Friday, June 19, 2009

Knocking About Knole House in Kent

Friday, June 19, 2009
Knole House, Kent

Having visited Vita Sackville-West's famous garden in Sissinghurst, I was keen on seeing her childhood 'home', Knole House--also in Kent but in the town of Sevenoaks which is much closer to London.

Getting To Knole:
One week of attempting to reach National Trust properties has left me with a very bad taste in my mouth. I have said before that I think their annual membership is a rip-off and I am going to say so again. For one thing, most of their properties are open only for about five months of the year (usually after Easter and until October). The rambling homes they now own are too expensive to heat during the winter and are shut down.

Secondly, during the months that the houses are accessible to visitors, they are not open every day of the week. Most are open only from Thursday to Sunday. That cuts down your options right there.

Thirdly, let's say you decide to visit on a Friday (as I did yesterday), you will discover, to your horror, that there is no public transport available to these houses at all except (if you are very fortunate), one day of the week ("usually Sundays and Bank Holidays"). So woe betide you if you are a foreigner in the UK and do not drive and do not have access to a car. You simply cannot reach these spots which are in the back of beyond, in most cases (Knole and Chartwell and Polesdon Lacey, for instance). At the end of the day, your only recourse is a taxi and given the long distances of these places from the nearest rail head, you end up paying a good fifty pounds per trip (and that is not including the entry fee which you would not be paying if you have an annual membership). I paid almost fifty pounds only on transport to get to Polesdon Lacey after which I swore I would not hail a taxi again!

I would like to make a very humble appeal to the National Trust that it run a shuttle bus service from the nearest rail head to its properties on the days that they stay open, as in the case of Sissinghurst where a shuttle bus took me from Staplehurst railway station to the venue for a fee of 2 pounds. Even an intrepid traveler like me and one who is accustomed to public transport can get fed up about having to trek miles of country roads to arrive finally at a property.

A case in point was Knole House. I took a train from London's Charing Cross (8.80 pounds return) to get to Sevenoaks (a half hour journey by Southeastern trains). The station is on a fairly crowded street which led me to believe that someone would be able to tell me which bus would take me to Knole. No such luck. Everyone I asked said they did not have a clue. And there are no signs anywhere at the station providing this information. Finally, I was lucky enough to come across an elderly man who had probably lived in the area all his life. He told me that a red bus would get me to the top of the hill from where I would need to walk along the London Road to get to the spot from where I would need to walk another two miles to get to Knole Park. ("It is a vast park, you see, and you have to walk a couple of miles before you get the front door!") Good God! I hoped he was joking!

Well, at the bus stop, I had a look at the schedule and discovered that, unlike London, in these out-of-the-way hamlets, the frequency of the buses is deplorable--there are two buses per hour. So if you have just missed one, you will wait for a half hour to hop into the next one! Having no choice in the matter, I stood at the bus stop seething, when suddenly the same man came up to me and actually offered me a ride! "I could run you to the top of the hill", he said, "because the buses are rather unreliable". And, of course, he did. I was so grateful! It saved me a good long uphill walk which would have exhausted me and, given the fact, that I am still recovering from Plantar Fascittis and will probably have to deal with this foot condition for the rest of my life, I have to find every means of curtailing my walking, if I can help it.

At the top of the hill, where he dropped me off, I discovered I was near a school called The Manor School. The road dips downhill at this point. I set off bravely attempting to reach the park and when I got there, five minutes later, I was outraged. There I was, looking at a vast park filled with white spotted deer, scattered around a tarred road that stretched out as far as I could see and then curved uphill and then disappeared around a bend. Was I expected to walk all that way to get to the front entrance of Knole House? Apparently. Well, my feet would never allow me to do that! No, there was simply no means of transportation available (not even a shuttle bus from that point!).

I suppose someone desperate could have spoken to the lady who was manning the kiosk (and probably taking parking fees from the drivers) to request one of them to give me a ride up the hill. But I did not want to bother her. Instead, I took the initiative and approached the female driver of a car that was clearly headed inside and requested a lift and was turned down! I was shocked! Such a thing would NEVER have happened to me in the States. To be on the property of a well-known monument, to be a single female and to request a lift of someone in America would have resulted in people saying, "Oh, of course, hop right in". But in this country, I now understand that the making of such a request is considered "cheeky"!

I refused to be daunted. After all, I wasn't going to turn right back and return to London because my physical handicap did not allow me to get to the front gate, was I? So I walked ahead and requested the couple in the next car. They told me immediately to get right in, but I do not believe that they were very happy about it at all. They did not say a word to me when I was inside--but once I saw how far one had to drive to get to the front gate, I decided that it was worth their annoyance to be able to save that dreadful uphill climb to Knole. It went on and on and on and I could never have done it on my two feet and still have had any energy left to tour the house. Twenty years ago maybe, but not at this point in my life.

Inside Knole House:
So at the front gate, more irritation awaited me. There was only one ticket kiosk and only one lady manning it. I have the Royal Oaks Foundation Membership Card which means all I ought to be given is a sticker that would let me right through. But, to my bad luck, there was a couple in the line before me waiting to buy a ticket and they had to receive the whole spiel on how they could become members of the National Trust and what the different rates were, etc. Now, shouldn't there have been someone else to enroll new members, sitting at another desk somewhere? Why do I have to wait in line while new members are being enrolled when all I need to do is show my membership card and walk right in? I was so cheesed off by this entire experience that my bad mood stayed with me for the rest of the day--and I know that I usually have a high threshold for dealing with such minor irritations. Besides, at the back of my mind was the thought, How am I going to get back to Sevenoaks railway station if there is no transport available? Do I have to walk all the way? I was so depressed.

Of course, I lost patience and had to excuse myself and cut ahead in the line while the couple made up their minds--they weren't sure whether they wanted to fork out the annual membership fee or not. I asked if I could enter while they made up their minds! And sure thing... a second later, I had a white ticket and was crossing the vast green courtyard to arrive at the tower-like gates where I crossed another courtyard (this one paved in old and new limestone tiles) and was entering the house.

There, at the front desk, in the Great Hall, I decided I needed desperately to ask one of the volunteers for help me. Could some kind of transport be arranged that would get me back to Sevenoaks station--a taxi maybe? Well, it must have been my lucky hour. The lady at the counter immediately volunteered her help--she got off duty at 2 pm and would be happy to give me a ride to the station. It was 12. 3o pm which left me an hour and a half to see the place. I was so delighted and so relieved!

History of Knole House:
This is a huge house and I mean massive. The National Trust opens up only a small portion of it to visitors--the grand state rooms that once hosted dignitaries and was used by visiting members of royalty.

The house was built in the Tudor period (early 1500s) of grey stone around a series of courtyards concealed by high impenetrable walls. It belonged to Thomas Cromwell, but Henry VIII eyed it (as he was wont to do) and after Cromwell's execution, it passed into Henry's greedy hands. His daughter Elizabeth I gifted it to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for a while her favorite courtier (heh heh).

Upon his death, she gifted it to her cousin Thomas Sackville, first Earl of Dorset, another powerful figure in her court. It still remains in the Sackville family which explains why Vita Sackville-West was born and grew up here. Because her father did not have any sons (and there was some kind of clause stipulating that only male heirs could inherit this property), it fell into the hands of her uncle (her father's brother) in 1928--around the time that Vita was marrying Harold Nichilson and looking for a property in Kent that she could buy (she ended up buying Sissinghurst).

Touring Knole:
The Great Hall, the first room that visitors enter, has a wonderful oak carved screen (once brightly painted but converted by the Victorians into this present state--a dark wood finish). Replicas of the famous oil portraits of the personalities associated with the house line the walls.

For me, the most interesting part of this room was a facsimile copy of the original manuscript of her novel Orlando that Virginia Woolf gifted to her dear friend Vita because the house she has created as the setting in that novel is modelled on Knole where she had spent some happy days and nights (heh heh). The manuscript in Virginia's own handwriting can made the hairs on your neck rise and for me it was one of the most valuable items on display.

From this point, visitors stroll through room after room, a warren of narrow corridors and low passages that connect one vast room with the next. There are three distinctive Long Galleries full of portraits featuring some of the most prominent figures in those turbulent historical periods. These galleries are filled with Stuart furniture that was rejected by William of Orange when he became king and wanted to wipe out all vestiges of the Stuart regime that had preceded his own. Charles Sackville, the fourth earl of Dorset, who happened to have an important position in the court at this time helped himself liberally to as much of the furniture from Whitehall Palace and Hampton Court Palace on which he could lay his avaricious hands (the ways of Ministers, it seems, haven't changed a great deal over the centuries)--with the result that Knole boasts the finest collection of Stuart furniture in the country--including some rare X-framed armchairs. I have to say that most of the furniture is in a deplorable condition with fabrics badly in need of refurbishment and wooden frames that are falling apart. The National Trust is working hard on conservation (a part of the duties of which it remains very proud) and visitors can see both their efforts and their achievements.

Leopards are scattered all over the house--on the plastered ceiling and in the form of marble sculpture that lines the grand staircases as it remains a symbol of the Sackville coat of arms. There are portraits galore everywhere you turn. In the Cartoon Room, lined with reproductions of the Raphael Cartoons (the original of which are in the V&A), a cellist and a violinist, were playing really badly and sounded so awful, I wished they would stop. I saw the King's Room where James I is supposed to have slept but no one is sure about this as there is no documented evidence to prove it. There are usually some pieces of silver furniture in this room but they were not on display as they've been moved to another exhibition somewhere else (the V&A, I believe).
Well, overall, it is a grand manor filled with aged paintings (few originals--most reproductions) and really ageing furniture and that sums it up best. There is no audio guide and visitors had to compete for the hand held guides in each room that give details about the room's history and its furnishings. I have to say that for a home this important and this mammoth, I was somewhat disappointed by my visit. The place ought to be run in a smoother fashion.

At 2pm, when she did get off work, Doreen did give me the promised lift to Sevenoaks. She was friendly and helpful and we had a very nice conversation in the car. If only everyone was this approachable, I thought. She also advised me on how to get to Bromley South station in order to catch a bus to Chartwell, childhood home of Sir Winston Churchill, which is only a half hour ride away--great if you have a car but inaccessible by public transport. This was the next venue on my agenda and I did find a train that got me there.

Getting to Chartwell--Another Fiasco:
The young male assistant on the Infoline at Chartwell had informed me in the morning that Bus Number 246 would get me to Chartwell from Bromley South Station. What he neglected to mention was that this bus runs only on Sundays and Bank Holidays (even though I had told him specifically that I was going up to Chartwell today after visiting Knole)! Another piece of incorrect information offered by a National Trust volunteer who was basically unhelpful and could barely answer a question I put to him.

Of course, when I arrived at Bromley South, the bus driver in the 246 bus told me that his bus ran to Chartwell only on Sundays! If I got off at the last stop on his bus today, I would have more than a half hour walk to the main gate, he said. OK, that was it. I decided I had enough of trying to get to these National Trust properties on my own two feet and I decided to turn right back and return to London. But then I figured that since I had an Oyster bus pass, I would take a joy ride through the lovely suburb of Bromley and the entrance to Kent and see the country on what was another beautiful day.

So that was what I did. A bus ride really did take me into the heart of these suburban communities which are pretty and serene and then I was back on the train and heading to London and feeling rather low when I received a call from my former neighbor Tim asking if I would be up for a meal at home featuring a selection of different kinds of prawn--only the line was bad and I heard "different kinds of corn". I agreed anyway because I was free and because Tim is a chef par excellence and I am always pleased to leave myself in his capable hands. He and wife Barbara would get to my place by 8 pm, he said. My spirits lifted enormously and next thing I knew, I was actually looking forward to the rest of the day. He said that I did not need to get anything ready as he would bring everything. Yyeess!! How lucky was I!!

Dinner at Denmark House with Tim and Barbara:
So Tim and Barbara arrived at 8 pm leaving me just enough time to check and respond to urgent email. They arrived with a big backpack filled with food--all kinds of prawns, as Tim had promised, one of my favorite things in the world. We started off with a bottle of Harrod's champagne which Tim uncorked as I passed around the flutes. We nibbled on hummus with pita bread which was in my fridge and which I had toasted gently. It was just the right appetizer. While we chatted companionably in my kitchen and I caught up with my friends and told them about my largely disappointing day, Tim busied himself at the stove throwing a bunch of ingredients together with expertise and skill.

When our meal was ready, we marched to the table that I had set with candles and the sweet peas from Loulou's garden that I had brought home from Suffolk. With the salad and the foaccaccia that Tim had bought from Waitrose, we started with delicious potted shrimp--basically little baby shrimp concealed under a layer of butter. They were very good indeed (my very first time eating potted shrimp). I had always wondered what they tasted like and I'm glad I found out and enjoyed them too. With freshly cooked asparagus and my salad, we started to tuck into the large dish of prawns--all sorts and all sizes from crayfish and Argentinian prawn, to the sort that can be crunched up shell and all (though Barbara and I preferred to peel them first) to the biggest treat of all, large chunks of rock lobster that was just terrific. Tim thought of everything--the fresh lemon and the lime was squeezed liberally over our prawns. It was a meal fit for the Gods. We took our time, peeling them carefully and enjoying the treat enormously. I could not get over the fact that a couple of hours before this, I had no idea we'd be up to our elbows peeling prawns. What a fun evening it turned out to be!

Then, because Tim and Barbara are such good walkers, they suggested a walk in the neighborhood before pudding. Capital idea, indeed. So off we went towards Exmouth Market and it was brought home to me again what a happening neighborhood this is once the sun has set! Guys and gals were out in droves "hanging" as they say, at the bars and the clubs and I thought to myself, Imagine what a great time I could have here if I were twenty five years younger and single! Well, I wasn't having too bad of a time at Farringdon in 2009, so I am very grateful indeed. All one needs are a couple of great buddies and what a good time one can have. I am so blessed in Tim and Barbara and I simply cannot feel enough appreciation for their repeated gestures of friendship.

Back home, I put the kettle on for some coffee while Tim set out dessert: profiteroles (my favorite English pudding--or are they French?) and fresh raspberries, dressed lightly with brown sugar and clotted cream. More conversation, more jokes, more joyous laughter, and before we knew it, it was close to midnight. I felt so delighted that they made such a spontaneous decision to hook up with me tonight in this lovely loft where there is no much great space for a party and every possible implement that a chef could want.

I had no more incentive left to clear up than to throw things into the dishwasher and turn it on, tuck leftovers into the fridge with the intention of doing more cleaning up on the morrow. And on that happy note, I fell asleep.


Fëanor said...

Apropos the Sackville-Wests, there's a Mary Sackville-West who has been executively producing recently a BBC4 series on British poetry (there was a nice one on Beowulf by Michael Wood, and Simon Armitage on Gawain & the Green Knight). Don't know if this Sackville-West is a relative of the other Sackville-West. Any ideas?

Rochelle's Roost said...

No idea, but it would be good to find out.