CHAPTER I

ANOTHER HOME

 

The move from Dorset back to Kent took place in August of 1947 and the Christmas Term of that year was a momentous one; the first in yet another new house - the Community's fourth.

Mersham-le-Hatch was beautiful: built in 1760 by Robert Adam in the small Georgian bricks which had weathered to that inimitable warm terra-cotta. It was spacious with two long wings on either side of the main building. It was originally two-storied but in late Victorian times the top attics had been opened up, windows put in and the rooms were presumably used for the huge number of servants who kept the house going: I believe at one time there were thirty in all. They were no doubt necessary as there was no water upstairs and all the coal for the fires had to be carried up over sixty stairs.

A flight of wide shallow steps led up to the double front door with its tall grey stone columns on each side. There was an iron balustrade to prevent anyone falling into the area below over which a wisteria grew in great profusion; it flowered summer after summer and you could smell the rich sweet scent of it even in the hall.

The two Golden Retrievers would lie out in all weathers at the top of those steps with outstretched paws and noble heads like heraldic lions: they were lion-coloured too and they gave an air of stability and permanency to the place.

Adam had built a fine entrance hall with two large fireplaces at each end which must have been appreciated, and indeed, essential, when there was less central heating; although some of us used to complain of what we thought was the excessive heat at times, having been accustomed to the bracing climate both inside and out of Hyde House, we appreciated central heating when there was snow outside.

There was a fine library opening off the hall with all the original wall bookcases and shelves designed by Adam and this room led into the original drawing-room; this was very large with a striking painted ceiling and beautiful parquet flooring. This room was used as a playroom for various groups and finally as the Staff Room. It had huge windows looking across to the park with its lake and a distant view of the Downs. This north view was lovely at all times of the year: the park was large and full of magnificent old trees: oaks and beeches and Spanish chestnuts. There was another smaller lake known as the Heron pond; herons could be seen there quite often. On a hot July day the whole prospect could lie under a light as blue as the sea, the lake too was blue, the deer in the park drank there and dragon-flies would rush across its surface.

The dining room, on the other side of the hall, looked out on this park. It was an equally beautiful room, also Adam-decorated with a high ceiling, decorated fireplace and the long beautifully proportioned windows that Adam put in everywhere.

The walls were hung with Brabourne family portraits. The one I always liked was of Sir Wyndham Knatchbull. He lived first in the old Tudor house which stood about a quarter of a mile from the present one. There is an old stone plaque which marks the site of this house, the site now a thick tangled wood in which the boys of the Community made camps and played.

The young man, Wyndham Knatchbull, made the Grand Tour of Europe and while in Italy must have been much taken with the Palladian style of architecture, then becoming fashionable in England. On his return he started to make plans for a new house. The old Tudor house was in a very poor state of repair; the floors were said to be irreparable by the Ashford builder. Wyndham Knatchbull drew up plans for a new house and sent them to the best architect of the day, Robert Adam. Adam improved on these plans and so, in 1762 in the reign of George III, the building of Mersham-le-Hatch was begun. Together with the grounds and shrubberies it covered two hundred acres and lay in three parishes, Mersham, Smeeth and Brabourne.

A great deal of the timber used came from the estate itself. Nearly two million bricks were used and were made in two brick kilns on the estate. Most of the stone used was brought by sea round the coast from Portland, Dorset. It was taken up Hythe Hill by horse and cart; an uncountable number of journeys must have been made.

The first stone was laid on September 13th 1762 by Sir Wyndham. He never lived to see it finished though, as a year later he died. Robert Adam designed a tablet to him which can still be seen in Mersham church. Sir Wyndham's uncle, Edward Knatchbull, finished the building of the house as he inherited the whole estate.

The well-known furniture designer, Chippendale, was living and working at the time and from him Sir Edward bought furniture; two very handsome tables are still in use in the house in 1976.

Sir Edward Knatchbull died in 1789 and his son, another Edward, took over the Estate. He was his father's heir and the 8th Baronet. He married three times and his wives, between them, produced twenty children. One of these married Fanny Catherine Knight who was a niece of Jane Austen. Letters from Jane Austen, in the possession of the Brabourne family, refer to her visits to the "great house at Mersham."

The portrait of this Edward Knatchbull hangs in the dining-room too, but it is the picture of Sir Wyndham, with his thin sensitive face and look of vulnerability that claims the attention; or so I always thought, and I saw that portrait for over twenty years.

The Knatchbull family lived at Mersham-le-Hatch until the present Lord Brabourne was eight years old.

For part of the time that we were in Dorset the army was occupying our future home; they inevitably did a certain amount of damage, particularly to the floors: in time all this was put right.

I have given some space to an account of the history of Mersham-le-Hatch, partly because I think it is an interesting one and partly because a certain knowledge of the past, however slight, does give a sense of continuity: we were to live in a house with a "history": and continuity was something that the Community aimed at and, I think, achieved.

The rest of the house had fine large rooms upstairs: although the main staircase was, by contrast, rather a poor affair, but money was said to have been scarce when Adam was building the house and he had to economise somewhere.

Playrooms, Common rooms and dormitories were allocated for the various groups. The boys lived in one of the wings, and the senior girls had dormitories up on the top floor where bathrooms and lavatories had been put in. The east wing had an office, staffroom, guest-room and upstairs, the sick-bay. The house had an enormous stone-passaged bottom floor which was on ground level at the back as the land sloped down to fields and the park on this north side. Here, on this, were the kitchen and various store rooms and pantries: it all seemed very spacious after Hyde House.

The nursery group lived a separate existence in a large flat over the stable-yard: they came to the main house for a mid-day meal but otherwise we saw very little of the small children, which I thought was a pity, both from their point of view and ours.

The whole stable block was eventually converted into very good classrooms, a chapel, a music room and cloakrooms. It was an entity and the yard itself was paved with the old cobblestones and there was an 18th century clock which still worked and struck the hours.

The Brewery yard, with its huge arched entrance, was on the west end of the house: a Colt House was eventually built in this yard and it housed about a dozen boys over fourteen with room for a Housemaster and wife and family if he had them. When we first went to Mersham-le-Hatch the north side was rough and neglected, with uncut grass, and it had a very shabby air about it, but the grass was scythed then mown and doors and windows painted.

The grounds were beautiful; the lawns in the front had fine old trees, an Ilex and two gigantic blue cedars which were blown down in a later gale. There was an old Mulberry tree under which children must have played for centuries: it too was blown down. Beyond the lawns there was a rough tennis court and beyond that, paddock ground, which was used for ponies, football and cricket; there was ample playing space for there were shrubberies, a wood which in spring was full of wild daffodils and on the east side of the house there was a grove of huge beech trees, where the young "Junior Study" played: under those trees there was an "ice-house" a great brick-lined hole with old crumbling brick steps where presumably the water could be kept at freezing point: it conjured up a picture of a pantry boy, perhaps, trudging through the snow on a winter evening to bring in the ice, for it was some distance from the house: now it was just a tangled mass of bramble.

Various cottages on the Estate were rented by the Community and used for staff.

The Community had an outside governing body known as the Council which consisted of people chosen by Miss Leila as being suitable, presumably, and as she herself said, "to keep an eye on the Community's affairs". They met about four or five times a year. I always felt that the members could only have known anything about the Community from Miss Leila and Miss Dave as they seldom, if ever, seemed to visit whatever house the Community happened to be occupying at the time. While we were at The Mote the Chairman of the Council was Lord Lytton, a charming aristocratic figure who did come at intervals, although I doubt if anyone except Miss Leila and Miss Dave actually ever met him. He also came once to Hyde House during the war. The office was given up to him as a bedroom and was furnished as such with the aid of various adults; a respectable eiderdown was found, a good bedside mat and a reasonably comfortable bed was procured from somewhere.

The Council Meetings were almost always held in London but occasionally one took place at Mersham-le-Hatch. I used to think then that the preparations were such that we might be entertaining some foreign Potentate and his Court. After the Meeting an excellent lunch was provided in the hall and there was coffee in the library later. Sometimes one or two of the Council members would peer in at the dining room where we were lunching: we felt rather like animals on view at feeding-time. After some years at Mersham though a few Council members did come down on their own but I always thought they showed extraordinarily little interest in the actual human beings who lived in the place for which, supposedly, they were partially responsible. I do not think this happens now though.