We leave the M20 at the Ashford junction, heading North into the Kent countryside as the stentorian bellow of Continental lorries fades behind us. After navigating a couple of miles' worth of winding roads and niggling roundabouts, rustic peace begins to descend as we reach the fringes of the village Boughton Aluph and, immediately on our left, we observe the local folly: Eastwell Towers, an impressive monument to hubris.
The Towers were constructed in 1848 by William Burn, and were designed to form an impressive entrance to the grounds of Eastwell Park. They are flint-faced, with quoins, window dressings and bandings of ashlar. Flanking walls extend, as though to embrace the approaching visitor in a pincer movement, and they terminate in panelled piers with statues of lions, crowned and bearing coats-of-arms. Structures like these were designed to inspire awe in the breast of the approaching traveller, to impress upon them the importance, power and lineage of the aristocratic family to whom the land belonged.
And yet, only two decades later, the owner of Eastwell Park - the Earl of Winchelsea - was formally adjudged bankrupt. The façade of the Towers displays the family's arms, as well as a mosaic depicting victories of Alexander The Great. It symbolically displays a noble family conquering against irrepressible odds yet, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems also to represent a last, defiant shout of a bloodline whose fame, power and fortune were in serious decline. Even Alexander's mighty empire crumbled rapidly once he was gone. Ironically but perhaps appropriately, the Towers are now completely redundant; the entrance to the Eastwell Park estate is, nowadays, further along the road and is considerably more discreet... and the stately pile itself, for centuries the epicentre of an old and distinguished dynasty, is a country hotel.
"...beautiful Eastwell, with its great grey house, its magnificent park, with its herds of deer and picturesque Highland cattle, its lakes, its woods, its garden with the old cedar tree which was our fairy mansion."
- Princess Marie of Romania ( born at Eastwell in 1875. Her sister Beatrice followed in 1884.
Having perused and photographed the Victorian gatehouse, my Youngest and I continue our journey, following the estate wall for a short distance before utilising the modern entrance. Entering the historic grounds, we drive for about half a mile before parking in front of the venerable pile, and we undertake a circular stroll around the building in order to gain a 'feel' for the place.
A hotel, spa and golf course it may be today, but Eastwell's grounds remain an agricultural concern and the building itself retains an air of stubborn nobility. Following our circling of the building, Youngest and I stand in front of the mansion and survey the valley before us. On the opposite slope, we can discern what appears to be the entrance to a considerable bunker on the side of the hill. Lacking binoculars, we cannot take a closer look but, even at this distance, the concrete patterns of World War Two military architecture can be recognised. This place played a noisy role during the last Great Unpleasantness, as it was a practice ground for tanks.
|The previous Eastwell Park, wiped out by a Victorian conflagration|
From the front of the building we stroll south, following a dusty farm track that crests a low scarp and affords us a partial view of the estate's great lake. The track snakes west to shadow the outline of the water, then swings south again, where - just before it merges with a country lane - we encounter an arboreal lakeside dell that partially conceals two intriguing buildings.
The Lake House hugs the water's edge. It was listed a few years earlier than the more prominent Towers, and received the same rating - Grade II. The core of the building dates as far back as the thirteenth century, although the roof is seventeenth and the windows nineteenth. In its picturesque spot between clustered trees and lapping water, the Lake House exudes antiquity and atmosphere. Sadly, it is under full-time occupation and is therefore out of bounds to the interested visitor, who has to satisfy himself with the second lakeside building, only a brief stroll further along the shore.
|The Lake House|
The church of St Mary Eastwell has been a ruin since the mid-1950's, and all that remains are the tower, a mortuary chapel and some upstanding but crumbling walls. The churchyard is mostly canopied with trees and overwhelmed by persistently creeping foliage. What can be seen of the exposed church interior is sparse, yet at one time it was replete with impressive funerary monuments to the Finch-Hatton family, who occupied Eastwell Park from late medieval times through to the reign of Victoria. These monuments were rescued, and now reside in the Victoria And Albert Museum.
The Finch-Hatton vault, containing approximately forty members of the family, remains sealed below the exposed nave of the church. One of the earliest members of the dynasty to be buried here was the Tudor courtier Sir Thomas Moyle in 1560, and in local legend his story is forever entwined with the story of another who is buried here, and whose memorial can still be found in the ruins.
|The church tower|
The inscription on the memorial reads "Reputed to be the tomb of Richard Plantagenet, 22 December 1550"
The story of Sir Thomas Moyle and Richard Plantagenet was written down by the historian Francis Peck in his Desiderata Curiosa of 1732-35, having been passed down orally through generations of the Finch-Hatton family. His burial record was discovered in the Parish Register by Heneage Finch, the 5th Earl of Winchelsea, while engaging in a spot of genealogy in 1720, and reads: "v. Rychard Plantagenet was buryed on the 22. daye of December, anno ut supra. Ex registro de Eastwell, sub anno 1550"
The 'v' that precedes his name reflects on Eastwell tradition, whereupon that particular consonant is prefixed to the burial notice of a member of the nobility. The fact that this appears next to his name indicates that Richard's contemporaries certainly believed he was of noble birth. So what was his story?
|The supposed tomb of Richard Plantagenet|
Richard was, apparently, an illegitimate son of King Richard III. This is not beyond the realms of possibility, as the King certainly acknowledged two illegitimate children: Katherine Plantagenet and John of Gloucester. According to the travel writer Arthur Mee, writing in 1935: "Sir Thomas Moyle, building his great house here, was much struck by a white-bearded man his mates called Richard. There was a mystery about him. In the rest hour, whilst the others talked and threw dice, this old man would go apart and read a [Latin] book. There were very few working men who could read in 1545, and Sir Thomas on this fine morning did not rest until he had won the confidence of the man."
Latin was a language used and understood only by the clergy and the highborn, and Richard confessed to Sir Thomas the circumstances of his upbringing by a schoolmaster. Occasionally, a well-dressed 'gentleman' would visit, and donate funds to pay for the boy's keep and schooling. One day, the gentleman requested that the boy come on a journey with him. They travelled until they arrived at the encampment of the Royal army. It was the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, and the boy was brought into the presence of King Richard. The monarch told the boy, "I am your father, and if I prevail in tomorrow's battle, I will be provided for you as befits your blood. But it may be that I shall be defeated, killed, and that I shall not see you again... tell no-one who you are unless I am victorious." The battle was subsequently lost, and the King fell on the field, almost within striking distance of his challenger Henry Tudor. The boy fled the bloody scene and travelled to London. Maintaining his anonymity, he sold his expensive clothes and bought an apprenticeship with a bricklayer, which is how he eventually came to work at Eastwell Park. Mee writes: "Sir Thomas Moyle, listening to this wonderful story, determined that the last Plantagenet should not want in his old age. He had a little house built for him in the Park... and instructed his steward to provide for it every day."
Some believe that the tomb is actually that of Walter Moyle (Sir Thomas' father) and that Richard Plantagenet was buried elsewhere in the grounds, the inscription on the tomb being added when the legend resurfaced in later centuries.
|Finch effigies in the V&A|
One of Sir Thomas' daughters married into the Finch family who, generations later, united by marriage with the equally illustrious Hatton family. The family produced many colourful figures down the years, many of whom now rest in the rustic solitude of the vault below the ruined nave. Some became MP's for Winchelsea, and later became Earls of Winchelsea and Earls of Nottingham.
- Heneage Finch (1628-89), the 3rd Earl, was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Constable of Dover castle, and Lord Lieutenant of Kent. He became Ambassador to the Ottoman court in 1660, and gained of a reputation for his dalliances with Turkish women. When he was recalled to England in 1669, King Charles II - no stranger himself to the pleasures of female company - declared, "My Lord, you have not only built a town, you have peopled it too."
- Anne Kingsmill Finch (1661-1720), Countess and wife of the 5th Earl, was a respected Restoration poet and therefore a pioneering female author, alongside contemporaries such as Aphra Behn, Susannah Centlivre and Delariviere Manley. She was held in high esteem by Swift and Pope.
- Heneage Finch, who hecame the 7th Earl, prosecuted the regicides following the Restoration. He received a baronetcy and an earldom for his troubles. He died in 1729 and was succeeded by his son Daniel, 8th Earl, known as 'Don Dismal'. He had been First Lord of the Admiralty under Charles II, Secretary of State under William III, and his good fortune continued after the Hanoverian Succession when he became President of the Council after the accession of George I.
- The 9th Earl, George Finch, veteran of the American War of Independence and the first President of the Royal Institution, was a keen cricketer and one of the founders of the Marylebone Cricket Club. Alongside Charles Lennox (later Duke of Richmond), he promised to compensate Thomas Lord for any financial losses incurred upon constructing a cricket ground for the Club. Lord went on to build London cricket ground that bears his name to this day.
|Lady Elizabeth Murray, later Finch-Hatton, with her cousin Dido Elizabeth Belle|
- His cousin, the 10th Earl, was George William Finch-Hatton. His mother, Lady Elizabeth Murray, was cousin to the celebrated mulatto gentlewoman Dido Elizabeth Belle, and their relationship was explored in the recent movie Belle. The neighbouring estate to Eastwell was Godmersham Park, owned by Edward Austen-Knight, and Lady Elizabeth made the acquaintanceship of Mr. Knight's sister, a certain Jane Austen. It is thought by some literary scholars that Austen may have based her Lady Middleton in Sense And Sensibility and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park upon Elizabeth, with whom she was not particularly impressed. Jane confided to her sister Cassandra: "I have discovered that Lady Elizabeth, for a woman of her age and situation, has tonishingly little to say for herself, and that Miss Hatton [her daughter] has not much more."
|Mortuary Chapel at Eastwell|
Lady Elizabeth was one of the last members of the family to be interred in the vault at Eastwell Church, being buried there in 1825, and the family abandoned Eastwell later in the century following their financial troubles. It was subsequently rented by Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria, and his daughters Marie and Beatrice were born there. The Queen and her eldest son, the future Edward VII, became frequent visitors to Eastwell Park and perhaps it was the royal presence that inspired the construction of the Wye Crown, a hillfigure adorning the North Downs above the nearby village of Wye. It was created to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.
|Remains of church walls in the overgrown churchyard|
The last Earl to be buried at Eastwell was the 11th. Although he lived elsewhere, his body was returned here upon his demise and he rests, not with his ancestors in the crowded vault, but in the overgrown churchyard with his wife and son.
Although no longer domiciled at Eastwell Park, the Finch-Hattons continued to leave their mark. The 13th Earl founded the London-Brighton car race in 1896, and his son Denys Finch-Hatton was the famous 'Great White Hunter' of the interwar years, residing in Kenya and forming an attachment to the Danish writer Karen Blixen. This relationship was explored in the 1985 movie Out Of Africa, where Blixen and Finch-Hatton were portrayed by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
The 14th Earl followed the Edwardian trend of marrying into American money to reinforce the family's trembling finances. His wife was the daughter of AJ Drexel, a founding partner of the bank JP Morgan. The eccentric 16th Earl, who died as recently as 1999, is known for selling off a family treasure: the foundation charter for Westminster Abbey, written in 1065 and bearing the seal of Edward The Confessor.
Ivy creeps relentlessly across the peaceful, bowered churchyard of St Mary's Eastwell. The tower stands proud, the roofless nave braves the relentless elements and shields the vault that contains generations of colourful and influential people. The waters of the lake quietly lick at the edges of the churchyard and an elderly gardener patiently clears leafmould and creepers from crumbling, timeworn gravestones. The hamlet of Eastwell slumbers in the Kent countryside, a small, peaceful place... yet the Towers catch the eye, they stand proud above their environment, and remind the casual traveller that even the humblest corner of rustic England can boast the pomp and colour of a rich and eclectic heritage.
|Eastwell Park from the rear|