It really is remarkable that Malcolm and Ann live within a very short train ride from the centre of London, and yet can be in beautiful countryside in Kent or Surrey within 40 minutes. We were on our way to Old Soar Manor but Malcolm was keen to show us at least some of the many surviving oast houses which are so typical of Kent. Now who couldn’t say that the first we came across down a beautiful country lane was not in the rural depths of France. Some of the conversions are magnificent.
And oast houses don’t just come ‘in single battalions’….
The drive was idyllic (once we left one of the main routes out of London of course). And we took our time getting to Old Soar Manor. We had talked of visiting one of the grander NT or HHA houses, but I am so glad we went to this rare thirtieth century survival. Although it belongs to English Heritage, entrance is completely free and we were the only people there (apart from a van driver delivering a parcel……he soon found out this wasn’t the correct address!).
The building itself adjoins a farmhouse which once was the site of the great hall….what survives is the undercroft, the solar or private apartment, a chapel, and a latrine. A very detailed history of the buildings and the families who lived in them can be found on the Kent Archaeology site . We wandered round for a considerable time taking in the atmosphere and reading the very informative display boards. Whilst the crown-post collar- purlin roof is probably the most impressive feature, the garderobe was fascinating as was the chapel with its very early piscina and decorated bracket. The garderobe was thought to be the weakest point (bearing in mind that this was a manor house meant to be defended), and so it was constructed with several arrow loops to protect it, one of them being inconveniently located directly above the privy shaft!
‘The house is important for its place in the evolution of the domestic house. Early manor houses often consisted of a hall surrounded by detached buildings, which served the functions of upper and lower ends. Old Soar Manor represents an intermediate stage between this discrete collection of buildings and the grouping of elements under one roof. The solar is attached to the hall but the garderobe and chapel are only just attached to the solar, as Wood says, ‘touching like playing cards at the corners’.26 There is little that is comparable in Kent in date, layout or defensive features and the house should be compared nationally with Manorbier Castle, Dyfed; Charney Bassett Manor, Oxfordshire; and Little Wenham Hall, Suffolk.’
‘The manor house and the surrounding land have remained remarkably untouched by the twenty- rst century. Viewed from the western side of the valley, the landscape could be the landscape of the sixteenth century as described in the survey of 1568. The roads follow their medieval courses and are still only the width of a horse and cart in many places. Visitors to the medieval wing, looking out through the windows or arrowloops, see elds little different from the acres bought by Geoffrey Colepeper in the fourteenth century. And William le Hore, if he were to return, would recognize his thirteenth-century private quarters and could congratulate himself on the survival of a house which is of national importance in the twenty- first century.’
Incomparably one of my favourite historic houses, it was great to spend time there. All that rooting around and intellectual activity meant we were hungry so Malcolm took us to one of his favourite country pubs (there are many!) at nearby Wrotham The Bull Hotel Apart from the gourmet food, the highlight was looking at the stamps imprinted and preserved on the ceiling of Battle of Britain pilots for whom this was a favourite watering hole. Each records a ‘kill’. The signatures of the pilots seem to have vanished which is a great pity.
After lunch we had a look round St George’s Church which is late thirteenth century with an unusual fifteenth century tower with a vaulted passageway allowing processions to pass underneath (that is the theory anyway).
Outside there were some interesting monuments and a lot of the apparently very typical Kent gravestones (I have not so far been able to find out anything about these).
‘Wrotham parish church is a Grade: I listed building, dedicated to Saint George. The Saxons built the first church in the 10th century. The Normans rebuilt it in the late 11th or early 12th century. Extensions and enlargements continued until the final stage in the 15th century with the construction of the west tower. Richard Melchbourne –Vicar of Wrotham 1397- 98 – bequeathed four marks for the purchase of bells in 1404. Lester and Pack recast six bells into a ring of eight in 1754. In 1798, Edward Hasted described the Wrotham church as a ‘very handsome large building, consisting of three isles, a cross isle, and a large chancel, which last was new- paved and otherwise much beautified some years ago, by the late rector, Dr. John Potter’. Newman and Billing carried out a major restoration to the chancel in 1861….
Until 1349, The Archbishop of Canterbury had a palace just behind the church. However, Archbishop Simon Islip, required the materials for his riverside palace in Maidstone, and demolished part of the building at Wrotham, leaving only what amounted to a large house.’
One feature that appealed greatly to me was the brass monuments inset into the floor at the entrance to the chancel…
Victorian ‘improvements’ were detailed and respectful.
Pity we didn’t have time to do a walk around the village as there is so much to see, but we wound our way through the countryside passing through a number of very pretty villages and big houses……Penshurst Place looked quite spectacular in its landscape…it was given to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement. Hever Castle the family home of Anne Boleyn is nearby too……all for another time. We were destined for the village of Chiddingstone.
On arrival in Chiddingstone which is owned by NT we found ourselves agreeing it being described as ” the most perfect surviving example of a Tudor village in the county”. Malcolm was keen to show us the schoolhouse which was used as the main house in the film ‘A Room With A View’ (not looking like a school in the film of course). We looked at the exterior of the church of St Mary and found the village shop unfortunately just shutting (described euphemistically perhaps as ‘the oldest shop in England”). Having peeked in the grounds of Chiddingstone Castle (again for another day) we adjourned to the friendly pub The Castle Inn which itself dates back to the fifteenth century and discussed the doings of the most recent owner of the Castle a quirky character called Denys Eyre Bower who collected the extraordinary treasures within the house, but who is also infamous for his misdeeds. He was convicted of attempted murder of his girlfriend and attempted suicide and sentenced to life imprisonment. Released in 1962 after successful efforts by solicitor Ruth Eldridge to prove a miscarriage of justice, Bower returned to Chiddingstone Castle which, with the help of Eldridge and her sister Mary, he continued to open to visitors until his death in 1977.