Village Warming

gate

My sister moved house at the weekend, to a village just up the road from mine. It’s a lovely spot; down a quiet lane, opposite a 15th century church and with unspoiled views across the rolling countryside. It is classic Jane Austen country; the surrounding lanes are filled with pretty little flint cottages, Georgian houses and grand mansions, all set against a background of green fields and flower filled hedgerows. The village is famous for being the highest point in Kent, and a site of the Enigma code breakers during WWII, plus its neighbouring village of Cudham will be of particular interest to Persephone readers, as it is the scene of the murder of poor Harriet Staunton. Another literary link is that Knockholt station was the inspiration for The Railway Children; little did I know that the young E Nesbit sat on the very bank I whizz past on my way to London, watching the tunnel my train goes through being built. She lived locally as a child, and the steep bank and tunnel cut into the Downs to form the London-Sevenoaks line inspired her famous train and petticoat scene. Who knew?

warmemorial

On Sunday, once I had done my share of helping to unpack and supervising rambunctious nephews ‘exploring’ (read: destroying) their new house, I asked my sister to take me on a tour of the village. So, with our mum and also my littlest nephew in tow, we set off. Directly opposite my sister’s house are the gates to a mysterious stately home, the only part of which we could spot were the chimneys poking above a wall. Subsequent research revealed that it has actually had a very interesting history; though it currently appears to be in private hands, it was once a home for children who were being sent to the colonies to work. I had no idea this even happened, and it was fairly recently too.

statelyhome

Next to the gates to the house is the church, which is surrounded by a very spacious, atmospheric graveyard that looked stunning in the dappled sunlight of late afternoon. We wandered around, looking at the graves, some of which are incredibly old, and then popped into the church to have a look at the stained glass, which was pretty, but nothing unremarkable. The most interesting aspect of the interior are two striking memorial plaques to brothers killed in WWII; their upper bodies have been reproduced in marble, and it was incredibly touching to think of these being commissioned by their parents and gazed upon every Sunday by the people they had grown up amongst. It always shocks me when I visit tiny village churches like this and see the sheer number of names on the war memorials; when you consider that most of these villages would have had a population of about 200, to lose 30 or 40 people would literally mean losing an entire generation in one fell swoop. It certainly brings the reality of war home.

stkatharine'sgraveyard

Behind the church is a stile into the gardens of the aforementioned stately home, and beyond another stile was a beautiful wooded glade carpeted with buttercups. Beyond that was a lovely open field which is so high up that you can see Canary Wharf and the Shard shimmering on the horizon, and then beyond that were undulating green hills filled with grazing sheep. I was in raptures. My sister is so lucky to have such a pastoral idyll right on her doorstep, and the best part is, you can still see the lights of London glittering in the distance. Us country folk aren’t quite as cut off from civilisation as it may seem!

sheepfield

19 comments

  1. I have to admit to getting chills when you said the stately home was formerly a children’s home for children who were sent to the colonies to work. Have you seen Oranges and Sunshine? We in Australia are very aware of it and have become more so recently. Although older generations don’t talk about it as is the Australian way.

    1. No I haven’t – now you mention it, I remember hearing about it, but I didn’t know what it was about. I shall have to do some research. Thank you for bringing the film to my attention, Lisa!

  2. “children who were being sent to the colonies to work. I had no idea this even happened, and it was fairly recently too” – you have part of that dark chapter in the 2010 film Oranges and Sunshine…

    1. Yes – me too. There’s something so life affirming about it. I don’t know – it does sound a very Austen-esque phrase though! Next time I re-read, I shall look out for it!

  3. A few years back the Immigration Museum in Melbourne Australia had one of the saddest exhibitions l have ever seen about British child immigrants – see link
    http://museumvictoria.com.au/on-their-own/ They told children they were orphans even when their parents were alive, and were treated as slave labourers.

    1. Thank you so much for this information, Fuchsia, this is really interesting. I’m going to do a bit of research on this. It sounds like a really sad part of our nation’s history.

  4. How lovely for you to have your sister & family even nearer to you. I’m sure you know about Edith Nesbit’s Eltham connections? She lived here for a little, maybe whilst writing The Railway Children, alas the site of her house is now just marked by an information plaque. Enjoy the last few weeks of your first year of teaching.

    1. Thank you, yes it is lovely. I knew Nesbit had lived in Eltham, but I don’t know where she lived exactly. I should come and find out! Thank you very much – not long to go until the holidays now! I hope you’re enjoying your first few weeks with baby Alice!

  5. I don’t think I’d want to live in that house, do you?! I’d fear there would be cries in the night. I’ve put the movie in my Netflix queue. I don’t quite understand the situation. Did someone steal children and use the home as a sort of holding area until they could be sent away as slaves?
    Such beautiful country. Being so close to London, is there a village feel or are most of the residents commuters?
    Very sad about the war memorials.
    Wonderful posting.

    1. No! I certainly wouldn’t. No – it was used in the 1950s and 1960s, and appears to have been a very nice and well run home where children who were either orphaned or could no longer be looked after by their parents for whatever reason were kept until passages could be arranged for them to Australia. Some stayed for a few weeks, others a year or so until they were healthy and ready to undertake a three month journey. This house seems to have been affiliated with a charity that had noble intentions but nonetheless it does seem rather barbaric as the idea was to provide Australia with ‘good workers’ more than anything else. They weren’t slaves, but I think their lives in Australia were very institutionalised. I really had never heard of this before I looked up the house and I’m really interested to watch the film now. Let me know how you find it!
      Oh yes, it does feel very villagey. The train station is quite a long drive away from the actual village so most people work locally and everyone is very involved – they’re having a rock festival next weekend! I think it’s going to be a wonderful place for my nephews to grow up. So glad you enjoyed reading about it!🙂

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