A recent National Trust promotion which gave away free tickets to their buildings meant that we chose this day for a trip to one of our local ones. Well, we chose this weekend, although yet another train strike on Saturday rather forced our hand and we had to do it on Sunday. It was, alas, the worse day for weather of the two by far, but we tried not to let it put us off, and I’m glad it didn’t.
We dressed and packed for cold, wet weather, and cycled to the train, took our bikes on board, then rode from the station at Etchingham, a tiny and adorable sandstone building. The ride from there was fairly flat, along a decent road surface, 5km or, and with low traffic as we had hoped for a Sunday morning.
I settled into this shortish ride quickly, and found myself saying to M how much I missed cycling. She quite rightly told me to be mindful and enjoy it, rather than focussing on how much I miss it while doing it.
The road was lined with occasionally interesting houses and pockets of woodland, with large gaps revealing the countryside beyond, which to our left dropped away into the valley below, providing a lovely view, though hazy with mist and low cloud owing to the general dampness of the morning.
We passed the sad sight of a roadkill deer – a huge beast with a fine set of antlers. Emotions wavered between the sorrow of the animal’s death and the horrendous experience it must have been for the driver of whatever had hit it. Even the most glancing of blows with a creature of that size would have been a pretty shocking experience, and must have caused some damage.
The road down to Bateman’s, off the main road, was suddenly steep as it took us down into the valley we had seen to our left along the route. A smaller road, though mercifully still well-sealed, with small rivulets of water running down it. As we neared the bottom, the water collected into small channels in the woodland to our left, with masses of brown leaves forced into great piles as they got snagged in the low fences under which the water ran.
We parked up our bikes at the single bike stand in the fair-sized car park – there really was only space for two bikes at Bateman’s, which seems less than adequate. One could use the many wooden fences dotted around the car park, but it is much more reassuring to use something solid and metal.
It was a lovely day to visit Bateman’s, despite the weather. The rain petered out and we were able to explore the house and grounds. A local ‘rock choir’ was putting on a performance in the café as we arrived. M amusingly remarked that just as I headed off to look down a well – an essential duty whenever a well is seen – the choir were singing The First Nöel.
Bateman’s had been Rudyard Kipling’s final home for the first three decades of the 20th century, though parts of the building dated to the 1600s. It is a gorgeous sandstone country house with rambling grounds that mix formality with wild nature, occasionally tamed by structures like a water mill.
The house itself has a large collection of art and interesting objects – I was inevitably drawn to the clocks that we found, particularly as we were told by a knowledgeable volunteer that one, which still works and even strikes the hour on a surprisingly loud bell, actually predates the house by ten years. A stunningly old clockwork object, pretty even when completely inert, still in working order.
On closer inspection, the clock face was home to inscriptions of two skeletons and some Latin text acting as memento mori – constant reminders on every bell ring and movement of the hands of one’s progress towards the end. Large lead weights hung from the clock, and when I was finally able to tear myself away from it, I still felt its presence, knowing that if it’s still hanging there keeping time now, after four hundred years or so, it was damn well going to still be there long after my time is up.
The rest of the house was just as enjoyable a mix of timeless beauty. Rooms lined with books and filled, for ‘tis the season, with elegant peacock-inspired Christmas decorations.
We were occasionally provided with extra information by friendly volunteers – one explained the origin of the phrase ‘put a sock in it’ when describing a gramophone, and another told a story about Kipling’s father, gently phrasing his story so that he was able to tell it without assuming too much or too little prior knowledge from us as visitors.
He was right to assume little to none at all – I know basically nothing about Rudyard Kipling, and I suppose I know little more than I did even now having visited his home of thirty years. The house lacked many signs or information panels – though in fairness the volunteers posted in almost every room could no doubt have filled books with their knowledge of we’d asked them anything.
But sometimes a visit to a National Trust property is just that – a visit to a place. Snowshill in the Cotswolds, the home of Charles Paget Wade and his vast collection, is deliberately retained by the NT not as a museum with signs but as a house with rooms full of stuff. To visit is to simply inhabit that space, and it was the same with Bateman’s, so I very much enjoyed that aspect.
The water mill was an enjoyable extra – entering the building and seeing the mechanism immediately reminded me of visiting a water mill in France when I was in primary school, and another earlier visit to a windmill at some point. Apparently most of what I can remember of school trips in primary school is trips to mills, and that’s fine.
The nearby mill pond – which was, true to its name, as calm as one – was watched over by a very handsome cat, dark brown with pale splodges, as it kept a watchful eye out for prey unseen to us. As we left the grounds we saw it in the distance sat proudly upright in the middle of a field of sheep, a true rural, outdoorsy cat.
So yes, I’m very glad we got out to Bateman’s – it is so reassuring to find these special places, and to be able to time travel once inside them. When visiting they so often feel unique and rare and important, and yet we are so fortunate that they are plentiful, scattered all round the country, just waiting to be explored.