Ightham Mote is a jigsaw puzzle. Not literally, of course, but over almost 700 years it has been built up bit by bit, with additions here and alterations there, until eventually we arrive at what stands in this quiet corner of Kent today. It would actually be quite interesting to see a model of the house in its different parts in order to build it on a specific timeline, adding and replacing the various pieces until a clearer picture of its evolution emerges. However, until some bright spark comes up with this kind of 3D model, there is still an interesting series of illustrations in the guidebook that help to summarise events on a century-by-century basis.
I didn’t know which photo to choose for my main picture as there are so many different faces to this house but I opted for a corner shot that shows two disparate sides. Here are two other pictures to indicate the variety of the architecture.
Even up to a few years ago, there were still significant changes being made to the house as part of a £10m conservation project, which involved the use of traditional techniques and materials to repair the property over the course of almost 15 years, all the while leaving it open so that visitors could see the conservation in action. This was actually the most expensive renovation project in the NT’s history and the final part of the work was the subject of a Time Team television special. You can watch this programme in a room alongside the Library at the end of your tour of the house and can also purchase the DVD from the shop (although it is £15 so we decided to wait for the next repeat to come on the telly!)
All in all, you can count a visit to Ightham Mote as a visit to multiple different centuries as the house brings together the architecture and decoration of Medieval, Tudor, Jacobean and Victorian England along with a dash of 1950s American thrown in for good measure!
Over all that time, you would assume that the Mote had passed through the hands of many rich and famous residents. However, while some of them were most certainly rich, relatively few were particularly famous. There were a number of MPs and High Sheriffs along the way, particularly in the earlier centuries, while the Selby family lasted the longest with almost 300 years of ownership, but none of these past occupants would be household names today. You’ll have to buy the guidebook to get a rundown of the complete roll call, which takes up two pages of the book even in very brief bullet points!
Signs of the various owners are evident throughout the house, however, so I’ll just mention a few key examples. The Great Hall shows signs of several different eras. First of all, it is the oldest part of the house dating back to the 1330s, which can be seen in the architecture of the high, beamed ceiling, but we are brought forward a couple of centuries to Tudor times with the coats of arms of Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon and Margaret Beaufort featured in stained glass in the window, placed there by Sir Richard Clement, a one-time courtier of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Similar Tudor insignia can be found on the painted ceiling of the New Chapel (newer than the old one as it was built in the 15th century rather than the 14th!) and on the gable barge boards on the south side of the courtyard. Meanwhile, back in the Great Hall, a much newer-looking coat of arms high on the wall (with the motto ‘loyal to death’) was adopted by the very last owner, Charles Henry Robinson, an American who believed he had English roots and bought the house in 1953.
Other distinct signs of former residents around the house include the carved Saracen head from the crest of the Selby family on the newel post of the staircase and the plaster statue of the Black Prince in the Crypt, which was bought by Charles Robinson partly to commemorate Sir Thomas Cawne, one of the first owners of Medieval Ightham, who fought alongside the prince in France.
For anyone taking a tour around Ightham, here are just a few other things that I think you should look out for:
- Dido’s Kennel: in the courtyard, there is a timber-framed kennel, which is actually the only Grade I listed kennel in the country! You may be able to guess from the size of the thing that Dido, who belonged to the Colyer-Ferguson family, was a St Bernard.
- The Great Hall roof: the guidebook says that the Great Hall has ‘a roof that induces every visitor to look upwards on first entering it’… words that I read shortly after I had first entered and looked up to admire the roof! However, not every visitor does so as the first thing my Dad noticed was the longcase clock in the corner. What can I say? Clocks are his thing.
- Chinese wallpaper: the Drawing Room has some beautiful Chinese wallpaper thought to have been put up in about 1800. It has a repeating pattern but on one side of the room two cranes are about to fight over which one gets to eat a dragonfly but on the opposite side, the dragonfly is missing. Very mysterious!
- The Marmite fireplace: during the introductory talk about the house, we were told about the Jacobean fireplace in the Drawing Room and how the ceiling had to be raised to get it in. It was also described as a ‘love it or loathe it’ Marmite item and I’m definitely in the latter camp. Not only is it very ugly in itself but the raising of the ceiling brought with it the addition of a carved wooden frieze that does nothing for the room. Granted, it might once have been a beneficial addition but today it just simply doesn’t go with the lovely wallpaper. I suppose to be fair we should blame those who added the wallpaper but I like the wallpaper so I’m not going to be fair!
- The Tower Room: although a small, dark room (probably kept that way to protect its tapestries), this is particularly interesting as it was the bedroom occupied by Henry James when he spent Christmas at Ightham in 1887. Despite the regal touches around Ightham, there is no royal visit for my list but this is certainly royalty of the literary kind so it has to be mentioned. Henry James described his visit in writing and he included this lovely little line: ‘I slept in a room with a ghost and an oubliette, but fortunately the former remained in the latter’.
- Mr Robinson’s vacillation: in the more modern Library (a very cosy room that would be a perfect spot to sit with a good book), there is a copy of a letter that Charles Robinson wrote while on board the Queen Mary on his way back to America. Having viewed the house and agreed to buy it, he then changed his mind about the expense of its upkeep and wrote to explain his decision. Circumstances on board the ship meant that the letter was never posted and when he got home his family persuaded him to buy the house after all.
- The ‘bathing’ door: in the Billiard Room, look out for a little door in the wall that leads out into the moat. In 1900, this was described as being ‘for bathing purposes’ but one can only wonder what else it might have been used for by gentlemen embarking on heavy drinking sessions over their billiards!
There’s plenty more for you to look at but these were just some of the things that caught my attention.
Ightham offers some good back-up to your visit, with 15-minute introductory talks, plus 45-minute garden tours and the occasional Tower Tour that takes you up to the highest point of the house. If you want to take in the views, don’t be put off by the health and safety information given beforehand. I went in expecting an extremely dark, narrow and steep spiral staircase with uneven steps, only to find a fairly bright, wide and shallow spiral staircase with wooden steps that were a little uneven but nothing too much to worry about unless you’re wearing six-inch heels. There is quite a high step at the top to get onto the roof but you don’t need to be a professional athlete to negotiate that.
If you do decide to go up, there’s nothing particularly special about the tower or the views but it’s always nice to get a different perspective and you do get to see the South Lake, which is inaccessible unless you take a garden tour. It has a nice little duck house on it, but as the last resident MP seems to have been a Selby back in the 17th century I don’t think it was built on expenses! And I can confidently say that it’s not Grade I listed like the kennel!
You also get a different view of the gardens from the tower. These are not extensive but include an interesting kitchen garden, a walled garden with a fountain, a small formal parterre with another fountain (left, with kitchen garden behind the back hedge), a lovely herbaceous border (right) and a lake, pond and waterfall further from the house. During our own gentle stroll around the grounds, we first met Freda, a relatively friendly resident cat, and then unexpectedly bumped into a Dusty Jacket (a member of my book group!) and her husband. I’m looking forward to comparing notes about our visits at the next meeting (with my book group friend, that is, not the cat!).
Highlights: The sheer variety of it all, as demonstrated by the vast difference between my two favourite rooms – the Great Hall and the Library
Refreshments: Poached salmon with wholegrain mustard sauce, new potatoes and fresh veg; tea with chocolate and vanilla marble cake.