One of my closest friends texted me during my latest trip saying ‘the idea was that on this holiday you rested… Maybe next time you should go to the middle of a desolate field with no cultural sites or activities within a 20 mile radius. I would suggest a spa weekend but somehow I still don’t think you would stop working or finding things to do…’.
It’s not that I can’t relax (I enjoy beach holidays and sunbathing very very much) but I do get the urge to see everything nearby and can’t sit still properly until I feel I’ve ‘done’ an area, particularly in the UK. And, so it was, that half way down to Sussex for a relaxing break by the sea, that I opened my National Trust handbook, looked at the English Heritage website and made one of those lists that didn’t really allow much time for R&R.
Camber Sands. Own photograph.
So, on a sunny Sunday morning with my Mini hurtling southwards, my mini break began.
The very first stop on this trip was Sissinghurst Castle – somewhat of a misnomer as the house is still a lived-in property and it is the wonderful gardens that people come to visit. Sissinghurst has a varied history – beginning life as a Saxon pig farm, before becoming a family house. In the late 16th century, it was transformed into a magnificent courtyard house, a far more upmarket property with a newly constructed tower. It then became a prison (destroying most of what we know call Sissinghurst Castle), a poor house and, in the 1800s, it returned to being a family home and became what we see today. Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, moved to Sissinghurst in 1932 and brought the gardens to life, creating ‘rooms’ with planting schemes offering different colours and scents, in particular her famous ‘White Garden’. The library and tower are all that remain open of the house and, if you’re feeling intrepid, then the 78 steep, spiral stairs are worth the climb, especially as Vita’s study can be viewed half-way up.
Sissinghurst Castle. Own photograph.
As with any garden-based property part of the enjoyment depends upon the time of year you visit. This wasn’t the best time to appreciate the colours and floral dynamism of Vita’s garden but its craft and design was still evident.
Sissinghurst Castle and the White Garden. Own photograph.
I had studied the map carefully in the car and we headed towards Smallhythe Place. I love the story of how Ellen Terry (‘Queen of the Theatre’) found Smallhythe Place; apparently, in the late 1890s, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were driving around Sussex and Kent when they reached a small bridge. On their right was an old farmhouse with dark timbers and a sloping roof. The house was full of character and charm and Terry announced that it was here she would like to live and die. They went inside and found an old shepherd who said he didn’t live there and wasn’t able to offer them much information. But, not one to be deterred, Terry asked him if he would let her know if it was ever for sale. Her charisma obviously left its mark and, in 1899, Terry received an unsigned postcard saying ‘House for Sale’ postmarked Tenterden. That year, she bought Smallhythe Place. The story still makes me smile – it is very easy to see why she fell in love with the 16th century house. Smallhythe is a continuous-jetty house, meaning that the upper-storey overhangs the lower. The original features remain with uneven floors and sloping ceilings. When Ellen Terry died, her daughter Edy decided to make the house a shrine to her mother’s memory and created a museum where her theatrical treasures and relics could be on permanent display.
Smallhythe Place. Own photograph.
Edy did not have an easy ride in garnering interest for her project but, thanks to her perseverance, the house remains. In 1938, a representative from the National Trust wrote ‘In Ellen Terry’s little house one feels she might walk past one at any minute, and in her bedroom that she might appear sitting before her dressing-table brushing her hair.’ I could not express it better. The house captures Ellen Terry, her passion for it and her incredible life on the stage. Despite its relatively small size, this was one of my favourite properties. The costume room holds her famous beetle-wing dress, sewn all over with real green beetle wings, that she wore as Lady Macbeth in 1889 and in which she was painted by John Singer Sargent. Also, the garden now contains the Barn Theatre, which Edy transformed after Terry’s death, that is still in use today.
John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth,1889. Image via www.tate.org.uk.
We wanted to make the most of the sun and head to the coast but couldn’t resist stopping in at the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day – an annual event that pulls in the crowds!
Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway’s Bus Rally day
After struggling with the dodgy Camber Sands’ internet connection over breakfast the next day, it was time for me to try something new. Apparently the best way to see the coastline is by plane. Now I don’t like to do things by halves so it seemed to make sense to fly a little plane up for a look! With Ivan from the Lydd Aero Club at my side, I set off in a Cessna 172. I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t rather terrifying at first but, as I got used to it, I loved being in the air and in control of the plane – it was exhilarating and wonderful.
Flying. Own photograph.
Lydd is very close to Dungeness and the garden of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage which, although not open to the public, is lovely to drive past and have a look at. Dungeness itself is a tad bleak but there are some great fish and chips to be had by the sea.
Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Own photograph.
Onwards, and Monday’s main aim was the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, a stunning example of Modernist architecture on the south coast. It was commissioned as an ambitious cultural centre by the 9th Earl De La Warr and broke new ground in terms of architectural practice. Welded steel frames had not previously been used in Britain and the interior played with colour in unusual ways and made use of innovative soft furnishings. The building’s influence was immediately felt across the UK with Peter Jones in Chelsea opening in 1936, only one year later, designed with many of the same architectural techniques. The architects of the De La Warr Pavilion sought to integrate their design with the site, practically and aesthetically; the horizontal shape and lines responding to the sea horizon.
The view from the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.
The De La Warr Pavilion has, no doubt, suffered over the years particularly from severe bomb damage in World War II. The 1980s saw a new beginning for the pavilion and, in the years since then, there has been major restoration and redevelopment that has transformed the building into what we see today. Eighty years after its opening the pavilion is once more being recognised for its architectural beauty and ingenuity. Much of the building isn’t really open to the public so it is hard to see the scope of available space and what has been done here. The exhibitions I saw at the De La Warr are not showing it at its best; Everything Flows sees four artists consider the idea of being ‘in the zone’, looking at the state athletes must reach to achieve the heightened sense of performance that prepares them for battle. These artists have each produced a new moving image artwork that, when seen together, presents a cacophony of noise celebrating sporting achievement. For me, these were sports films, not far enough removed from watching Sky Sports at the weekend. Upstairs is Sean Dower’s The Voyeur which has a far more invigorating concept but is still not curated in the most visually exciting presentation. Each work in the exhibition emits, transmits or reflects sound, visualising the activity of communicating between remote places.
De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.
On the roof is Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea which recalls the final scene of The Italian Job where the coach, containing gold bullion and a gang of robbers, hovers precariously on a cliff. Here, Wilson’s bus hovers on the edge of the pavilion with clever mechanics that means it moves to enhance the feeling of its teetering. Wilson feels the work is a metaphor about the absolute limits of everything; the building is part of the work, playing with the idea of ‘what if’. The spectacle is at its best when viewed from the roof. On the floor, it loses something but it is still a splendid piece that plays with the architecture of the pavilion in a fun and vibrant way.
Richard Wilson’s Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea at the De La Warr Pavilion. Own photograph.
I adored the architectural genius of De La Warr Pavilion but felt there is some lost potential here and more that could happen. I wanted the excitement of the design to be felt in the exhibitions mounted inside. I wanted the opportunity to explore more of the building. I wanted its genius to have the space to shine a little more than it is currently doing.
Moving back inland, it was time for another National Trust property. Bateman’s was Rudyard Kipling’s home from 1902-1936 and provided him with the calm and tranquillity that let his imagination run wild and enabled him to write – ‘a real House in which to settle down for keeps’. The volunteers in every room of his house, enthusiastically quoted Kipling at me, encouraging visitors to head to the shop to stock up on his literature! Built c. 1634 (the date can be found over the porch), the house is preserved as it would have been during Kipling’s day. There is no doubt it is a beautiful property but I was more struck when viewing the exterior. The inside didn’t entrance me in quite the way Smallhythe had the previous day.
Bateman’s. Own photograph.
We were exhausted but I knew that Battle Abbey was just around the corner and that was unmissable. Regardless of your historical knowledge or interest, everyone knows that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. To mark his success, King William I established a Benedictine Abbey on the northern part of the battlefield. Although it has, of course, changed over the years, a number of the abbey buildings remain while the gorgeous main house is used by Battle School (lucky them). One of the most remarkable features is the condition of the vaulted ground rooms that give an impression of how magnificent this site would have been in its heyday. Battle Abbey is a stunning and emotive property. I love walking round ruins, studying the architecture and imagining what has taken place here before. The site could not lend itself more perfectly to this.
Battle Abbey. Own photograph.
The great gatehouse is still in use by both the school and the Abbey and fulfils its original purpose of increasing security – all traffic had to pass through it and be checked by the porter. The scale of the building and the decorative stonework reflect the power and importance of the Abbey while the crenellations and arrow slits remind of us the gatehouse’s defensive purpose.
Battle Abbey. Own photograph.
It was time to return to the deserted beaches of Camber Sands and enjoy some cocktails as a reward.
Tuesday’sfirst stop was the National Trust’s Bodiam Castle, built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dallingridge. All of the NT sites in this area are beautifully maintained and Bodiam is no exception. Again, we were stoic and climbed one of the towers which afforded a stunning bird’s eye view of the castle and of the surrounding weald. Bodiam is as you expect a medieval castle to be, perched on a point, broadly symmetrical, imposing but comfortable, easily expressing rank and status. It is not known whether Bodiam was actually built as a fortress or a status symbol but it immediately gives the impression of great strength and power, enhanced by its approach across a moat. Whereas the exterior is fabulously preserved, the interior is in ruins – the remnants do give us a suggestion of the original layout but little remains. As with all these properties, I could easily get carried away harping on about their history but…I won’t.
Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.
I managed to buy a guide book at every property so a small stack was building up on the back seat of the car. Both the NT and EH produce great small books about all their properties.
One thing that I am still confused by is the National Trust entrance scheme. Most of their properties have two prices available – standard admission and Gift Aid admission. Gift Aid is a higher price and automatically includes a Gift Aid donation but this seems to be contradicted by the Trust saying that ‘Gift Aid donations must be supported by a valid Gift Aid declaration’. We were never asked for the extra details that would, in theory, turn this into a declaration. In the past I have always been offered the opportunity to fill out a form that Gift Aids my standard ticket price thereby allowing the charity to reclaim the taxable amount rather than being told to pay more (which they automatically charge unless you request a standard ticket). They seem to be losing out with this new arrangement. I have the utmost respect for the NT’s work and their properties, finding their schemes and work innovative and exciting but I will say this entry arrangement leaves me a tad perplexed.
Bodiam Castle. Own photograph.
Nearby is Great Dixter, the family home of the late Christopher Lloyd (not the one from Back to the Future but the gardener) which is still the most incredible garden. The 15th century house, which is also open to the public in the afternoons, was restored and enlarged by Sir Edwin Lutyens who was responsible for revealing the splendour and enormity of the Great Hall – the largest surviving timber-framed hall in the country. The gardens at Great Dixter surround the house and most of their design was also by Lutyens which could explain the fluidity and the seamless progression from house to garden, from garden to house. I think that no matter what time of year you visit these gardens, they will always be a sight to behold. The colours at Great Dixter are spell-binding. Lloyd saw it as a challenge to combine every sort of colour and not allow himself to be constrained by conventional colour schemes. He planted what he thought would look good and it certainly does!
Great Dixter. Own photograph.
Wednesday heralded the final day of my Mini Adventure and I still had places to tick off my list. Importantly, one mustn’t visit the English countryside without popping into a vineyard and we were within spitting distance of Chapel Down, one of my favourite English wines. It would have been rude not to pop in to buy a few bottles.
Nearby is also Fairfield Church. We didn’t get the keys, which are apparently available from a neighbour, and instead just passed by on one of the surrounding country roads to admire its beauty in the middle of a desolate field. See – there are things to be found even in the middle of a field.
Fairfield Church. Own photograph.
Scotney was quite an ambitious property to visit on the last morning, especially after a generous wine tasting (not enough to put me over the limit mind you) and with the clock ticking. This is because Scotney is actually two properties and a rather large garden all rolled into the one estate. The new house, for which you need a timed entrance ticket, was built in 1837 in Elizabethan style while, at the bottom of the steep valley, are the ruins of the original medieval castle and moat. With new at the top and old at the bottom, the landscape at Scotney could not be much more picturesque. It is an amazing combination but best viewed from the outside. For me, the inside of the house was a hotchpotch of styles that confuse the eye – I notice that the strange pink bathroom doesn’t get a picture in the guidebook. The library is the most fabulous interior room and book presses H to J conceal a hidden door, decorated with false spines.
Scotney Castle. Own photograph.
The new house was built for Edward Hussey III – there is probably no connection but my MA thesis was about Giles Hussey (1710-88), a little-known, eighteenth-century, English artist whose hundreds of intricately annotated drawings remain at the British Museum, demonstrating his theories of harmonic proportion. The Hussey family tree will have to wait for another day though.
Scotney Castle. Own photograph.
The final stop was Bayham Old Abbey, a 13th century Abbey that was mostly destroyed at the Reformation. Bayham has a fairly standard monastic arrangement; the cloister and its accompanying areas are at the south of the church, the refectory ran parallel to the nave, the dormitory was on the east. The layout has been somewhat obscured by a completely new east end that mutilated the old transepts. The guide book has a lovely glossary at the back allowing me to test myself and see how much church architecture I remember. Bliss – what a perfect site to finish on.
Bayham Old Abbey. Own photograph.
Somehow, we made it back to London in time for me to change and dash onto the tube to go to the opening of Scream’s new gallery on Eastcastle Street, one of the new and exciting hubs of the London art scene. Having been checked off the guest list, I walked through a small section of rather unattractive corridor which seemed out of kilter with the highly polished perfection of this gallery. Inside, it’s a lovely space with great frontage onto the street (my estate agent’s description here is unintended, I just can’t help it). The inaugural exhibition is work by Beijing-based artist Ye Hongxing – using collaged mass-produced kitsch and kaleidoscopic material, his works aim to address the anthropological, technological and economical developments that are happening in China. It was hard to have a proper look at the works but the exhibition does raise some interesting comments about society and modern life: the title recalls H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel, The Modern Utopia.
Scream on Eastcastle Street. Own photograph.
And, because I hadn’t quite squeezed enough into the day, I headed off to play Urban Golf (amazing!) but that is another story!
Ye Hongxing: The Modern Utopia is at Scream until 20 October 2012, www.screamlondon.com.