Time: 10:30am, a few weeks ago
Place: Borough Green station, a 45 minute train ride from central London
For an Arcadian outing, it wasn't the most auspicious of beginnings.
But this book is never wrong. (It's been leading me deep into the countryside for years.)
|Available HERE. And HERE.|
We had taken the train from Victoria Station to Borough Green and were now heading out of the car park to embark on the first steps of a 9.3 mile journey.
Me (reading the guide): "In 175 metres, cross a car road to continue straight on along a public footpath, now a path beween fences, soon going gently uphill."Luca: I think I see it.
Would it sound melodramatic if I were to tell you that this leafy path was the bridge to a strange and enchanted land? Because I swear no sooner had we come back out into open countryside than things were markedly different.
Me (reading): "In 40 metres you pass an oast house."
Piero: What's an oast house?
Me: Maybe that building with the cone-shaped roofs up ahead?
|Oast house: a building designed for drying hops for beer.|
Luca: Whoa! What is that?
Me: Is it a grouse?
Me: Is it a grouse?
Piero: I think it's a pheasant.
|If chased by a bull...split up.|
There was an air of unreality about everything. This house felt naggingly familiar to me and I had no idea why.
When I got back to Los Angeles, I looked through some of my books and figured it out. (They must be long-lost cousins, right?)
|(Dora Carrington, "Tidmarsh Mill", 1918)|
And look at this darling little cottage. How many centuries do you think it's been standing there? And which literary character would open the door if you knocked?
(My guess: John Jarndyce from "Bleak House.")
(My guess: The Dale sisters from "The Small House at Allington." You?)
And who lives here with those incredible Alice-in-Wonderland topiaries?
Me: (reading): "300 metres up this hill, you will see the strange, disused, isolated gateways of Fairlawne Estate."
And just as the guide book promised, there they were. Leading to absolutely nowhere. If I was penning a Gothic thriller, I would now write, "Suddenly the sun disappeared behind a bank of clouds and a long ominous shadow fell across the parched grass."
A little farther on we crossed in front of the house itself (300+ years old, now owned by a Saudi prince).
According to locals, a ghost called "Lady Vain" (the name of the original family to own the house) still haunts the grounds of Fairlawne House. Tall, fair, middle-aged and dressed in a white gown, she's been spotted galloping on horseback through the fields that once belonged to her.
3/29/12: You: Dark, beautiful, wearing a wool coat. Me: Rain slicker, jeans, wellies. You looked up and made eye contact with me as I crossed through your pasture. Did we vibe? I thought so.
(For actual footage of our encounter, see video below.)
An hour or so later we reached Ightham (pronounced "I-tem") Mote, a medieval moated country house built in the 14th century. What else can you do when you see this picture but repeat, "I. Am. Not. Dreaming."
|Visitor information HERE|
Unfortunately we didn't have time to tour the house, but we did sit in the garden café and share a scone with a garrulous local.
Leaving the house, I turned and snapped one last picture. (Ightham Mote, you have not seen the last of me.)
We walked on and on, over hill and dale, sometimes talking, sometimes not.
This is Harvey. He is one and a half years young. (We met his owner a couple minutes further down the lane.)
This liquid-eyed fellow likes apples. A lot.
At long last (when long last = four hours), we reached the last major sight on our country hike: Knole House, birthplace of Vita Sackville-West. It's one of my favorite places and I couldn't wait for Piero and Luca to see it.
|Because the house is surrounded by a 1,000-acre deer park, that's why.|
Knole is known as a "calendar house." Anybody know the reason?
(You in the front.)
Yup, that's right -- because it has 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards.
The main part of the house dates from the 15th century and was at one time a royal palace for King Henry VIII. It really is the most incredible place with its huge walled garden and its crenellated towers and gabled roofs and heraldic flags flapping in the wind. A quite wonderful feeling of insignificance descends upon you as you approach.
We got there five minutes before they closed the ticket office.
Forgive me, but I've just been told I have to leave you here in the inner portico while we tour the house -- photographs aren't allowed inside.
Leaving Knole, we climbed over a wooden stile and walked up this wooded footpath toward the village of Sevenoaks. It seemed only natural that our enchanted journey would be bookended by another leafy thoroughfare, this one taking us back to reality and a high-speed train bound for London.
(All photos by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti.)