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There’s a ruined castle in the valley bottom, beyond the grand, Victorian, house. A round, machiolated, tower peeks through multi-coloured shrubs and trees. It draws the eye through the garden, overwhelming the desire to linger amongst the flowers. Closer in, down the hill, and the heady scent from rhododendrons and azaleas is almost overpowering. The castle grows out of its own island in the middle of a dark, still, moat and looks as though it’s been there since the time when ogres and wizards ruled. Once, men at arms stood guard at the gatehouse by the seemingly ancient stone bridge. Now, this gives access to a small formal area of garden, beyond which lie the castle’s beguiling, but crumbling, doorways and ivy-clad defences. Blank empty windows in the wall ahead are festooned with white wisteria; behind, the fragmented remains of rooms, now exposed to the elements and planted like a garden in a graveyard.
Mrs Britain and I were soaking it all up, idly watching a Canada goose glide effortlessly through the water. Anyone would be forgiven for imagining they were in the middle of a fairy-tale. Suddenly, right on cue, a strange figure stumbled round the corner. Eyes stared wildly through 1960s vintage spectacles under untamed hair, iron-grey and matted. He wore a skimpy glittery pink-purple top, exposing a paunch, with an extremely short denim mini-skirt, through which long, brown, skinny legs protruded ending in an incongruously large pair of sandals. I experienced a moment of mild shock at the sight of this unusual apparition. Here was a clear fashion faux pas; who on earth wears a top like that in May?
Britain is a liberal society: if someone wants to make a complete ass of themselves, that’s absolutely fine. We embrace the eccentric, accept fashion uniforms, bodies covered in tattoos, or studded like pin-cushions; we even tolerate adults who wear bags, pyjamas or football shirts whilst out shopping. How people dress in their spare time is up to them; personally, I favour a swirling black Victorian cape, stovepipe hat and walking boots. So the fact that a grown man chooses to dress like a grotesque parody of a Barbie-doll is up to him. But I do suggest that revealing certain body parts, uninvited and in public, crosses a line. Low-slung backside-revealing jeans, for example, whether on a building-site or at the vegetable counter, and irrespective of the wearer’s sex, are generally unwelcome; it upsets the vicar. So when we later adjourned for our customary National Trust coffee and something, and Barbie-man arrived at the next table, it was more than disconcerting that the act of sitting revealed he wasn’t wearing any undergarments. Maybe he’d had an accident and lost them. He seemed quite unconcerned that his exposure might be considered about as desirable as a crocodile at a picnic or, worse, that he completely put me off my coffee and banana nut cake. Shielding the Memsahib’s eyes, we departed rapidly and in urgent need of strong drink. In retrospect, I wished I’d had a word with ‘the management’, if only to see how the normally punctilious personnel of the National Trust handled this unusual, and potentially tricky, situation. As it was, a coach load of elderly tourists had just arrived and it seemed a pity not to pass the buck and let events take a predictable course.
However, you will be absolutely delighted to learn that Scotney Castle is almost as memorable in its own right. It really is a very romantic place. The old castle was deliberately designer-ruined to enhance its picturesque characteristics, after a ‘new’ Victorian house was built on the hill overlooking it. The sandstone used for this was quarried in the grounds of the 700-acre estate, the resulting void then being turned into a rather lovely quarry garden, next to a lane that looked rather like an old holloway – an ancient track used for moving farm animals to and from pastures. I don’t know if it is, but I do know that a fossilised footprint of an iguanodon, a 30-foot long dinosaur that used to roam the area in the sub-tropical lower cretaceous period has been found in the quarry. You don’t need me to tell you that was some 100 million years ago, do you? Of course you don’t.
Skipping forward, the manor of Scotney was held by the Norman Lambert de Scoteni in 1137. However, the Scotenis disappeared from the scene in the 13th century, after a Walter de Scoteni was found guilty of poisoning the Earl of Gloucester, and subsequently hanged. The original castle is thought to have been built sometime around 1378 by Roger de Ashburnham, probably to help defend this part of England from the ravages of the French – the little tinkers had sacked nearby Rye, Winchelsea and Hastings in 1377. The castle then passed through marriage to the Darrell family, who held it from 1418-1774.
The Darrells remained Roman Catholic after the Reformation and during the reign of Elizabeth I, a time when Catholics were considered potential enemies of the crown. Thomas Darrell allegedly constructed several secret hiding places in the castle and, in 1591, allowed a Jesuit priest, Father Richard Blount, to stay at Scotney. Blount remained there for seven years until the local magistrates got suspicious and raided the place. Darrell was removed to Newgate Prison, where he subsequently died, but Blount remained undiscovered at Scotney until the authorities returned to search again later in the year. The Jesuit and his colleague, John Bray, hid in a hole adjacent to the staircase that is said to still be there. Realising they would be found eventually, Bray created a diversion by dashing into the castle yelling that someone was stealing horses from the stables; he and Blount escaped in the confusion, some say by swimming the moat, and were never caught. Neat, eh?
The Darrells were ultimately forced to sell Scotney to pay debts. In 1778, the estate was bought by Edward Hussey, an iron smelter from Staffordshire – who committed suicide in 1816. It was his grandson, Edward Hussey III, who built the imposing Victorian pile between 1835 and 1843. The old castle is no longer habitable, but sits there in all its romantic glory, empty, a little forlorn and full of ghosts.
It is said that Arthur Darrell was an 18th century smuggler, who killed a revenue man and threw his body into the moat. Outlawed, he escaped abroad only to die in 1720. His body was brought home for burial but, at the funeral, a tall man stood by the graveside and said, “That’s not me”, before walking off, never to be seen again. The story goes that Darrell’s coffin was disinterred sometime in the 1920s and found to be full of stones. So – Darrell faked his own death? Meanwhile, the ghost of the murdered revenue man haunts the area, looking for revenge. I suspect he wears a little sparkly purple top and denim mini-skirt, but no underpants.
The last owner of Scotney Castle was Christopher Hussey, a respected architectural historian, who died in 1970 and left the estate to the National Trust. He married his wife, Elizabeth – Wallis Simpson’s niece – in 1936 and Elizabeth, or ‘Betty’ as she was known, lived in the house until her own death in 2005. Two more ‘factoids’ about the place: in 1979 it was used in the film , “Yanks”, starring Richard Gere – allegedly, the profit from this enabled Betty to do up the kitchens. And, finally, Margaret Thatcher and her husband Denis rented a flat there in the 1970s and ‘80s: it was her bolthole and the wallpaper she and Denis put up in the bathroom is still there.
What with all the excitement, we didn’t make it inside the new castle on this occasion; we’ll do that some other time.
Meanwhile, here is what the National Trust has to say about Scotney Castle.