Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Apotropaios : Ightham Mote Part II

Following on from my exploration of the outside and the courtyard of Ightham Mote, I ventured inside, almost reluctantly, in case it was somehow less dreamlike.    The house was stuffed full of visitors processing from one room to the next, but I loitered in the background concentrating on just the things that interested me.  Like the windows.  It's amazing that glass was so precious, even the smallest pieces had to be  mended with lead rather than replaced when they got broken.  

And one of my very favourite aspects - the wobbliness of ancient glass.  It's like these windows have a built-in special effect to indicate the passage of time, as if you might look through them and see a Tudor scullery maid hurrying past or a hunting party returning with dinner.

I especially loved the painted ceiling in the 'new' chapel.  The design dates from the early 16th century and amongst other emblems, it incorporates the pomegranate of Aragon, as do the carved bargeboards above windows overlooking the courtyard. Unfortunately at the time the then owner, Sir Richard Clement, was attempting to ingratiate himself with his royal master, Henry VIII was off canoodling with Anne Boleyn.  Luckily for Sir Richard, Henry VIII never actually visited Ightham Mote.  

There are lots of other interesting stories about the various owners of Ightham.  I was particularly interested by those surrounding Dame Dorothy Selby, the widow of Sir William Selby II.  You will often read - especially on line - that Ightham is haunted by her ghost, that she was bricked up in the house following the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot.  For legend has it that it was Dame Dorothy - a devout Catholic - who, having got wind of what was about to happen, wrote anonymously to her cousin, Lord Mounteagle, to warn him to stay away from the opening of Parliament, which letter was intercepted and the Plot foiled.  The inscription on her memorial in Ightham Church - 'whose art disclosed that Plot' - has been claimed as proof.  Not so.  Dame Dorothy and  her husband did not even move to Ightham until 1612, several years after the failed assassination attempt against James I.  And if you look at her memorial (which I did later when I visited the church), you will see that she died in 1641, almost 40 years later.  The mention of the Plot refers to the large-scale piece of embroidery she executed commemorating it.  And in fact she died from an infection caused by pricking her finger with a needle.  Which is a suitably fairy tale sort of ending for the mistress of such a dream of a house.  
As I wondered around the house, I felt very drawn to a certain room in the tower - a bedroom.  As I perused my guide book over lunch, I read that it was in that room that Henry James has stayed during Christmas 1887, and that he subsequently wrote that it had a ghost.  Again the description of a female skeleton bricked up in a wall or small room manifests itself.  It is said that workmen discovered her in 1872, and that she had been a serving woman who had been impregnated by the local priest.  I actually thought that the house had a warm and welcoming atmosphere, although it's one thing being there amid a crowd of visitors on a lovely October day, and another, I suppose, being there alone at night!


But the best story concerning previous owners is the one about Charles Henry Robinson of Portland, Maine.  Following the Second World War, Ightham Mote was sold and eventually bought by a consortium of Kentish business men, anxious to save the dear old house from being demolished for the lead on its roof.  In 1953 they advertised it for sale in Country Life, where it was spotted by a wealthy visiting American, Robinson.  He recognised it as the house he had seen years earlier whilst on a cycling holiday in England, and enquired about buying it.  Unsure whether it was the right thing to do or not, he resolved to make up his mind during the cruise home aboard the Queen Mary.  At that time, Britain had 'punitively' high rates of taxation for foreigners who spent more than 17 weeks per year in the country, and by the time the liner docked in New York, Robinson had composed a letter of regret, informing the consortium that he had decided that the proposed purchase was too extravagant.  However, when he reached the post office, it was closed - whereupon he decided that it was meant to be and bought the place!  The last few years of Robinson's life were spent persuading the Trust to take over the property upon his death - no mean feat of negotiation, considering that it took 15 years and £10,000,000 to restore it.  And afterwards, a Trust researcher traced back his family tree and discovered that Robinson was a direct descendant of one of the Pilgrim Fathers!  His ashes are interred just outside the crypt below the old chapel,with a memorial stone inside inscribed 'A Pilgrim Returned.'


After my lunch in the cafe, I did what I have never done before and went straight back into the house to walk around a second time.  It was much quieter by then, and having done some research in the interim, I asked the guide where I could see the archaeological finds that are on display. Upon being told that they were in a room in the tower which wasn't open owing to a shortage of volunteers, I must have looked disappointed because she said she hoped I hadn't travelled far.  'Bristol' I ventured, and then - following the shameless lead of an erstwhile fellow-jaunter of mine - I added 'I'm a writer' (simultaneously trying to dispel the recollection of Homer Simpson speeding across an intersection on a red light, yelling 'It's all right, I'm a teacher!')  It worked and I shortly found myself up the tower delighting in skulls, shards of pottery and glass, clay pipes, a candlestick, a broken nit comb, and various shoes secreted up chimneys, behind skirtings and under window sills for apotropaic purposes, ie to ward off evil spirits (and now replaced by newer shoes formerly belonging to Trust staff).

Robinson had bought his dream house, and I left Ightham feeling that it was obvious it should now belong to me, not least since there was a willow pattern platter in the kitchen - a Sign if ever I saw one!  The only thing that could make it more perfect would be if it were 200 miles south and west.








2 comments:

  1. Fascinating! As always, you've captured the mood of the place brilliantly..I particularly enjoyed the way you describe the visual effects of the old windows..
    So glad this wonderful old house didn't get sold for the lead in its roof..That would have been utter sacrilege!
    Strange how often it seems to work out that people are drawn to a house and then it turns out that there was some distant connection..! Please find and share more of these old places!

    ReplyDelete