Nov '03 [Home]


A House Upon the Downs

by Patrick Henry

. . .

Returning from living in Paris, I just crossed the Channel to Newhaven in Sussex, the county where outstanding figures of Edwardian literature had lived:  Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, poet and storyteller of the Empire, and Virginia Woolf, the haunted queen of inspired fiction. But my present hosts in the country here had invited me to work on a script and lodge in their well-provisioned house. Documentary film makers, they had associated with me before to mixed, moderate success and would again.

After a few days, I felt housebound. All the pubs my hosts knew of were miles away; they had in all the months of living here never found the one said to be directly in the village. I took a walk, saying I'd go through the script in my mind.

The main street had a post-office store, a dilapidated garage, and what looked like a derelict railway-station, though no line came here; but no pub it seemed. I pushed open a door and in the gloom shadowy figures loomed where an old lady hovered behind a bare wooden counter. Was this a pub?, I wondered aloud.

          "Well, it ain't the bleeding cemetery," she said.
          "Matter of opinion, that," a man in a cap remarked.
          "We get more than enough of them" she retorted. "Drinks is what we provide.
          Are you going to shut that damned door and have one?"

An old barrel on the floor dribbled me out an impenetrable pint. Aunt Kate had been here more than seventy years, a child in her uncle's pub, she had taken over when he never came back from the Great War. Now, she was helped by her nephew Gerald, a huge untidy amiable man who also had the old car depot next door. The pub looked as if it had not been decorated or even cleaned since several world wars earlier. Kate explained that the customers would not allow it, loving the place as it was, unchanged.

The clientele hardly looked a strong consumer lobby, but they had beaten off the best that brewery modernisation could offer. Harry was a tall, lanky itinerant farm worker, who often slept out under hedges, and had just one tooth, like a comically sinister film monster. Bert, was a scrap dealer, who scoured the country in his shaky old truck, and called here every day on the way home. Heather, a vast lady, collected and hoarded rummage sale items and placed bets on racehorses from the pub phone.

Chris was a finely spoken fellow, said to be an architect, but confessed he was just an old builder. He read my poetry with interest. He was drawn to literary connections, his father-in-law had been Conan Doyle's dentist. He himself had worked on the houses of both Rudyard Kipling and Virginia Woolf, though thirty years after those authors died; Batemans, Burwash, and Monk's House, Rodmell. In fact, Leonard Woolf was still there, he believed, his white-haired figure walking the lanes, survivor from a legendary, tragic past.

My hosts took little interest in the old pub and my new friends. The script with them was not going well and, as they hinted at the end of employment, I was able to announce to them my new job that Longtooth Harry had secured.

The job was pruning apple trees, due always in January when snow, ice and frost cast an intriguing spell over the landscape, a picture which dissolves starkly to reality for anyone working out in it. But I relished the task, moving briskly and wearing the right clothes, loads of thick underwear and sweaters—heavy outerwear got in the way when one moved nimbly through the trees with secateurs.

Making the right finished shape of the tree was a sculptural kind of act. I told Chris all about this, not in the old pub where I usually met him, but on the road to the farm,.My builder friend went that way each day to his own jobs, giving me a lift, instead of the bus I had taken with Longtooth Harry to the orchard. So what happened to him? He left the apple tree job after a couple of days. Not surprising, Chris thought. Longtooth, he said, was good at getting jobs but never stayed anywhere long, so I was fulfilling his part in this one for a few weeks. Chris also needed a labouring assistant, so I took that on.

No common builder, as he modestly claimed, the man restored old buildings of the region. Tudor vintage or earlier, and more recent but spectacular, an oast house, the towered structure for processing hops, now converted to a residence for a London millionaire. Finally, we reassembled a Tudor house he had rescued from a valley turned into a reservoir some years earlier, meanwhile stored in bits in somebody's barn. A friend of his? Well, he used to be, Chris admitted.

Resurrecting this nearly doomed and long-lost house was a delight to Chris, who directed two carpenters and me upon this jigsaw-puzzle. That look I had seen in his face before. Driving to jobs, he would make diversions to show me restorations he had made in the past, regarded with a pride equal to that bestowed on real children—whom he also had.

Any house in this district meant so much. When I mentioned the presence of Kipling and Virginia Woolf, he talked at length about working on the houses of both, though some time after their departure.

Rudyard Kipling moved into Bateman's, Burwash in 1903 and stayed until his life ended in 1936. The great writer of India had also lived in the far west, his wife being American, and built his own home in Vermont, Naulakah, Battleboro. Conan Doyle had been a guest there. Mark Twain said of Kipling that throughout the world his voice commanded more respect than any citizen other than heads of state.

After Tennyson's death in 1892, Kipling turned down the poet-laureateship offered to him, but in 1907 became the first Englishman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His sense of the Empire transcended patriotic and class values. The novel, Kim, envisaged fine powers of the sub-continent that predated British rule and would outlive it. The two British redcoat sergeants in his The Man Who Would Be King, who leave the service to become local mercenaries, have this retort to the condemnation by their colonel:  "Who built your bloody Empire, anyway?"

On arriving in Batemans, Kipling said, "England is the most marvellous of all foreign countries I have ever been in." He wrote many great stories there.

His house had become a museum, whose literary remains I absorbed while Chris admired the building, especially its roof which he had once repaired. To him, houses were as alive as much words were for me. Kipling's son John was killed in World War I, but his body never found. Rudyard searched France for years afterwards in his distress. Chris had been a young officer in World War II, taking part in the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, a marking experience.

Virginia Woolf moved into Monk's House, Rodmell, in 1919. Born in London, she lived in many houses, and though resenting the brash city, it was widely perceived (especially by Leonard), that its challenge was good for her state of mind, which became vulnerable to melancholy and depression out in the country. She wrote many of her books in Rodmell, but continued to return to London, even during the wartime bombing of 1941. Then she left these dangers, for the rolling downs and the wide, cloudy sky where she found her own sense of reality and eternity, and finally drowned herself in the nearby Ouse.

Chris's job here had been maintaining the rural sewerage system, and he continued to work for Leonard Woolf, when he moved to Hadlow, where Aunt Kate, myself and Chris lived. Chris thought Leonard might still be alive, recalling seeing the white-haired old man recently, but I discovered that he had died just months before. With the living link severed, our visit to the Rodmell museum was a dry, unsatisfactory encounter.

Chris became ill and could no longer employ me, so I mended fences and ditches on a neighborhood farm for a living. Any new poem I wrote I took to him in the house he had rebuilt. He said I should not waste time labouring in ditches when I could write like that. I replied that without the one there would not be the other. His art was resurrecting historic houses, and during that had stood with me knee-deep in mud struggling to raise brickwork and oak-timbers. Were we not brothers?

He died, before his time, never wanting to leave this life the way Virginia Woolf had been impelled to do. I went to see Chris's wife, in the house that he had saved for them. As the daughter of Conan Doyle's dentist, from a time when such status mattered, she was wary of me, a rough-neck drifter. As a brilliant maverick, Chris had never been the ambitious figure she hoped him to be.* Yet, when I told her why I valued him, she listened and appreciated it.

          "He was a grand fellow, but just too easy on everything and everybody,"
           Aunt Kate pronounced, drawing my bitter ale from the rough cask. "You
           have to kick at things to keep them going."

Out in the yard, Gerald drove snorts from one of the old vehicles he tried to reanimate. Soon, the pub became quiet and empty. Old Bert passed on to his last scrapyard in the sky. Rummage-sale Hazel went over her bid and into the county asylum. Longtooth Harry left to trim poplar trees in the next county. Kate stayed, nearing her century, exactly the era covering all of us. Tomorrow, I too would be moving on down the road.

[*] Chris Beale is credited as a notable restorer of Tudor buildings in Nikolaus Pevsner's Guide to the Buildings of Sussex (Pelican Books, London, 1968).

(More widely traveled than Kipling himself, Patrick Henry is the magazine's senior contributing editor, UK.)

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