I thought I recognised the name Vita Sackville-West. But then that’s not an unfamiliar feeling in Britain; a vague sense of mental déjà vu (have I been here before in a book/movie/story?). The information card at Knole House soon cleared it up – Vita was a friend and lover of Virginia Woolf and it’s Knole and the Sackville-Wests that provided the real life inspiration for Orlando. Maybe I should actually finish that novel now. Since I didn’t in English 2204…
Knole House is one of the largest and grandest country houses in England (it is an impressive house and has a fascinating family history but I’m trying to keep this succinct so I’ll put that aside) and sits in 1000 acres of park. Think for a moment about one thousand acres. If you’re reading from Perth it’s the same size as Kings Park. Bigger than Central Park in NYC. So what?, you might think, but remember this used to be a private park for a single family.
England does parks well, but I’ve become used to gentle lawns and beds of bulbs. Knole is the closest thing to wild I’ve seen in the south yet.
I enter through a hole-in-the-wall door in a low stone wall and feel a little like I’ve crossed into Narnia. On the other side of the wall a very modern flow of cars storms past, but here all is quiet and timeless. Grassy hills stretch all around, wooded with bare grey trees. Instead of daffodils and tulips the ground in the woods is dry grass and dirt. Apart from the occasional protective fence around a young tree, there is no sign of human cultivation.
But the best thing is the deer. There are several hundred wild deer living in Knole Park, and they are not tame. They’re obviously used to humans but you can’t pat their noses and feed them biscuits (nor should you). I walk within petting distance of a group of stags with antlers that look as though they could do some damage, and glance around to check my options should our relations turn sour. Not a person in sight. One climbable tree in reach. But I needn’t worry. I receive nothing more than a cursory glance from the elder stag before two young bucks go back to butting heads.
Later I am chatting to two fellow park strollers (it’s a popular local haunt but large enough that you can feel completely alone quite often) when two riders canter past on horseback. The group of deer they’re about to stampede simply trot to the side, regroup and resume their eating. I notice later it is so quiet that at a distance I can hear the soft tearing sound of lots of little deer mouths ripping up mouthfuls of grass.
I’ve been in Sevenoaks for the past two weeks, generously put up in the Surrey family home, and it is a lovely, peaceful town. It’s not a tourist destination and you won’t find much in the way of souvenirs or tours, but that’s fine by me. As an affluent commuter town, forty minutes from central London on the train, with pretty scenery and a heck of a lot more space than London itself, I imagine it’s a good place to raise a family. All the same I was amused to read the listing for Sevenoaks in The Rough Guide to England where it states rather dismally that there’s little reason to visit other than Knole Park and its residence. That’s a bit rude, I thought. But then I saw the spectacular house and spent some time walking around the park and I thought, whatever else you might say, it’s a damn good reason to come to Sevenoaks.