Anyone who has been a Cub Scout will recognize the names of Akela, Baloo, Bagheera and Kim: names traditionally given to Cub leaders. They are all animals in The Jungle Book, and all sprang from the fertile imagination of one of Britain’s most prolific authors and poets, Rudyard Kipling, writes Robin Mead.
Kipling spent time in India and America, as well as living elsewhere in Britain, but his heart was in Sussex. “I miss the sights and sounds of Sussex,” he wrote – so he bought Bateman’s.
Bateman’s is a small but wonderfully atmospheric seventeenth-century country house just outside the village of Burwash, in East Sussex. Kipling bought it in 1902, when he was just 37. Already a rich man from his countless books and poems, he was also a very popular man: in the late Victorian age he dominated the literature of the English-speaking world.
Arguably, many of his greatest works had already been published when he settled at Bateman’s. But he had no intention of retiring, and the house’s book-lined study still looks today as he must have left it: huge desk littered with writing implements and souvenirs from his worldwide travels, wastepaper basket overflowing with rejected pages of his writings (he was a stern critic of his own work). The only false note is struck by an ancient typewriter on a side table: Kipling wrote everything in longhand.
It is strangely satisfying to think that Kipling wrote his Just So Stories, besides many other books and poems, seated at this desk. While he worked, his formidable American wife, Caroline, dealt with domestic affairs from her own tiny office with its peephole window overlooking the hallway. Through this peephole, she would survey callers at the front door – and order the maid to send packing any of whom she did not approve.
Kipling had his favourite spots, of course. He loved the stairway, “dark as teak” (it is actually green oak, twisted and blackened by age), and the sandstone porch in which he hung a bellrope rich in childhood memories. The knowledgeable National Trust guides who patrol Bateman’s may also draw visitors’ attention to another oddity of the porch: the family’s initials carved into the stone like the work of some century-old graffiti artist.
Bateman’s is obviously a family house, although Kipling’s family history was not a happy one. His and Caroline’s daughter died in America, where the couple met and where Kipling wrote The Jungle Book and its successor. Then their eldest son John, aged 18 and desperate to volunteer for the Army and fight in the First World War, was killed on his first day in action.
Perhaps it was some consolation that John and his brother loved their father’s stories as much as millions of readers have done before and since. Certainly Rudyard grew rich from his writings: he added 330 acres of surrounding fields to the 13 acres of gardens that already existed at Bateman’s, and thereby created a sort of green oasis in the heart of the rolling Sussex countryside. Today, visitors can enjoy several marked walks around the estate as well as enjoying the beautiful gardens. Kipling also bought himself an expensive luxury in the shape of a 1928 Rolls-Royce Phantom 1 – a giant of a car which must have struck terror in the hearts of other users of the narrow country lanes around Burwash. The gleaming car can still be seen in the garage at Bateman’s.
Kipling died in 1936, but his legacy lives on in the shape of the mementoes at Bateman’s (especially in the memorabilia-packed Jungle Book Room) and in the inevitable souvenir shop that cleverly sells secondhand copies of Kipling’s books as well as more modern items connected with the great man.
Bateman’s (Burwash, East Sussex TN19 7DS) is open every day all year except at Christmas, although hours are restricted during the winter months. Normal adult entry fee: £9.50. For further information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/batemans.