Everybody knows what a moat is. It’s the water surrounding a castle, and it’s full of alligators and other scary stuff to keep invaders away.
We recently saw a moat that was probably once full of scary stuff of a very different nature (perhaps no less dangerous) but it didn’t surround a castle. The moat surrounded an ordinary house in England. Well, not ordinary, perhaps, but a house, not a castle or even a grand manor house. It would hard to call Ightham Mote an ordinary anything.
Besides being surrounded by a moat, the house has rooms that went out of fashion in the late middle ages, like a “solar.” It has two chapels, the newest of which was built in the 1470s. Its half-timbered walls surround a cobblestone courtyard straight out of a fairy tale, complete with a clock tower.
And the most amazing thing is that families lived there for hundreds of years and didn’t change it much.
In 1612, the lady of the house did receive a massive, ornate fireplace as a gift, and had to literally raise the roof to have it installed in the drawing room. She later died from an infection after pricking her finger with a sewing needle. [There was no evidence that Rumplestiltskin was involved.] And since there are two chapels, obviously someone was dissatisfied enough with the first to add a second.
The “new” chapel is considered one of the most magnificent rooms in the house and the decoration of the ornate ceiling testifies that at one time, the owner of the house wished to pay homage to the crown. But even by Tudor standards, the house was not grand enough to warrant a visit from royalty, and subsequent owners made no attempt to make it more posh. Instead, they seemed content to make only a few changes for comfort and convenience rather than fashion. The family did add very expensive hand painted wallpaper in the drawing room in about 1800, but within a few decades, the owners were, as a visitor later put it, “poor and parsimonious” and the house “in a state of almost perilous decrepitude.”
That visitor was Henry James, who spent Christmas at Ightham Mote in 1887 during a period when the house was rented to a rich American from Colorado. “I slept in a room with a ghost and an oubliette,” he wrote, “but fortunately the former remained in the latter.” Not long after, the house was sold to another family. They only opened big rooms like the drawing room for special occasions, so most of the changes they made to modernize were confined to smaller rooms.
Even though it is not far from London, the property today still seems very secluded. Legend has it that Cromwell’s soldiers had orders to pillage Igtham Mote, but couldn’t ever find it. Like a medieval castle, the garderobe (latrines) drained directly into the moat for centuries. Supposedly complaints forced the owners to put in a cess pit in 1680. History doesn’t record whether the complaints were lodged by people fishing out of the moat.
Ightham Mote (pronounced “eye-tham moat”) is by far one of the most interesting houses I’ve ever seen. It’s been home to medieval knights, Tudor courtiers, country squires and Victorian socialites. It even has a Grade I listed dog house in the courtyard. You can learn more about it here http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ightham-mote/ but really, it has to be seen to be appreciated.