Earlier this year the Boss and I joined the National Trust on a “family ticket”. For many years she had been a member of the organisation and occasional visitor to a variety of its properties. In my case, whilst I had been to a few of them over the past six decades, this was more by informal whim than deliberate campaign and I cannot claim to harbour a fetish for revisiting the past.
My subject today are my impressions and comments upon our visits to two National Trust properties last week on successive days: firstly, Bateman’s at Burwash in East Sussex, home of Rudyard Kipling and his family from 1902 until his death in 1936; and, secondly, Chartwell near Westerham in Kent, close to the Surrey border, the home of Winston Churchill and his family from 1922 onwards.
The plan was fairly straightforward. We would set off from the south coast on the morning of Day One, spend that afternoon at Batemans, then have an overnight stay in a “value for money” hotel, visit Chartwell on Day Two and then return home by the early evening.
For my money – and this was partly due to random circumstances – the superior of the two was Bateman’s.
Rudyard Kipling bought it – and 33 acres – for £9,300 and during their ownership the property was extended to over 300 acres.
For the most part National Trust properties have certain common facilities. Being a member has certain privileges including parking and entrance for free. Generally-speaking, their administrative schemes for admitting and “controlling” the public are simple and functional.
My one reservation about their “shops” is that, apart from those souvenir-type items strictly relevant to the individual property in question, invariably about 60% of what they contain what I’d describe as a series of generic National Trust items – e.g. honey, chutney, booze, scarves, rugs, artefacts, books, prints – that I presume are common to all their shops throughout the country.
Our main purpose on this visit to Bateman’s was to gain an impression of the scale and setting of the property – there are set walks that each might take up to two hours to compete – but also, as importantly, see the inside of the house and thereby (hopefully) “connect” with the essence of what the Kipling family were about, starting and ending, of course, with the personality of the writer himself.
On this aspect, Bateman’s scored heavily.
I have to confess that I have read little of Rudyard Kipling’s works and am familiar with his output mainly by reputation and via The Jungle Book (in its cartoon movie incarnation); poems such as Gungha Din, If and Mandalay; and his deep interest in the Boer War and First World War. In the latter – as many readers will no doubt be aware – his 18 year old son Jack was killed at the Battle of Loos (1915) after Kipling himself had become instrumental in obtaining Jack an Army commission by pulling strings after he had twice been rejected for active service because of his poor eyesight – an intervention for which Kipling was never to forgive himself.
The tour of Bateman’s (the house) was most illuminating.
What never fails to amaze me is how dull and dark the décor of 19th and early 20th Century domestic buildings was and how consequently – with just either oil lamps or candles until electric lighting came along – devoid of 21st Century-style light and space their inhabitants must have been.
Nevertheless – and I may have been kidding myself here – at Bateman’s I sensed I was gaining a genuine “feel” for how the house would have been for the Kipling family whilst living there.
I don’t wish to over-egg it but, had the author of The White Man’s Burden himself suddenly walked into the drawing room behind us and introduced himself, I wouldn’t have been totally surprised.
Fast forward now to Day Two of our trip.
I shall keep to a minimum my report of our two-hour interlude in the morning when, after leaving the hotel, we decided to drive ten miles or so to Limpsfield in Surrey near Oxted – where my family had lived from 1959 to 1977 – before turning up at Chartwell.
For the first ten minutes we sped towards our target before involuntarily joining a gridlock caused (we later discovered) by a van bursting flames upon the M26, with lanes being reduced from 3 to 2 etc. We then spent 90 minutes crawling along the motorway – mixing periods of moving forward at a speed of 6 or 7 mph with those of up to ten minutes standing stock still – until we could reach the nearest exit.
As hinted, our Chartwell visit was disappointing in comparison.
It being a Saturday, by the time we eventually arrived the car park was already filled to the rafters and the public on hand must have numbered in the several hundreds.
The café was full, there was nowhere to sit and tours of the house were strictly regimented.
Frankly, despite its magnificent setting, Chartwell the house was unimpressive from the outside and inside relatively ordinary and humdrum despite the all-pervading historic nature of why we were there and what we were being permitted and privileged to view.
I was left afterwards with a distinct feeling of anti-climax.
I would bow to relatively few in my admiration of Winston Churchill, one of the giant figures of British and indeed global history. For the last 60-plus years – for any mistakes he made and/or faults, foibles or weaknesses he may have had – in my own mind I have “awarded” him almost superhuman status.
In that context, somehow, to walk around the Churchill family’s private home – even to peer into the tiny (bed-sit style) bathroom set off his bedroom, from whose bath he used to continue giving dictation to a secretary sitting demurely just yards away around the corner – was strangely underwhelming.
Such was his aura, even to those like me who have only read his books (or read about him), listened to his recorded speeches and taken on board all that everyone who knew him ever said about him, that – unlike with Rudyard Kipling at Batemans – yesterday I could never have anticipated/imagined Churchill suddenly walking into any room at Chartwell and introducing himself to me.
Furthermore, frankly, I would never have wanted him to anyway. His stature is such that I wouldn’t have wanted to meet him – I would prefer him to remain the superman of myth.