Thursday, 29 April 2010

Kipling's home and a perfect Sussex walk

A group of French teenagers is touring Batemans, former Sussex home of Rudyard Kipling. I wonder, as with the Japanese and Shakespeare, what they make of a writer so indelibly linked with the last hurrahs of empire.

Then it occurs to me that the Jungle Book - in its Disney adaptation - must have played in France, that Clemenceau, lion rather than tiger, came here to visit - and that in any case, there are fascinations in these rooms whoever their original owner.

The French party is in the dining room, where the Kiplings dressed for dinner, eating bland food in deference to Rudyard's duodenal ulcer but enjoying fine wines. The group's teacher is explaining how he would always sit with back to the window, which didn't much matter as he was myopic. The wallpaper is calf's leather, elaborately decorated according to a Moorish technique, found by the Kipling on the Isle of Wight, rolled up and brought back here.

Upstairs is Kipling's Nobel Prize certificate, the old Imperial his secretary used to type up his manuscripts, the beads on which his Just So alphabet story is based - and the drawing he made of them. There is a diary showing regular visits by the Baldwins and there are mementos of his war graves work, sad reminders that he lost his son in France. All over the house are the books he bought - from local histories to Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

Apart from anything else, it is a most beautiful house, built in the late 17th century and now owned by the National Trust, with wonderful gardens, formal and wild, where at this time of year spring blossom explodes, daffodils, narcissi, ladies smock and snakes head fritillary abound.

We walk from there into nearby Burwash, for an impeccably kept pint of Harvey's bitter and a bite of lunch at the low beamed Rose & Crown. Then we follow the rest of a five mile route included in the Ordnance Survey Surrey and Sussex Pathfinder guide. (Memo to self: must see if there's a more up to date edition. Descriptions are ok but some need revision. At any rate, must not attempt such walks without an accompanying OS map).

The blubells are disappointing but it is an excellent itinerary, the occasional splash of primroses, the light green of early foliage against the darker gloss of meadows - a rich, kind landscape basking under an unusually hot April sun.

The walk takes us past a memorial plaque to a Battle of Britain pilot, RF Rimmer, who crashed there in 1940 after being shot down in his Hurricane. It acts as a sobering elbow jerk, accentuating the peaceful loveliness of a drowsing English afternoon; and that sense of timelessness breathed by an English landscape which has seen the waste of men in the Great War mud, desperate dogfights in the skies, and the passing greatness of Kipling.