What Kipling said
The narrator gives a number of clues about the location of the house:
I let the county flow under my wheels. The orchid-studded flats of the East gave way to the thyme, ilex, and grey grass of the Downs; these again to the rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast, where you carry the beat of the tide on your left hand for fifteen level miles; and when at last I turned inland through a huddle of rounded hills and woods I had run myself clean out of my known marks. Beyond that precise hamlet which stands godmother to the capital of the United States, I found hidden villages where bees, the only things awake, boomed in eighty-foot lindens that overhung grey Norman churches … Gipsies I found on a common where the gorse, bracken, and heath fought it out together up a mile of Roman road; and a little further on I disturbed a red fox rolling dog-fashion in the naked sunlight.
As the wooded hills closed about me I stood up in the car to take the bearings of that great Down whose ringed head is a landmark for fifty miles across the low countries. I judged that the lie of the country would bring me across some westward running road that went to his feet, but I did not allow for the confusing veils of the woods. A quick turn plunged me first into a green cutting brimful of liquid sunshine,
When I retraced my route on the map that evening I was little wiser. Hawkin’s Old Farm appeared to be the survey title of the place, and the old County Gazetteer, generally so ample, did not allude to it. The big house of those parts was Hodnington Hall, Georgian with early Victorian embellishments, as an atrocious steel engraving attested. I carried my difficulty to a neighbour—a deep-rooted tree of that soil—and he gave me a name of a family which conveyed no meaning.
A month or so later—I went again, or it may have been that my car took the road of her own volition. She over-ran the fruitless Downs, threaded every turn of the maze of lanes below the hills, drew through the high-walled woods, impenetrable in their full leaf, came out at the cross-roads where the butler had left me, and a little further on developed an internal trouble which forced me to turn her in on a grass way-waste that cut into a summer-silent hazel wood. So far as I could make sure by the sun and a six-inch Ordnance map, this should be the road flank of that wood which I had first explored from the heights above.
John Venning opens up the discussion – Jan 24th 2008
In the course of preparing evidence for a forthcoming public inquiry about the boundary of the proposed South Downs National Park, I came across a bit of countryside at Woolbeding near Midhurst, which reminded me strongly of the opening passge of ‘They’. Astonishingly, it is still possible to imagine a motorist getting lost in those woods today, as the narrator of ‘They’ did. Of course, it’s miles from Batemans, the garden and interior of which appear in the tale but does anyone know, or think they know, where the countryside was in which the house was set ?
Alastair Wilson responds – Jan 25th 2008
While I entirely agree with John Venning that the area around Midhurst, and in particular, about Woolbeding, which lies some two miles NW of Midhurst at the foot of a climb up to a Wealden plateau, would fit the setting for ‘They’ very well; however, at the start of the tale Kipling is a little more precise in his description of where the house lies.
In the opening paragraph, he describes how he left the “orchid-studded flats of the East” (Pevensey Level, and thereabouts) passed over the “thyme, ilex, and grey grass of the Downs”, and on to the “rich cornland and fig-trees of the lower coast” (the area behind Portslade, Shoreham and Lancing, in the days before it was covered with housing), and he turned inland, up today’s A 24, the Worthing -London road. He then makes mention (and this is the clue) of “that precise hamlet which stands godmother to the capital of the United States” – which is the village of Washington, which lies half a mile E of the A24 where it intersects the A283 – the Petworth-Pulborough-Storrington-Shoreham road. He talks about “stone bridges built for heavier traffic than would ever vex them again”, and from this I would judge that he had gone NE from Washington, rather than NW, taking himself into the area of the headwaters of the Adur (to the NW it’s rather sandy-heathy). All this is some 20-25 miles E of Midhurst and Woolbeding.
I don’t know that area (Partridge Green and West Grinstead) very well, so I couldn’t say if there is a suitable house there for ‘They’. But I do most wholeheartedly agree with John V’s remarks about being able to get lost in the lanes around Woolbeding. I have frequently followed hounds on foot in the area, and the country is full of hollows and deep, narrow lanes, with other lanes joining from odd directions. There is also a very suitable house for ‘They’ at Woolbeding – now, unfortunately divided into two (well, that was the situation some 20 years ago, when we were house-hunting in the area).
So, I would suggest, if a fairly precise location is required, it should be sought in the irregular rectangle Washington – West Grinstead.
Michael Smith commented – January 25th 2008
I have given much thought as to the location of the “house beautiful” and have included the material in my, as yet, unpublished book. As RK drove throgh the Findon gap to Washington I don’t think that he reached as far west as the Midhurst area, which I also know well at I taught at Seaford College near Graffham in the 1950’s and 60’s. Many of the features he described are easily located in the area of Washington – Sompting – Steyning – and there are still woods which could have served, although naturally similar woods are at the foot of the Downs further west.
John Venning is pursuing the issue further – February 4 2008
Many thanks to you all for your helpful replies. I am comforted that others have found the environs of Older Hill and Woolbeding touched the same chord. But I suspect that the area around Washington is more likely to have been the place and look forward to exploring it armed with Thurston Hopkins (I
happened to be in Sherborne and it seemed rude not to visit the admirable Verandah Books) and, if the OS play ball, the 1902 OS map, which RK could have used.
(the discussion continues …)
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