for a writer's soul is here.
You leave the house by the door to the garden, looking out on the long, rectangular pond, filled with shoals of tiny Golden Orfe (Leuciscus idus); the pond was constructed in 1907, with a portion of the money from the Nobel Prize, and twenty years after became home to a quaint, six foot long, by four foot beam, by 'negligible draft', hand-powered miniature paddle boat, for the delight of Kipling's smaller visitors - fortunately, a few years ago a replica was commissioned, and the good ship '534' sails her home waters, once more.
Beyond the pond lies the formal rose garden, with the 'wild garden', and the little River Dudwell, beyond that. The stream chuckles and murmurs as it slides under the overhanging trees with its work of powering the ancient mill on the opposite bank done (you can almost imagine Dan catching small trout, or the children, in an oarless skiff, playing at being Norsemen). Yes, you may do as I do, and buy sweet, stoneground wholemeal flour from Kipling's mill, to carry past puzzled Customs officials on your journey home, smiling all the while at the thought of the raisin scones to come - and how they will go superbly well with the Sussex Black Cherry Preserve you have just bought in the gift shop!
Oh, how I wish my name could have been entered in the Guest Book of the house, in Kipling's hand, with his favourite postnominal, 'f.i.p.' - 'fell in pond' !
Bateman's, and the surrounding Weald, are woven into many of Kipling's works, and yet there is much sorrow amongst the joy. Rudyard and Carrie's only son, Lieutenant John Kipling, Irish Guards, was killed on his first day in action, at the Battle of Loos, on the 27th September, 1915. This was after his father had used his influence to gain him a commission in the 'Micks', when the Royal Navy had turned him down due to defective eyesight. For those of you who have not seen the film 'My Boy Jack' (2007) starring Daniel Radcliffe, I would heartily recommend it, as some of the exteriors were shot at Bateman's. As your feet crunch down the gravel pathway between the tall yew hedges, leading to the iron gate and the world beyond, it is easy to hear Jack's feet, as he left for that last time.
Oh, and the couple's remark on seeing the house for the very first time, when they called it 'She'? That may well have been a subtle reference to the novel of the same name by H. Rider Haggard, a contemporary, and very good friend, of Kipling's.
Whatever you think of the man - Jingoistic, friend of Empire builders - know that he was a superb writer, and that Bateman's, and the area which surrounds it, would have inspired a statue to write!
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun||2:00 PM||What's on Your E-Reader?||Caedy|
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|Wed||2:00 PM||e-books||Susan from 29|
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|Sat||12:00 PM||You Can't Read That! Paul's Book Reviews||pwoodford|
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