As with Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top and Wordsworth’s childhood home in Cumbria, Bateman’s owes its position in the National Trust portfolio to a single previous occupant, in this case Rudyard Kipling. Little is known of its earlier residents and considering the extensive lists of owners I have had to summarise at certain other properties this was something of a relief for blog-writing purposes! However, it is still a bit of a shame that other parts of the house’s history have been lost.
Although it is the Kipling story that brings most visitors to Bateman’s, anyone attached to the quintessential English manor house will still appreciate a trip to this quiet part of East Sussex. The very pretty old house, set in the Dudwell river valley, is presumed to have been built in 1634 (which is the date carved over the porch), and is made from locally quarried sandstone, Wealden clay tiles and Sussex oak. The Kiplings were also very sympathetic to its advanced age and filled it with furniture that was very much in keeping with the surrounding structure, with Kipling once joking that the house ‘simply will not let us use modern furniture’. This commitment to authenticity, however, did mean that the house wasn’t especially cosy, and Kipling’s daughter Elsie wrote that the furniture was ‘stiff’ and that there was a ‘lack of comfort’ in the ‘chilly’ house. Still, considering the over-riding focus on Kipling at Bateman’s today, it is nice that there are still many features from the house’s early life to be seen. If this wasn’t the case, the visitor might feel that the house had sprung magically into existence in 1902, the year that Kipling and his American-born wife Caroline bought the property.
I have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about Kipling before my visit and I am ashamed to say that despite my voracious level of reading I had never actually picked up a book with his name on the front cover. (Yes, I am one of those people whose only exposure to Kipling is through Disney’s The Jungle Book!) I came away from Bateman’s with a much greater knowledge of the man, his family and his career and with a copy of his children’s short stories so I can fill in this gap in my reading. I also bought a biography of four of the Macdonald sisters, two of whom married the painters Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter and two of whom gave birth to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. That’s quite a family.
There is evidence of Kipling’s famous relatives throughout Bateman’s, including a lovely set of hand-painted caricatures that Burne-Jones created for his great-nieces and nephew as Christmas cards, plus further art by Poynter’s son Ambrose and Burne-Jones’ son Philip (including the portrait of Caroline Kipling in the Study). There are also examples of pictures and sculpture by John Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father. In addition, Kipling’s associations with India, where he was born and later employed for a number of years, are evident all around, with Indian art and sculptures slotting almost seamlessly into this very English house. In fact, even in the garden you can find the formal English rose garden only steps away from a wild garden complete with jungle-like gunnera (or giant rhubarb as I call it).
One thing that you might not notice on your visit is a very small anonymous watercolour in the Parlour, entitled ‘Rudyard’. This is not another portrait of Kipling, however, but a tiny snapshot of a lake and I was actually delighted to learn that it is Lake Rudyard in Staffordshire where Kipling’s parents first met and after which they named their son. I have long been plagued by this Rudyard issue and wondered why on earth someone would come up with this as a child’s name so it was a big relief to learn that our famed author was simply the Brooklyn Beckham of his day. It will also help to settle my sub-conscious, which was clearly so disturbed by the whole Rudyard thing that while organising this trip it had suddenly made me start calling him Rudolf!
Something else I got the chance to do during my visit, which I encourage you all to try (perhaps with the permission of the friendly volunteers) is to ring the bell pull at the front door. This has a story behind it as it was originally the bell at The Grange in Fulham, the home of Rudyard’s uncle Edward Burne-Jones. During his so-called ‘Years of Desolation’ when he was left to go to school in England and separated from his parents, Rudyard would visit his uncle and felt great happiness every time he heard the bell ring inside the house and know that he was about to be granted access to the ‘House of Enchantment’. He later brought the bell to Bateman’s hoping that his own visitors would feel the same delight on their arrival.
And who knows just how many people have rung that bell in the past as Bateman’s was clearly a conveyor belt of visitors. Between 15 September 1902 and 6 January 1936, Kipling kept his own detailed list of visitors and there are many, many well-known names to be found in it. This is on display in the house’s Exhibition Room and the staff at Bateman’s very cleverly picks out a ‘visitor of the month’. During my visit, this was Ernest Shackleton and the book is open at the relevant page. However, the highlight of the visitor’s book is the F.I.P. annotations here and there, which designate which visitors ‘fell in pond’! On the Shackleton page, the only victim of the pond was Kipling’s own mother who F.I.P. at about 6.30 pm on August 4th. Although none of my group F.I.P. during our visit, there were a few threats to P.I.P., thankfully not carried out. (PS: That means ‘push in pond’, just in case anyone is putting a different slant on those initials!)
Overall, the Exhibition Room has an interesting collection of photos and papers to enhance the visitor experience. As with many NT properties at the moment, there is also a special World War I exhibit and although these can be a little repetitive, this one is well worth a look as it presents the particularly moving tale of Kipling’s son, John, and his death at the Battle of Loos, his very first engagement of the war. Kipling later wrote a book about ‘The Irish Guards in the Great War’ to commemorate John and his fellow soldiers as well as visiting the war graves in France. However, John’s body was never found during his lifetime and there is a poignant note on one of the exhibition boards that tells us that he was finally identified in the 1990s, more than 50 years after the death of both of his parents.
One of the bedrooms is currently laid out as John’s room, with his school uniform on display just yards away from a reproduction of his Guards’ uniform, as worn by Daniel Radcliffe in an adaptation of Kipling’s ‘My Boy Jack’. There is also a folder containing some of the letters between Kipling and his son in this room, while other Kipling family letters are also reproduced in a folder in Elsie’s Sitting Room where you can have a rest and skim through some of the author’s always entertaining missives.
Another lovely spot for a rest is the Mulberry Restaurant overlooking the Mulberry Garden with its fruit trees and herbaceous borders. It was fairly busy during our Saturday visit but we still managed to grab a table for six outside for both our morning and afternoon tea breaks and on a nice day it’s a really pleasant location for a quiet drink and a chat.
Anyone familiar with Kipling’s ‘Puck of Pook Hill’ should definitely take a wander around the Mulberry Garden and the rest of the grounds surrounding Bateman’s as a number of its locations were featured in the story. There is also a working watermill a short walk from the gardens and this is usually working on two days of the week. One of these days is Saturday but unfortunately due to an unspecified ‘major fault’, it is out of action for the foreseeable future, which was a shame, although there is a short video running on a loop in the mill so you can still see how things work. I know I’m switching authors here, but I had a slightly wicked vision of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory’s Mike Teavee or Augustus Gloop visiting Bateman’s during the school holidays and taking a wrong turn into the mill machinery, although I’m sure there’s a far less sinister and macabre explanation! I also feel that I ought to apologise to Rudyard for bringing Roald Dahl into this blog but Kipling is said to have been one of Dahl’s favourite writers as a child so perhaps he wouldn’t mind all that much.
Highlights: Learning about the Kiplings
Refreshments: Tea and ginger cake; Cheddar Ploughman’s; tea with scone and jam
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘The Complete Children’s Short Stories’ by Rudyard Kipling; ‘A Circle of Sisters’ by Judith Flanders
Companion(s): The Dusty Jackets book group
NT Connections: Wimpole Hall (Kipling’s daughter Elsie lived there after her marriage to George Bambridge and bequeathed it to the National Trust on her death just as her mother had done with Bateman’s).