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Bateman’s: the Sussex garden that inspired Rudyard Kipling

The lilypond the writer designed himself. <i>(Image: Nina Elliot Newman)</i>
The lilypond the writer designed himself. (Image: Nina Elliot Newman)

When Rudyard Kipling lost his six-year-old daughter to pneumonia, he and his American wife Carrie retreated to Bateman’s, a 33-acre estate cocooned within the Dudwell Valley in the High Weald near Burwash. There, he created a glorious garden complete with an orchard, rose garden and lily pond. It was here that he also sought solace when he lost his son John during World War I, immortalised in his poem, My Boy Jack

Kipling’s poem The Glory of the Garden is a celebration of hard-working gardeners everywhere and it was written by a man whose skill with his pen enabled him to create his own garden in Sussex in the early years of the 20th century.

Bateman’s is cocooned within the Dudwell Valley – an area of wooded hillsides, fast-flowing streams and rich, clay soil. The River Dudwell – a tributary just 10 miles long – rises in nearby Heathfield, then winds its way through the garden and the estate, making up a large part of their character and atmosphere.

Great British Life: Bateman's was The Jungle Book author's sanctuary.Bateman's was The Jungle Book author's sanctuary. (Image: Ian Lancaster)

The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling lived at Bateman’s from 1902 until his death in 1936, and his wife, Carrie, left the house and its entire contents to the National Trust in 1939. For this reason, Bateman’s is one of the most complete examples of a writer’s home and garden to be found anywhere.

Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, was an artist and architectural sculptor who went to work at the School of Art in Mumbai and later became the curator of the Museum of Lahore. After a spell working on local newspapers, young Kipling began writing short stories and was soon the best-known writer about India in the English language.

In 1892, Kipling married an American, Caroline Balestier, known as Carrie. The couple first tried to make a home in Vermont in the USA but, unable to settle to American life, they returned to Britain five years later and moved to Rottingdean on the Sussex coast. All was well until, on a visit to New York in 1899, Kipling and his daughter Josephine contracted pneumonia. Kipling himself almost died, but recovered, only to learn that Josephine had succumbed to the disease, aged six. It was a tragedy from which he and Carrie would never really recover.

In addition, the success of The Jungle Books had catapulted this reserved man into the limelight, and he found the celebrity overwhelming. Their house in Rottingdean held too many memories, and when Kipling saw Bateman’s, near Burwash, he realised that it was the retreat from the outside world he had been looking for.

In 1902, the Kiplings moved into the house, which was surrounded by 33 acres of gardens, meadows and woods. For his surviving children, John and Elsie, Bateman’s became the setting for an idyllic childhood, as they acted out plays in the old quarry and visited the mill by the river – events that would find their way into Kipling’s two classic children’s stories Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies.

Great British Life: Rudyard Kipling wrote The Glory of The Garden. Rudyard Kipling wrote The Glory of The Garden. (Image: Getty)

Bateman’s was built in 1634, in sandstone, probably by an ironmaster – this part of East Sussex being known for its rich seams of iron ore and plentiful chestnut and hornbeam woods for charcoal. In his autobiography, Kipling referred to Bateman’s as ‘The Very-Own House’, and he loved the fact that it seemed to have emerged from the earth – the stones quarried just a few metres from the house and the roof tiles made from the local clay.

Kipling was already wealthy when he bought Bateman’s [for £9,300, the equivalent of £1.4million today], and he threw all his energy and finances into it, furnishing the house with 17th-century oak furniture, clocks and wall hangings. Soon after the Kiplings arrived in 1902, they got to work reshaping the garden; the first areas to be addressed were the large walled garden now known as the Orchard and the smaller kitchen garden, now known as the Mulberry Garden. A contemporary sketch shows how Kipling envisaged these areas as a hortus conclusus or private garden for the family, both ornamental and productive.

In 1907, Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first British recipient ofthe honour. It came with prize money of £7,700 – enough for Kipling to start major improvements on the gardens. To the front of the house, he wanted to keep the look clean and simple, so it was laid to lawn, with small shrub borders around the front door. To the side, a previous owner had planted two parallel rows of pleached limes – Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’ – to set the formal tone which Kipling retained.

In the sloping Orchard, Kipling planted a variety of fruit trees including a ‘Beauty of Bath’ apple, a grafted copy of which still stands. Many of the trees were removed during the Second World War, but the Orchard has been replanted with medlars, pears, mulberries and several different varieties of russet apples.

As part of his original scheme for the walled garden Kipling had designed and engineered a curved ironwork Pear Allée, which was planted with Winter Nelis, Doyenné du Comice and other pear varieties. The Allée is aligned with the large ironwork gates bearing Kipling’s initials, which lead into the walled Mulberry Garden. This was an old stable yard when the Kiplings arrived, and they converted it into an ornamental garden with borders containing a wide variety of shrubs and herbaceous plants, punctuated by fruit trees. It is currently planted with annuals to reflect both the productive and ornamental styles of Kipling’s gardening.

The borders here are planted with flowers for cutting, and in early autumn the star of the show is amaranthus, growing among soft grasses and other annuals. In the centre, a black mulberry has been planted to replace the original.

A path through the Wild Garden leads to an old mill, which features in Puck of Pook’s Hill. Kipling used the mill pond to supply the gravity-fed fountain in the Rose Garden, which links via a small rill to the lily pond. He sketched out a plan, which is framed and still hangs in his upstairs study at Bateman’s. It shows the formal pool, Rose Garden and fountain, almost exactly as it looks today. The pond was tranquil enough for water lilies to thrive and, being only a little more than 12 inches deep, John and Elsie Kipling used it for bathing and had a small boat to get from one side to the other.

Great British Life: The beautiful rose garden at Bateman'sThe beautiful rose garden at Bateman's (Image: Laurence Perry)

The Rose Garden is designed in quarters with the fountain at its centre. It is planted with the original, long-flowering floribunda roses that Kipling chose: Rosa ‘Betty Prior’, R ‘Frensham’ and R ‘Valentine Heart’ (a close replacement for the original, pale pink R ‘Mrs Inge Poulsen’, which is no longer available). Kipling took inspiration from many sources and his planting is an eclectic mix of native plants alongside those he had collected from friends abroad or seen during his well-travelled life.

Kipling gradually extended his land by purchasing farms as they became available, until he owned a total of 14 different properties and had an estate of more than 300 acres. He wanted the land as a protective zone. The woods – or ‘shaws’ as they are known in this part of Sussex – and any unproductive, small pockets of land were just as important to him as the dairy herds and arable fields. His poem The Way Through the Woods expressed his desire to dig back into the past, to reveal the layers of history that this landscape held.

Much of Kipling’s estate was tenanted, and his ideas about recreating a historical landscape, rather than a purely profitable one, were not popular. When he could, he managed the farms himself, taking advice from the agricultural campaigner and writer H Rider Haggard, who was a close friend.

The pre-First World War years at Bateman’s were happy ones. The gardens were designed to be fun. Visitors included Kipling’s cousin, the political leader Stanley Baldwin, as well as the artists Edward Burne-Jones and Edward Poynter, who had each married one of Kipling’s aunts. Yet, like many families, everything was shattered by the outbreak of the First World War, in which their son John, aged 18, volunteered to fight. His death in 1915 at the Battle of Loos completely devastated his parents, and he is immortalised in the poem My Boy Jack.

Life at Bateman’s was never quite the same again, and their remaining daughter Elsie left, aged 28, to marry George Bambridge and live at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. In 1939, Bateman’s passed to the National Trust and is now farmed as one estate, staying true to Kipling’s principles of conserving ancient meadows and woods. Bateman’s garden still possesses that sense of permanence that Kipling expressed in The Glory of the Garden and believed would ‘never pass away’.

· This extract is taken from The Writer’s Garden: How Gardens Inspired the World’s Great Authors by Jackie Bennett (Frances Lincoln, £30).

Next month, we look at what Lamb House in Rye, East Sussex, meant to Henry James.



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