Three Ightams or Less

Kind drivers took me to Ightham Mote at the weekend, a moated manor house in Kent.

The drivers were keen to see seven hundred years of architectural history. I was just as delighted to visit the site of the battle between plucky sweary schoolboys and a cannibal blood-worshipping cult, from the cracking dystopian trilogy School’s Out Forever by Scott Andrews. Book and house each contributed to my enjoyment of the other. It was nice to understand distances, sightlines, which rooms would have felt claustrophobic and when characters would have been fearfully exposed. It was a new experience to regret the lack of cover from gunfire while pottering round a stately home. And Andrews blows up bits of the building, adding a thrilling illicit edge to my appreciation of the National Trust’s scrupulous renovation.

There were a couple of discrepancies between the accounts given by National Trust volunteers and the novel by Andrews. Oddly, the volunteers were more scatological. Andrews says the building is build to withstand attack and seige, while a volunteer told us that the moat was a state-of-the-art sewage system, not really for defence. Andrews also has his boys infiltrate the house via a door direct from the moat to the billiard room; he says that ladies used the door to go for boat trips. Our guide said it was installed so that gentlemen could wee into the moat. I can’t quite believe that Andrews bowdlerised that.

Even better, another author was haunting the premises. An early mention that Henry James had visited, then a tip-off that the corridor room had been where he stayed – and on a laminated info-sheet next to the room itself, the suggestion that Ightham had inspired James to write The Turn of the Screw.

Which made everything ten times more awesome. We’d nearly seen the entire house so I spent the last twenty minutes trying to remember the parts of The Screw where the ghosts are sighted. Across a body of water, among trees? I stared across the moat, trying to emote (to me, sensations of isolation, sexual repression, satanic possession and weirdly specific hallucinations!). I managed to work my way up a mild unease, feeling sure that a full-on sense of menace was there but not being able to turn quickly enough to grasp it. So the feeling of trying to catch the feeling of haunting was, pleasingly, rather like being haunted. Then scones in the tea shop.

The internet isn’t backing up the laminated sheet – it’s silent as to whether Ightham inspired James. I’ll check a bipography, but I quite like the ambiguity, as The Screw has a brilliant unreliable narrator.

So I visited at least three Ighthams. The house itself is charming, much more human-sized than Knole (just down the road, and the star of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando). It’s a lovely place to stage a gunfight, so much credit to Andrews’ Ightham. James’ version – unproven – was a pleasingly elusive addition.


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