If you ever find yourself in the north east of East Sussex, time spent at Bateman’s is time well spent. It was of course Rudyard Kipling’s home from 1902 until his death in 1936 and his widow left it to the National Trust in 1939.
If you’re visiting, you leave Burwash (pronounced Burrish) which is pretty enough and turn down a well-signed but quiet and secluded lane. The house was built in 1634 and is a Grade I listed building and it sits unpretentiously on its own. It is thought that it was originally built by John Britten, a successful Sussex ironmaster. Kipling bought it in a sorry state of repair in 1902 along with 33 acres of land. It cost an astonishing £9,300 at a time when the average wage was little more than £80. Kipling himself was highly successful at this stage in his career and earning in the region of £5,000. But even so, it was an extravagant purchase.
As you get out of your car, it’s instantly easy to see why Kipling fell in love with Bateman’s. This is a quietly stunning corner of Sussex. The surrounding silence and undulating views are reminiscent of sleepy days gone by and the house and its grounds have an air of melancholy. The team at Bateman’s are keen to impress on you that it feels as if the family are just in the other room. And it does. But not just because it is laid out exactly as it was when the family lived here. There’s just something about it that hangs heavy with all the romance, elegance, uncertainty, and sorrow of the Edwardian era and WWI.
Although the Kipling family furnishings were originally put in storage, Kipling’s daughter Elsie returned them to Bateman’s. When he originally restored the property, Kipling wanted the furnishing to be in keeping with the period of the house so dark heavy furniture is the order of the day but it’s nonetheless beautiful for it. Sadly, only the ground floor is open to the public this year, but each room still tells a story.
The wood-panelled main hall holds a large desk in the middle where wages were once counted and paid, looked down on by a tiny window from which Mrs Kipling could vet any visitors. It’s also home to a particularly beautiful clock, one of the oldest working clocks in the National Trust’s collection. But the dining room is easily the most stunning of the rooms. Decorated in early 18th century leather wall hangings extravagantly covered in silver leaf and depicting exotic birds and foliage, it’s like a treasure chest. And it’s worth taking a moment to consider how intoxicating it must have seemed on a cold, dark night in a room lit by candle, glowing like gold.
Upstairs is the study with book-lined walls and a messy desk and an exhibition room complete with knickknacks and keepsakes. There are pictures of Kipling’s daughter who died aged 7 and of all three of his children Elsie, Josephine and John, along with an old typewriter, plans of the gardens, a child’s doll, and a visitor’s book. And of course, there is evidence of Kipling’s Indian days: a brass fish from Delhi, a silk wall hanging, and a terracotta sculpture of the Hindu God Ganesh all hint at his youth.
The house is set in 300 acres within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s an area that is pretty much as it was at the time and it was the setting and inspiration for some of Kipling’s work. There are a series of walks you can do within the estate which are all about 2 to 2 ½ miles and include Puck’s Walk in celebration of Puck of Pook’s Hill, the Ironmaster’s Walk and a walk to Burwash village via Dudwell Farm. Dudwell River runs through the grounds.
Closer to the house, the gardens stretch over 12 acres and include the orchard and vegetable garden which greet you on arrival as well as the walled Mulberry Garden. In early June, sweat peas, clematis, daisies and rudbeckia wave as you pass and the arched dome of a pergola frames the sky.
Passing the formal lawns at the front of the house, to the side you find the lily pond faintly reminiscent of an Italian water garden and the rose garden designed by Kipling himself. They are saluted by two rather fun statues of a boy and girl wearing Jacobean costumes, commissioned by Kipling. After a lingering dalliance with the lilies, you head on through an arch to the wild gardens where eventually you meet the mill. The wild gardens have an air of slightly shambolic romance about them, with the sort of unkempt wildness which does in fact take many hours of work to quietly maintain. In spring and early summer, you can expect snowdrops, daffodils, and anemones, followed by fritillary, cherry blossom, rhododendrons, and sweet-smelling azaleas.
The mill itself dates back to 1750 and was restored in the 1970s and bees buzz happily away in its little garden.
Kipling was born in 1865 in Bombay where he lived until he was sent home to an unhappy period of schooling aged 5. He returned to India in 1882 where he worked for local newspapers and began his writing career. He left India in 1889 and travelled via Rangoon, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and America (where he met Mark Twain) before settling in London. He married in 1892 and settled in America until a family dispute forced them back to England in July 1896. Of his three children, Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899 aged 7 and his son, John, was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Kipling died on 18 January 1936, and his wife Carrie died three years later.
In 2018, Burwash Parish Council commissioned a bronze cast statue of Kipling by Victoria Atkinson which you’ll find in the village. The statue’s eyes are surprisingly piercing.
If you’re in the area visiting Bateman’s, it’s also fun to spend a little time looking for Mad Jack’s Follies nearby!
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