This week has been notable because we got some SUN, after what seems like months of gloomy skies and rain. I've been spending some of the time in planning another trip to Japan. I went in 2014 in connection with my book on Lewis Carroll, and of course, Tony took the chance to come too. The experience turned out to be so interesting - from the curious thatched houses of Gokayama, to the historic deer herds of Nara and, of course, the food - that we decided to go again if the chance came up.
As it happens, London's Burgh House museum is running an exhibition of Japanese photos, "Kyoto Dreams," by a photographer colleague, Jeremy Hoare. So I went along to take a look with more than the usual interest, and, of course, caught up with Jeremy too. Here he is with his Japanese wife Chisako, next to some striking images of geishas. Most were snapped in semi abstract "paparazzo style" to offer glimpses of these curious, stylised entertainers in their off duty moments.
Chisako probably has one of the more unusual jobs in London - she is a professional kimono maker, and it seems that Kitsuke, the art of dressing in a kimono, has fans of all nationalities in London. In fact, Burgh House ran a kimono fashion show only last April. I might post about Burgh House one day. It's an elegant old mansion which was rescued and is now run by the local community. It always has something interesting to see, and there's a pretty garden where you can eat. (Burgh House also happens to be a PokemonGO Gym, if that is your thing).
"Kyoto Dreams" is on till Sunday.
After the sun appeared, T and I decided to go for a long walk. So we took the train to Sevenoaks in Kent with my National Trust pass to hand.
There are two great National Trust houses very near Sevenoaks, which is now a London dormitory town. The nearest is Knole, one of England's largest houses, which was originally thought to have been a Calendar House, with 365 rooms, 52 staircases and 12 entrances. (I love this idea) Knole is a startlingly short walk from Sevenoaks High Street, and as soon as you step into the estate, you really do feel as if you are in a different world. This is the last surviving medieval deer park in Kent, with hills, valleys and more towering chestnut trees than I could ever count.
The deer are semi wild, but friendly and used to people.
Before long I spotted the house in the distance.... but we didn't go in this time.
Instead, we walked past it, and across a golf course....
...then came to the curious little folly building which you see in the photo below. It is called The Birdcage, and it was built by one of the 18th century owners of Knole, Lord Amherst, to store all the pheasants he shot on his hunts. I suspect the gamekeeper lived there too. The present gamekeeper is said to live there, anyhow, though I don't suppose he has dead pheasants hanging from the ceilings these days.
The cottage is approached by a "ruined" arch, another folly which was created at the same time the house was built. It's in no recognisable style, but apparently it re-used carved stones from another, long demolished house not far away.
There are deer everywhere. Or at least they are mostly deer.
On and on we went, through groves of enormous, and very old chestnut and oak trees, some of which are obviously hundreds of years old.
...and eventually we left the estate and continued down tiny lanes, footpaths and bridleways instead.
Kent is a beautiful county, and midweek hardly anyone seemed to be about on the paths and bridleways. Except we did meet a woman with a dog, which snarled menacingly at us. "Oh, don't worry about her. She's only like that because she never sees anyone," she said, making me wonder if she might be some kind of greenwood hermit who only ventured out at lonely times.
Eventually we passed thes buildings below, and a notice told us that we were now on the Ightham estate, which surrounds the other National Trust house nearby, Ightham Mote. These sheds don't look much but they have an interesting history, for they are hoppers huts.
A hundred years ago, whole streets of Cockneys from the East End of London would come down to Kent each year and pick hops. They didn't get paid much for their hopping, but it was the nearest thing they got to a holiday, and from all accounts it was a happy time (though personally I feel the estate could have put some windows in the sheds for them.) The hop picking experience is captured in the little film below, from 1929, (which also promises silk stockings, I see.) So the hop pickers camped in these shelters and cooked their food on campfires outside - though I'm not sure where they washed the silk stockings. Now, the huts are closed and cobwebbed.
Finally, between the trees and down in a hollow, there was Ightham Mote.
As its name suggests it is surrounded by a moat, just glimpsed to the left and right of this old stone bridge below.
When I was young I visited Ightham Mote, and was shown around by the charming elderly owner. Although it was - sort of - open to the public, we were the only visitors, and I've never forgotten how strong the house's own personality was, as it sat, dilapidated but dignified, getting older and older and older in its remote little valley. Eventually, it passed to the National Trust, which did extensive and much-needed repairs, restored the garden and generally spruced it up, adding the usual shop and cafe to please the many visitors who help pay for its upkeep. I was sad that it had lost its romantically melancholic atmosphere, but it is still a wonderful place, in a slightly different way.
Like many old houses, it has been adapted and modernised over centuries, and is full of strange corners and curiosities. This long newel post at the bottom of a staircase very battered, and I wondered who the staircase guardian is supposed to be. I don't suppose anyone knows, but I bet he was a familiar figure to many who grew up in the house in the past.
IIghtham Mote also has the country's one and only Grade 1 Listed doghouse, seen below. It was created for a St. Bernard called Dido, then became home for two tiny lap dogs. It's now all ready for a new tenant, I hope it gets one someday!
My favourite room on the earlier visit was the living room which is decorated with faded but still spectacular 18th century Chinese handpainted wallpaper. The room was still my favourite, although I felt there might be rather too many knick knacks around for my taste. The room has two wonderful fireplaces, one finely carved in white
with what look like wood spirits or green men, and tiles that were put in at a later date.
The second chimneypiece runs across most of the opposite wall, and it is what the friendly volunteer guide (seen below) called the "Marmite Fireplace," (Marmite is something which, according to the ads, you either love or hate.) I loved it.
The top section reminds me of the kind of painted Elizabethan tombs you see in old churches, with little coloured figures poking their heads out in high relief.
The lower part is mostly varnished wood, with a splendid iron fireback.
I could have spent longer in the house and gardens, but didn't have time before it closed at 5 pm. But the walk back to Sevenoaks, just under a couple of hours away through the woods, was good too, with low golden light pushing through the branches and sliding down the hill.
I squeezed right inside a hollow oak and looked up.
And Knole seemed deserted, but for the deer. It was too late to see inside, but I'll be back. Three cheers for the National Trust!
If you get the chance to do the walk yourself, it's ten miles round trip, with a few hills and the chance to have tea at Ightham Mote. You'll need an OS map to find the footpaths and byways - they're clearly marked.