Kipling’s Sussex – III

(by Michael Smith)


The search for a home which would provide relief from the pressures of his celebrity and as a refuge from the haunted visions of an idolised daughter came, at last, with the discovery of Bateman’s, a house set ‘as snugly as a cup in a saucer’ in the valley of the Dudwell below the ridge on which Burwash stands. The first view came, not as recorded in Something of Myself, by the ‘heartbreaking locomobile’ but by train to Etchingham and a ‘fly’ to the house on a hot August day in 1900.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The adventure of motoring remained with him, and one of the stories, originally published in December 1902 in magazine form was collected two years later in Traffics and Discoveries. “Steam Tactics” takes the reader on a circular tour of Sussex, with the abduction of a plain clothes police officer. It was based on an actual experience of his good friend F.W.Lanchester, who supplied the marque which replaced the temperamental steam ‘Locomobile’. Kipling is the narrator of the story, and when out for a drive, meets his naval friends Pyecroft and Hinchcliffe. Invited to come aboard this land-crabbing steam pinnace, the latter an Engine Room Artificer, soon comes to terms with its foibles, but is stopped for supposedly exceeding the speed limit. The policeman is tricked into becoming a passenger, the fifth in a four seater, which, as usual, breaks down. A motoring friend, Kysh, in his 24 h.p. Octopod, one of the Lanchester stable, stops to offer assistance.

The journey is continued until eventually the policeman is decanted in a wildlife park, modelled upon a real one belonging to Sir Edmund Loder, ‘Leonardslee’, near Lower Beding. It has for long been an enjoyable debate for Kipling enthusiasts to try to match the mythical place names with villages on the route. (the Kipling Journal Nos 12, 15 & 16.) But ‘breaking-down’ was not the sole prerogative of the steamer, for the early Lanchesters suffered similarly. Kipling had boasted to his good friend Henry James, who lived at Lamb House in Rye, that he would take him to lunch at Bateman’s and show him most of the county in two hours. On arrival in Rye ‘Amelia’ was “took with a cataleptic trance”, and remained motionless till a ‘mechanician’ arrived from Birmingham to repair his chauffeur’s neglect. Henry James though this highly amusing, the whole episode being gleefully recorded by Ford Maddox Ford, and rather more regretfully in Kipling’s own letters.

In spite of alternating frustration and despair of motoring vicissitudes, Rudyard demonstrated how valuable motoring was to him in a letter to Filson Young, a motoring jounalist, in April 1904.

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.

On the ground floor the parlour has a Knole style sofa and a Tiffany studio lamp, and opposite is what originally was a schoolroom for Elsie and John and was later converted to a sitting room.

The dining room, lined with a most exotic 18th century English ‘Cordoba’ leather lies off the other side of the hall. Overlooking the hall, just up a few stairs is a room used by Carrie as an office and from which she could see, though small windows, anyone seeking entry.

Up the staircase, above which hangs a Brussels tapestry, lie bedrooms and the hub of his working life, a fabulous book-lined study, his work-table and day-bed, together with a host of souvenirs of eventful travels.

Soon after arrival he decided that the mill, which had once ground corn, should be converted to supply electricity to light the house, and enlisted the help of Sir William Willcocks, who had installed the first Aswan Dam, recalled by Kipling as ‘a trifling affair on the Nile’.

A water turbine drove a generator which supplied power through a buried deep-sea cable to storage batteries in an outhouse. It was thus able to light ten bulbs for a few hours each evening. Kipling’s enthusiasm for new-fangled ideas was satisfied.

He found in the landscape, which contrasted so markedly from the Rottingdean Downs, a wealth of new inspiration right on his own doorstep. Its historical resonance spoke to him strongly of almost every period of English history which had shaped the destiny of an emerging nation, just as surely as the agents of erosion had created the scenery. “Puck’s Song” is a precis of that destiny delving back in time. He explained exactly what triggered his enthusiasm:

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.

His new environment entranced his imagination and he was torn between love for the Downs, over which he had spent so many happy hours tramping, and the eastward directed Wealden valleys converging at Rye. Beyond its medieval walls and gates lay out the contrasting flatness of Romney Marsh with its tortuous dykes and it wide skies hanging above the marsh and the shingle cuspate foreland of Dungeness. The dilemma was posed in “A Three-Part Song”. With the companion volume to Puck, he explained that ‘grown-ups’ could also respond to the three or four overlaid tints and textures. Certainly the intricacies of the stories are so great that the availability of the New Reader’s Guide to them will prove most valuable for all of us. At the same time we have an indication of his writing process. He ‘hatched’ stories, during which he was ‘a brother to dragons and a companion to owls’, and so unavailable even to the children. The he let the tales ‘drain’ before re-drafting. The only person allowed into the study whilst ‘hatching’ and ‘draining’ was Rider Haggard.

Only a year after the publication of Puck of Pook’s Hill he was honoured with the presentation of the Nobel Prize for Literature valued at seven thousand guineas. The ceremony in Stockholm was naturally subdued because Sweden was in mourning for King Oscar II who had died only three days before. The prize was put to excellent use for the addition of the shallow rectangular pond, which was to be the base for his ‘navy’ – a small hand-cranked paddle-boat – and a source of much merriment when visitors occasionally fell in. The rose-garden, the crisply trimmed hedge of yew and the semi-circular wooden seat within it, as well as a sundial to the south, with its cryptic message ‘it is later than you think’, all benefited from the proceeds.

Among the coterie of family friends the Kiplings must have been very familiar with the sights and scents of magnificent gardens with manicured lawns, borders, shrubberies and topiary hedges, but it would be nice to think that it was his and Carrie’s own creation which inspired “The Glory of the Garden”. This was published, only four years later, as the final poem in

A School History of England

for which an Oxford academic, C.R.L.Fletcher wrote the text and Kipling the accompanying poems.

The topography of Basteman’s was of very practical use to the pilots of early airliners flying between Heston or Croydon and Le Bourget in Paris. From the low altitude at which they flew, they knew that they were right on course if they could see ‘a round pond, a square pond and six chimneys all in a row’. Being keenly involved with development of pioneer air routes he, surely, approved of his estate as a marker-beacon.

In the dead heart of each winter till 1908 the family returned to the Woolsack for the reviving warmth of summer in the Cape, and to socialize with the great and the good of the land for which Cecil Rhodes, before his death in 1902, had such high hopes. The major part of the year was concerned with farming enterprises, with entertaining, with discussions with those in power in London’s clubland, and, of course, with writing.

There is a revealing note in the diary that just about a year after their arrival they borrowed the Church records in order to trace details of previous owners. This perhaps triggered a fanciful interest in those who had been masters before those records began which culminated in a wonderful poem called “The Land”.

He had already recognized the wisdom of men whose roots had been planted in the soil for generations. He epitomized that unerring instinct in one of his own men, a hedger and ditcher called William Isted, transmuted to a character called ‘Hobden’. To each succeeding line of owners one of the ‘old, unaltered, line’ is called on for advice. Through Julius Fabricius, a Roman, and Ogier the Dane, to William of Warrenne, made Lord of Lewes by William of Normandy, he arrives at his own stewardship in the time of George V. The Hobdens all followed the extra-curricular traditions of poaching game-birds, rabbits and trout-tickling. Even so Kipling accepts this as a ‘quid pro quo’ for the folk-wisdom on tap. Some archaeological treasures had been unearthed during the normal course of estate development and the significance of such finds is incorporated in Roman drainage schemes. ‘And in drouthy middle August when the bones of meadow show, we can trace the lines they followed sixteen hundred years ago. Isted’s ‘flagrant’ poaching is accepted with:

Shall I dog his morning footsteps o’er the track-betraying dew ?
Demand his dinner-basket into which my pheasant flew ?

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:

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.

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.

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’.

As leases expired they were not renewed and Rudyard extended his farming activities, particularly in the war years. Increased pasture allowed him to develop a herd of Guernsey cattle for dairy produce. Each new calf was lovingly registered and named, appropriately with ‘Bateman’s’ as a prefix, whilst the second name always began with a “B”, ‘Baby’ and ‘Buttercup’ are examples. Farm accounts showed that they didn’t really earn their keep but they did, to Rudyard’s delight, accumulate rosettes from agricultural shows. Kipling was particularly proud of his “Sussex” shorthorn breeding stock which provided animals for fattening. He understood their remarkable capacity for growth and fine quality, and his eulogy for them is found in “Alnaschar and the Oxen”.

His joy is there compared to Lobengula’s pride in seeing his vast herds moving across the veldt from Bulawayo, although Rudyard’s herd numbered only 26. Alnaschar was a character in The Arabian Nights who invested in glassware in the hope of making sufficient fortune to claim the hand of the daughter of the Grand Vizier. His dream was shattered when his stock was broken, so perhaps, with his customary humour, Kipling thought it unlikely that his herd would make him another fortune.

There is an amusing account of the stud bull, normally docile, taking exception to Mrs Sands as she went to feed the poultry. She was alarmed at his unaccustomed aggression and so fled to shelter in a wheeled hen house. The bull trundled the whole contraption along with all its frenzied occupants before battering it in earnest. The inmates, human and feathered, were eventually rescued by farm hands and the bull sentenced to solitary confinement.

The farm was ‘mixed’, having some arable, as well as hens, geese, pigs and occasionally sheep introduced to take advantage of the ‘bite’ together with orchard produce. New fangled mechanization had been introduced for harvesting, but two dray-horses, ‘Captain’ and ‘Blackbird’ were employed to move the crop. Rudyard maintained a keen interest in farming throughout his life and was instrumental in encouraging schemes which provided opportunities for British children to benefit from the rather more extensive agricultural opportunities in the Dominions. He had a great enthusiasm for the trees, shrubs and flowers of the countryside, and his poem “A Charm” is a heartwarming evocation of that delight. ‘Oak, Ash and Thorn’, the charm which Puck lays upon Dan and Una after their encounters with characters from history, was wonderfully recalled when a mixed spray was sent by the estate workers to his interment.

The first decade at Bateman’s saw many gatherings of the clan and their friends enjoying the delights a well-staffed estate could provide. Lorna Baldwin, a favourite cousin, and Elsie’s special friend, daughter of Stanley and Louie Baldwin was a frequent guest and she recalled, as Lady Lorna Howard, in a series of ten articles (the Kipling Journal Nos 232–243) the simple joys of family life undistracted by the pressures of life today.

Charming vignettes such as “Uncle Ruddy” struggling, suitably gauzed, with his beehives, or Aunt Carrie getting happily into the weeding of the rose garden bring the domestic scene to life. Lorna was, was particularly welcome because her build and colouring reminded the Kiplings of their adored lost daughter. His fervent wish that the iron bell pull should bring happiness to young visitors was amply fulfilled. Some of the short articles also recall their frequent trips abroad and of the enjoyment of their own particular brand of ‘Franglais’ and of composing amusing limericks, for they spent a great deal of time travelling for Carrie to ‘take the waters’ in their beloved France or to enjoy the crispness of Swiss snow, ice and air.

The peace and comfort of the valley was destroyed with the mental agony of his long-predicted arrival of ‘Armageddon’ which, in September 1915, claimed John’s life at Loos. The theme has been brilliantly recorded in My Boy Jack? by Tonie and Valmai Holt, the title springing from the poem Kipling wrote as a response to their loss. His other memorials were the dedication he used to serve as a very active Commissioner of the Imperial War Graves Commission, and in the writing of the history of The Irish Guards into which John had been gazetted. With the Great War at its height the sound of heavy guns booming in Flanders could occasionally be heard in their quiet valley. Many of John’s friends had met a similar fate, but surviving ones would be welcomed in the house as a tangible link with their loss.

Burwash has a striking War Memorial at the road junction in front of the Parish Church of Saint Bartholemew. Lt.John Kipling’s inscription is a couple of names below that of one of the Hobden clan, Lance Corporal Alfred Isted. Kipling himself couldn’t bring himself to attend that Memorial dedication, although he was at the similar ceremony at Etchingham. There is a moving reminder in that on the anniversary of the death of each of the 64 names on the Roll of Honour the lamp above is lit. Albie Waterhouse, before his death, was one of the dedicated band who ensure that “We will remember them”!.

As once before, life could never be the same again and the latter years, although occasionally, ameliorated by travel, was depressed, lonely and beset with illness and pain. There were some highlights, particularly when Rudyard was called on to serve his monarch. He and Carrie accompanied King George V to the cemeteries in France and Belgium, and having produced the inscriptions Rudyard was also asked to compose the speeches for the King to make. This gladly accepted task was to be extended, long unacknowledged, when His Majesty was preparing to make the first Christmas broadcast in 1932 and subsequent ones. Their partnership ended when they died within two days of each other, and it was said that “the King is dead, and he was preceded by his trumpeter.”

He and Carrie were en route for Cannes, and whilst at Browns Hotel, he was taken ill. An operation was unable to save his life and so on January 18th 1936 he died, only recently having passed his 70th birthday. He was cremated, secretly, at Golders Green and his ashes interred with due ceremony on the 23rd in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. Carrie battled on for almost four years and when she passed away on December 19th 1939, her ashes could not join those of her husband but were placed beneath a tree in the walled garden. At her death, as they had agreed, Bateman’s was handed over to The National Trust, and so remains virtually as it was during their life there.


©Michael Smith 2005 All rights reserved