(3) 'The Very Own House'
(by Michael Smith)
We had seen an advertisement of her, and we reached her down an enlarged rabbit-hole of a lane. At very first sight the Committee of Ways and Means said: ‘That’s her! The Only She! Make an honest woman of her – Quick!’ We entered and felt her Spirit – her Feng Shui – to be good. We went through every room and found no shadow of ancient regrets, stifled miseries, nor any menace, though the ‘new’ end of her was three hundred years old. To our woe the Owner said : ‘I’ve just let it for twelve months.’ We withdrew, each repeatedly telling the other that no sensible person would be found dead in the stuffy little valley where she stood. We lied thus while we pretended to look at other houses till, a year later, we saw her advertised again, and got her.Bateman’s is a supremely beautiful ironmaster's house, its cream Ardingly sandstone flecked with stained swags of rust which emphasise that this was at the heart of the great iron-industry which had been so important from pre-Roman times. The visit, the following year, which clinched the deal was also without the ‘steamer’ which, yet again, was in a trance. Perhaps it was a fortunate omen because the owner, who had horses broken by the steepness of the lane, said that had he realized Kipling was a motoring man, he would have asked twice the price. As it was the property, which included the mill and 33 acres, changed hands for £9,300. Carrie, ever the practical partner, left The Elms on September 2nd 1902 and was equal to the task of dealing with removal men slightly the worse for drink. Rudyard, wisely, joined them the next day. The thrill of taking up residence in so attractive a house had not waned when he wrote Christmas greetings to Charles Eliot Norton during the first week of December.
We left Rottingdean because Rottingdean was getting too populated; though we didn’t want to part from Aunt Georgie. Then we discovered England which we had never done before (Rottingdean isn’t England: it’s the Downs) and went to live in it.The oast houses were evidence that the estate was one dedicated to the growth of hops for brewing beer, but Rudyard quickly abandoned hop production and expanded his ownership in the farms around so that no neighbours could disrupt their new-found peace. Eventually his title extended to more than 300 acres. In the same letter he reports on a very cold snap which had gripped the south of England.
England is a wonderful land. It is the most marvellous of all foreign countries that I have ever been in. It is made up of trees and green fields and mud and the Gentry: and at last I’m one of the Gentry! – I’ll take a new pen and explain.
Behold us the lawful owners of a grey stone lichened house – A.D.1634 over the door – beamed, panelled, with oak staircase all untouched and unfaked. …… It is a good and peaceable place standing in terraced lawns nigh to a walled garden of old red brick and two fat-headed old oast houses with red brick stomachs and an aged silver grey dovecot on top. There is what they call a river at the bottom of the lawn. It appears on all the maps and that, except after heavy rain, is the only place where it puts in any appearance.
A cold wave has hit us and driven us indoors – a venomous snowing blowing frost. All the country looks like a Christmas card. ……. We are fighting the cold with logs – five foot long – in the hall; with stoves that close not day or night with two foot baulks; with hot water pipes. We have vanquished it indoors but outside it is untempered, and all the birds of the wood have come to beg rations. Figure to yourself a blackguard jay – a beautiful ruffian in blue – coming into our garden cowed and penitent – and being received with howls of indignation from the blackbirds and robins who stand in with the landed and householding classes. Tits, wagtails and finches are all in the crowd and, unless they migrate, I don’t despair of getting sight of kingfishers. The moorhens daily feed nearer the house. If the cold lasts they’ll come in among the fowls. A great deal of England is explained by its winter climate.The hall must have presented a delightfully welcoming sight with the roaring logs casting streaks of golden glow on the dark panelled walls. At the doorway was an even more significant feature, for as he noted in Something of Myself:
But, for a month each year I possessed a paradise which I verily believed saved me. Each December I stayed with my Aunt Georgy, my mother’s sister, wife of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, at The Grange, North End Road. At first I must have been escorted there, but later I went alone, and arriving at the house would reach up to the open-work iron bell-pull on the wonderful gate that let me into all felicity. When I had a house of my own, and The Grange was emptied of meaning, I begged for and was given that bell-pull for my entrance, in the hope that other children might also feel happy when they rang it.Such thoughtfulness epitomised his ability to relate to the young, and certainly many children were welcomed though that doorway during the next thirty years. The hallway inside clearly, had great charm, for as with so many other of his visual experiences he transposed it as the hall of the house beyond Washington, the location in "They" of his visits to the blind lady and the wraithe-like lost children.
I waited in a still, nut-brown hall, pleasant with late flowers and warmed with a delicious wood fire – a place of good influence and great peace. …. A child’s cart and a doll lay on the black-and-white floor, where a rug had been kicked back ….. I looked on either side of the deep fireplace, and found but a half-charred hedge-stake with which I punched a black log into flame. …… The red light poured itself along the age-polished dusky panels till the Tudor roses and lions of the gallery took colour and motion. An old eagle-topped convex mirror gathered the picture into its mysterious heart, distorting afresh the distorted shadows.As with the all the descriptive introductions to the locations of his short-stories, whether in India, South Africa, New England or Sussex, he drew on reality. The garden of the house nurtured a collection of clipped-yew topiary figures, among which were ‘monstrous peacocks’. These are likely to have been seen in a famous house, but a few miles to the north near Tunbridge Wells - Ravello at Rusthall.
But the chief end of my car, so far as I am concerned, is the discovery of England. To me it is a land full of stupefying marvels and mysteries; and a day in a car in an English county is a day in some fairy museum where all the exhibits are alive and real and yet none the less delightfully mixed up with books. For instance, in six hours, I can go from the land of the ‘Ingoldsby Legends’ by way of the Norman Conquest and the Baron’s War into Richard Jefferies’ country , and so through the Regency , one of Arthur Young’s less known tours, and ‘Celia’s Arbour’, into Gilbert White’s territory....the car is a time-machine on which one can slide from one century to another at no more than the pushing forward of a lever.Bateman’s is a glorious home which provided a firm base for all their needs for the remaining decades. After Kipling’s death in 1936, Carrie remained there just into the conflict he had again foretold until she joined him. Happily she bequeathed the estate to The National Trust and so it remains almost exactly as it was during their residence, except for one of the bedrooms which found a new role as the Exhibition room.
Just beyond the west fringe of our land, in a little valley running from Nowhere to Nothing-at-all, stood the long overgrown slag-heap of a most ancient forge, supposed to have been worked by the Phoenicians, Romans ,and since then, uninterruptedly till the middle of the eighteenth century. The bracken and rust-patches still hid stray pigs of iron, and if one scratched a few inches through the rabbit-shaven turf, one came on the narrow mule-tracks of peacock-hued furnace-slag laid down in Elizabeth’s day. The ghost of a road climbed out of this dead arena, and crossed our fields, where it was known as ‘The Gunway,’ and popularly connected with Armada times. Every foot of that little corner was alive with ghosts and shadows. ……. You see how patiently the cards were stacked and dealt into my hands ? The Old Things of our Valley glided into every aspect of our outdoor works. Earth, Air, Water and People had been – I saw it at last – in full conspiracy to give me ten times as much as I could compass, even if I wrote a complete history of England, as that might have touched or reached our Valley.Thus were born some of the most enduring and much loved stories, ostensibly for children in general but for Elsie and John in particular, published in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. The children had been encouraged, with their father’s active participation, scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He had arranged for a model Ass’s Head and Fairy wings to be sent from London and they three performed in the Quarry Garden. With poetic license he reduced the ‘dramatis personae’ and transposed the setting of the performance to ‘the long-slip meadow’ on Midsummer’s Eve, when Puck appears suddenly. After "Wayland’s Sword" Puck is then the instrument by which the children, now Dan and Una, are introduced to characters, real and fictional, who welded the nation. He acknowledged that he was not the first to bring history alive from a mere recitation of dates, for a neighbour from Romney Marsh, Edith Nesbit, had just earlier, written immensely popular tales for children. The adventures experienced by the children in their canoe on the Dudwell were enlarged to stirring voyages on the seven seas.
Shall I dog his morning footsteps o’er the track-betraying dew ?Kipling took a great interest in the ways of the countryman and was able, at first hand to admire their rural craftsmanship. He had long been absorbed by the mysteries of agriculture and had observed Rhodes’s enthusiasm for experimental farms to assess best practice for Cape farmers. Back in England his great friend Rider Haggard was considered an authority and he took heed of his wisdom alongside that of a sixteenth century author, Thomas Tusser, whose book Five Hundred Good Points of Husbandry he treasured. Such was his command of farm ways that A.G.Street in Moonraking comments of him:
Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew ?
But nowhere have I read anything which stresses the one phase of his work which appeals to me the most. I mean his stories and verses which deal with rural England and its inhabitants. To me, a farmer, his insight into the minds of countryfolk was uncanny. He never made a mistake. When he was writing about a farmer, he was himself a farmer; when the need arose he became himself a farm labourer.A.G.Street’s assessment parallels those made by engineers, law makers, soldiers, sailors, bridge builders, medical men and many other professions whose daily routines he had mastered and were grist to his mill. Maintenance of field boundaries is ever of prime importance, and where stone is in abundance dry-stone walling with limestone, or variations with flints embedded in mortar give a very characteristic appearance to the landscape. Elsewhere, as in the Wealden valleys, the layering of hedges provides an attractive animal-proof enclosure, which also acts as a haven for birds and small mammals. Nowhere is this technique better observed than in the opening of "Friendly Brook", which precedes "The Land":
The valley was so choked with fog that one could scarcely see a cow’s length across a field. Every blade, twig, bracken-frond, and hoof-print carried water, and the air was filled with the noise of rushing ditches and field drains, all delivering to the brook below. A week’s November rain on water-logged land had gorged her to full flood, and she proclaimed it aloud.In the early years at Bateman’s John returned to his Prep School, St Aubyns in Rottingdean, where he had the additional comfort of the welcome warmth of great-aunt Georgie, and occasionally both children would stay with her. These visits provided the trigger for both "The Knife and the Naked Chalk" and "Brother Square-Toes". Farming occupied husband and wife, although Carrie seems to have had the daily round of management very much under her control. She could be a hard taskmistress and a summons to the little office over the hall could be daunting. A village garden-boy, Albie Waterhouse, cheekily tried to counter her remonstrances for his lateness at work without much luck, and later declared her to be ‘a devil’.
Two men, in sackcloth aprons were considering an untrimmed hedge that ran down the hillside and disappeared into mist beside those roarings. They stood back and took stock of the neglected growth, tapped an elbow of hedge-oak here, a mossed beech-stub there, swayed a stooled ash back and forth, and looked at each other. ‘I reckon she’s about two rod thick,’ said Jabez the younger, ‘an’ she hasn’t felt iron since – when has she Jesse?’ Call it twenty-five year, Jabez, an’ you won’t be far out. ‘Umm !’ Jabez rubbed his wet handbill on his wetter sleeve. ‘She ain’t a hedge. She’s all manner o’trees. We’ll just about have to –‘ He paused, as professional etiquette required. ‘Just about have to side her up an’ see what she’ll bear. But hadn’t we best -- ?’ Jesse paused in his turn, both men being artists and equals. ‘Get some kind o’ line to go by.’ Jabez ranged up and down till he found a thinner place, and with clean snicks of the handbill revealed the original face of the fence. Jesse took over the dripping stuff as it fell forward, and, with a grasp and a kick, made it to lie orderly on the bank till it should be faggoted.
By noon a length of unclean jungle had turned itself into a cattle-proof barrier, tufted here and there with little plumes of the sacred holly which no woodman touches without orders.