Smiles of a summer afternoon

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As a child I grew up listening to and reading Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful stories of adventure. The Just So stories have a particularly special place in my heart and for as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit Bateman’s, his family home in Kent. For a man who did not come to England until he was 36, he chose the most quintessentially English place to live and one where I’m pleased to say you really do feel the family’s presence.  There is the vintage Rolls Royce in the garage in which he adored tearing round country lanes (it didn’t go very fast by today’s standards!), prone to frequent breakdowns, but still magnificent to look at.

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The house is beautiful and intimate, filled with the 17th century furniture bought to preserve the spirit of the place but famously uncomfortable to use. Just outside, you find the pond into which Carrie, Kipling’s rather intimidating but devoted wife, once fell according to daughter Elsie’s entry into the visitors’ book. Tucked away behind the roses and the hedges, there is even a small section of the wild garden where family pets are buried and hens wander. You imagine the family lying in the shade of the walnut trees, entertaining their many friends on the magnificent lawn or striding out for walks in the acres of countryside they acquired. I found the cottage garden particularly enchanting where runner beans, courgettes and other vegetables jostle for space with sunflowers, dahlias and other wonderful flowers and plants. I wandered through a section with nasturtiums in bloom to an arch where pears were growing. It really is the loveliest place imaginable, one where time seems to stop and you fully appreciate the magnificence of an English summer over tea and cake.

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The garden of England

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We arrived just before the garden opened on a blisteringly hot day. Sissinghurst is so famous and in my mind I had been there many times through TV programmes, books and photos. Yet nothing really prepares you for the real thing. With its famous design scheme of long alleys and separate rooms, I had expected it to be a little like Laurence Johnston’s magnificent Hidcote which was an influence. But it is even more intimate and beautiful. Everything seems in such perfect harmony that it’s hard to imagine it not existing 100 years ago and easy to overlook the challenge Harold Nicholson faced of mapping out straight lines in a garden which is not a perfect rectangle, using only a tape measure and string. And you feel Vita’s presence everywhere – in the rich abundance of her remarkable planting schemes and in her room in the Tower which remains as she left it so many years ago. Lingering in the extraordinary rose garden, which captivates you with its colours and scent, or in the much imitated but never equalled white garden, I pictured her and Harold working each day in the gardens or observing the changing light and seasons from her window. An earthly paradise.

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