Legend has it that in the seventeenth century, a troop of Cromwellian soldiers was hell bent on locating and ransacking the royalist manor house at Ightham Mote. Fortunately for the then owners, the soldiers failed to find the secluded mansion and raided another house instead. I set out for Ightham Mote on Saturday with more peaceful intentions, but, like the soldiers, I almost gave up. I would advise against trying to reach the house by foot from the railways station, as you are forced to share the narrow and endlessly winding road with speeding cars, who give scant regard to lone pedestrians.
I grimly persevered through the mist and the drizzle and finally reached my destination. Ightham Mote (pronounced i-tem) is one of the most charming and idyllic places I have ever been to. If I had had a few changes of clothes, I could well imagine enjoying a long weekend there if it were still a family home, such is the welcoming atmosphere.
The manor house was first built in the 1300s and added to over the years. The last owner, the American Charles Henry Robinson, bought the place on a whim thereby saving it from a fate worse than death (being turned into a roadhouse restaurant). He lovingly furnished it with antiques and generously donated it to the National Trust upon his death, so that the likes of me could discover for myself its infinite charms. His ashes have been interred in the walls of the original medieval crypt.
Its successive owners have never been wealthy enough to remodel it completely to suit changing fashions. Consequently, it seamlessly incorporates elements of so many different eras and owners into its design. It is also on a comparatively modest scale. Judging by the box in the butler's pantry, which lit up whenever a bell was pulled to summon a servant from another part of the house, the mansion had 10 family bedrooms at one time. The servants’ bedrooms would have been counted separately of course. It still has the original cobbled courtyard graced with the only listed dog kennel in the country. Even the one time owners of a St Bernards felt their house was too small to comfortably accommodate such a large dog. All this, coupled with the fact that the house has always been a family home rather than temporary lodgings for the great and the good, give Ightham Mote its uniquely intimate and inviting air.
I first heard about Ightham Mote from the television programme, Time Team. The National Trust had spent over £10 million and well over a decade renovating the house. Time Team broadcast a special programme commemorating the completion of the work. Thus, I was familiar with the story of the house and its various owners long before I ever set sight on it. But even the programme was unable to convey its special charm.
Highlights of the visit for me included:
- The hand painted Chinese wallpaper in the drawing room. I overheard a German woman tell a guide that she only had such wallpaper in one room of her CASTLE.
- The ornate Jacobean mantlepiece, which was so large, workmen had to open up a large hole in the external wall in order to get it into the house. Rather than restore the original windows, a far larger window was set up, thereby destroying the symmetry of the front of the house. The fireplace is also remarkable for the bizarrely misshapen breasts of the female nude adorning it.
- The bathroom with the rocking horse in it, apparently to bribe two young brothers into having baths.
- The red and white wallpaper in Charles’s dressing room, which on closer inspection proves to be rather saucy, featuring as it does naked men and women.
- The small bedroom with its own four poster bed and door leading off the corridor. Other bedrooms seem to lead into one another with no corridor providing privacy.
- The glazed squint or opening in the upper wall of the Great Hall, allowing a passing servant to take a surreptitious peek at the family festivities below.
- The jumble of different architectural styles, giving the building the look of a small village from afar.
- The library with its comfortable chairs and sofas inviting house guests to lounge around in ease and comfort and the porcelain figure of a greyhound by the fireplace.
- The splendid, though faded, ceiling of the 17th century chapel, which had originally been meant as state apartments for Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Henry’s eager courtier had had the vaulted ceiling decorated with the emblems of both Katherine and Henry. He was not to know that shortly after completion, Henry would start divorce proceedings against Katherine. It was perhaps fortunate for Ightham Mote’s then owner, that Henry never came a-calling with Anne Boleyn.