A Visit to Bateman's

Janusz Buda

Beyond the village of Burwash, the road to the coast rises steadily for three or four miles, winding its way through the heart of the Sussex Weald. The gazetteer to which I made occasional reference that summer morning as I drove towards Beachy Head listed nothing of particular interest in that area, so it was with some surprise that, taking my bearings from a war memorial set in the middle of a small village green, and turning left into a narrow, unclassified country road, I cast a fortuitous glance to my left, and caught sight of a battered and fading sign which directed me back along the road I had just travelled, and which read ‘Bateman’s — Kipling’s Home.’

Marvelling not a little at the serendipity which had led me, all unknowing, to this one sign in the midst of the English countryside, I turned the car around and headed back down to Burwash.

Ever since my first encounter with the indomitable, violet-eyed Mrs. Hauksbee, I had been charmed, step by step, ever deeper into the world of Kipling’s writings. Familiar with the circumstances of his life through a study of Carrington’s admirable biography, I had been aware that Bateman’s was the country house to which Kipling and his family moved in the early years of this century, and which remained his permanent home until his death in 1936. I had not thought, however, to have ever found myself driving down the narrow road which leads from Burwash, around the gentle rise which shelters the house from the village, and up to the entrance gate of Bateman’s itself.

The paddock in front of the house contained but three or four cars, and in the neighbouring field two furry donkeys leisurely meditated the passing of the morning. The house itself stood solid and ancient, the arcing roof of an oast house peeping from behind the chimney stacks, whilst in the distance the sound of a tractor diffused into the hot summer air.

The stillness and apparent absence of activity made me think that perhaps the house was not yet ready to receive visitors, but the gate stood open, and pausing to look up at the great yew trees which guard the entrance porch, I stepped into the welcome coolness of the great house.

Two elderly ladies were sitting by the small table which served as a reception desk.

“Good morning!” said one of them cheerfully. “Did you notice the date above the door as you came in?”

My heart sank. I must admit to having a terrible fear, amounting almost to a paranoia, concerning those seemingly innocent tests and quizzes which profess to measure one’s powers of observation. Long and bitter experience has taught me that I possess an unerring ability to fail even the most simple and elementary of such tests, and the resultant awareness of my unawareness, as it were, has been known to induce the darkest melancholy. Of course I had seen the date above the door not one minute before; but could I remember it? I could not.

“Fifteen-sixty-ahem...“ I ventured lamely.

“That’s right, fifteen-seventy-eight,” the lady countered. “Of course, the first house on this site was built by an unknown master ironsmith who had prospered during the times when this part of the Sussex Weald had been one of the centres of the iron industry in England…."

The rest of her introduction was lost to me as I plunged ever deeper into confusion and embarrassment. Iron industry? Sussex? Master ironsmiths? By now the lady was drawing my attention to the various objects of interest in the reception hall. Italian renaissance tapestries — cloisonne vases — Indian reliefs.

Totally unprepared for this well-intentioned barrage of information, which was rapidly reducing me to a state of acute psychic distress, I sought to disengage myself discreetly by clutching at a small guide book, and asking with which room of the house it were best to begin my visit. As I stepped into the antique stillness of the drawing room, the sound of entering footsteps drifted in from the hall I had just vacated.

“Good morning! Welcome to Bateman’s! Did you notice the date above the door as you came in?”

Alone with my thoughts, I looked around the room. There were no glass display cases, no guide ropes to discourage inquisitive hands, no minatory placards or signs. The drawing room, and indeed the entire house with the exception of one former bedroom which now held a collection of letters and autographs, had been left exactly as it was when Kipling himself had lived here.

Leading up from the London Embankment to the Strand, hard by Charing Cross Station, is Villiers Street, a narrow, noisy street where Kipling took rooms immediately after his return from India. His unhappy experiences of those years, experiences of poverty and hunger, disinterest and dishonesty, are chronicled in his largely autobiographical ‘The Light That Failed.’ How many times had I stopped in front of the building in Villiers Street — now eponymously re-named ‘Kipling House’ — and tried to picture those days of nearly a hundred years ago, and to feel an empathic closeness to the author. Too much, however, had changed. The music ball which had stood immediately across the road from Kipling’s window has long gone, and the river is now several dozen yards further away as a result of the construction of the Embankment. The teeming street vendors of Kipling’s day have all but disappeared, save for a lone flower seller outside the entrance to the Tube Station.

Here in the stillness of the drawing room at Bateman’s, however, the feeling of closeness was so overwhelming that it seemed barely credible that forty years had passed since Kipling had last walked in that very room.

Upstairs on the first floor, most of the half-a-dozen or so visitors had been drawn to unquestionably the most interesting room in the home — Kipling’s study. Somehow, reading an author’s writings, one becomes so lost in them that one never stops to consider the mundane circumstances of their actual creation. It was with a real sense of surprise and delight, therefore, that I looked around the large and spacious room, and went over to the writing table which had witnessed the births of so many of Kipling’s greatest works. Of most unusual size, Kipling had thosen the table for its capacity to accommodate the great jumble of papers, pencils, and pens with which be surrounded himself as he wrote. His favourite chair had been specially elevated by about three inches to bring it up to an ideal height for the table. His ancient Remington typewriter occupied pride of place in the middle of the table, and underneath stood the capacious waste-paper basket of which he made such frequent use in his striving for perfection.

A lengthy perusal of the crowded bookshelves revealed many unsuspected interests and avocations. I had expected to find many volumes on India and the Sea, but to discover so many tomes devoted to forestry, or so many first editions of valuable Elizabethan historical chronicles, was indeed a surprise.

Outside, the gardens basked in brilliant sunshine, and by the pond an elderly lady in a wheelchair and a young girl sitting on the grass by her side were gazing at the water’s surface, unspeaking, enjoying the stillness and tranquility of the summer afternoon.

As I wandered contentedly around the grounds of the house, time seemed to slip by unnoticed. The vague sounds of voices and closing car doors heralded the arrival of more visitors, and glancing at my watch, I deemed it an altogether not inappropriate time for the taking of early afternoon tea. A small tearoom situated in a former barn at the back of the house answered my requirements admirably with a pot of hot tea and a plate of buttered scones.

As I left Bateman’s and began to walk back to the car parked in the paddock, I noticed that the two furry donkeys had apparently ceased their matutinal meditations, and had now embarked upon the serious day’s work of ingratiating themselves with arriving visitors, a venture in which they seemed to be encountering a certain measure of success, to judge by the rhythmical movements of their respective jaws.

Source: Otsuma Review No. 9, 1977