Sevenoaks, West Kent Before there was such a concept as ‘lifestyles,’ there were two constants that defined one’s status — money and power. And the owners of Knole always had plenty of both. It was originally used as an archbishop’s residence, until Thomas Cranmer was forced to “give” it to Henry VIII for exchanges of land. Henry craved Knole for its 1,000 acre deer park, which is still there today.
Knole is now owned and managed by the National Trust, but remains home to the Sackville-West family. It holds one of the rarest collections in Britain of Stuart royal furniture, paintings, objects and textiles. We visited this grand estate yesterday with friends to see how the rich and powerful of over six centuries had decorated their manor house. The collection is incredibly well-preserved, thanks to Knole having been a show house ever since Thomas Sackville first acquired it in 1605. He was not shy about showing off his wealth and created a series of rooms and furnishings to broadcast it.
Sackville’s position as Lord Treasurer enabled him to employ the finest craftsmen from the Department of the King’s Works to produce Knole’s stunning Jacobean interiors. The master craftsmen who produced the ceilings, paneling and fireplaces are the same ones who worked at the royal palaces.
And, how is this for a perk? The royal offices held by subsequent generations of the Sackville family gave them the right to remove unwanted state furniture from the royal palaces. (“You’re not using this, are you, Charles? It would fit in so nicely at Knole.“) The quality and rarity of these pieces was recognized early on and the furniture, tapestries and beds removed from the royal apartments were put on display in Knole’s grand series of show rooms, designed from the very beginning to create awe in visitors. The rooms have remained virtually unchanged for over 400 years. Even the path through the rooms is the same that Thomas Sackville used to show off to his guests.
It’s all rather overwhelming and seems like a magnificent tour of English history. Imagine kings and queens visiting and viewing their cast-offs. (“James, didn’t we used to have that armoire in the third-best guest room? I wondered where that went.”)
Prolific writer, gardener, and lover of fellow Bloomsbury Group member Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West grew up at Knole, and, had she been a male, would have inherited the house she loved. Instead, Knole went to her uncle and would next have gone to her cousin, Edward Charles Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville. However, Eddy (as he was known to his intimates) didn’t want the estate. While his father was alive, Eddy lived quite contentedly in humble rooms in the tower. Musically gifted, he was a music critic and wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels in the 1920s and 1930s.
His rooms are charming, but the narrow circular stone staircase that reaches them would be daunting on a daily basis. I was too busy trying to navigate them to photograph them, but this will give you an idea.
Thomas Sackville would be proud of the attention his collection continues to attract.
Don’s Food Corner
A few years ago we were first introduced to an inn which we consider to serve the best balance of traditional and modern versions of British food. Called the Bottle House Inn, it dates back to the 15th century with lots of changes since then. It maintains a rustic feel and we always look forward to be taken back there. It seems to be hidden down a maze of hedgerow-lined English roads in the Kent countryside until it suddenly appears at the fork in one of those roads. Somehow people find it, even before the advent of computer-assisted maps and web sites. (You can find the Inn’s web site here: https://thebottlehouseinnpenshurst.co.uk/)
We were ready to declare the Bottle House Inn’s steak and ale pie the best in Britain. We’ve had it there several times and it really is the best we’ve encountered so far to balance all the various elements — meat, gravy, pastry — without the pitfalls — fatty/grisly meat, pale or overly floured gravy, too-heavy pasty. But when we got there, it had been removed from the menu for the season. (So disappointing.)
I opted, therefore, for a second choice: Irish stew. I’ve had Irish stew in Ireland and very often the original, traditional recipe can feature fatty/grisly meat, thin and fatty sauce, and over-cooked vegetables. Happily, at Bottle House Inn they have figured out a way to avoid all that. Plus, it came with raw, cold shredded cabbage piled next to the stew. That surprised me but turned out to be a welcome balance when the shredded cabbage got mixed into the stew gravy. It kind of “cooked” the cabbage and blended in without being another helping of over-cooked vegetables. (So clever.)
The other choices of the table went untasted by me. There was chicken schnitzel, a platter of local sausages, and a curry of shrimp and fish. I looked up from my plate after a general conversation of amusing observations on the passing human comedy and noticed that everyone’s plate had been cleaned. No one offered me some samplings. (So selfish.)
For dessert, we had sticky toffee pudding — with enough forks to allow tasting by all. This toffee pudding is the best we’ve had so far on this trip. (So satisfying.)
When we got to Knole, we were greeted with the news that the cafe was close due to lack of staff. Where were we going to get our afternoon tea and cake? Looking through all those rooms can drain a person and without the proper fortifications, how could a person continue along in the day? (So frustrating.)
After leaving Knole, we drove around in tarnation hunting down an appropriate tea room. These places tend to close at 4pm — just when you have really reached the breaking point for tea. (So thoughtless.)
We did find a place just in the nick of time and got served. Tea cakes and some lemon drizzle cake. They make a good drizzle cake here. Just as we were served, they announced last call for orders, just as they would do at a pub. Except, at the tea room, they alerted the crowd with the tinkle of a teaspoon against a china tea cup instead of ringing a large bell. But we got our order in just in time. (So relieved. So refreshed.)