Tuesday, 9 October 2012


As I announced on Facebook we've just spent a couple of nights at Ashburnham Place, near the site of the Battle of Hastings - well, the nearest town is Battle in East Sussex. Neither of us has been there before, so we didn't know what to expect, though we had seen the brief comments on its website:

"For nearly eight hundred years Ashburnham Place was the home of the Ashburnham family. In 1953 the last member of this family, Lady Catherine, died and the inheritance passed to a young clergyman, John Bickersteth. Seven years later he gave the house and the surrounding parkland to the Ashburnham Christian Trust. The purpose of the new Trust was to promote the study of the Bible and the training of people in the principles of the Christian faith. Much of the original house had to be pulled down and new facilities have been added. The Trust continues, under new leadership, to work towards the same goal - encouraging people to come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ and to live their lives in the service of God....
Turner's sketch from the Tate Collection
"The centre is located in 220 acres of beautiful grounds landscaped by 'Capability' Brown, with three large lakes and much interesting wildlife; the area has been designated a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) by the Nature Conservancy Council. Four campsites are used in the summer months by church, family and youth groups. The grounds are not open to the public,  but we do consider requests for visits from local interest groups. Visitors are always welcome to the Ashburnham Parish Church, which is located in the grounds."
The artist, J M W Turner, sketched and then painted a watercolour of the Vale of Ashburnham in 1816, where you can see the three-storey Italianate stuccoed mansion in the centre distance. Later it was clad with fashionable brickwork. Sadly during it was damaged following a crash of a fully laden bomber nearby which to the start of dry rot, and the eventual removal of floors. 
Turner's watercolour from the British Museum

Well, Gill said she was looking forward to my reflections - so here goes. The first thing to admit is that we were not staying in the big house, but in Carpenter's Lodge where our son and his family have just settled. He's just started as one of two new directors there. 

We travelled down on Sunday afternoon and arrived in the sun. As you turn in at the imposing gates, you drive through old deciduous woods, past a lodge and then you round a corner and catch a view of the house across the lakes, which no doubt was the first vista Capability Brown wanted to greet you. The trees have now encroached on the panorama, which is a shame, though perhaps in these motorised times we might not linger to admire the view as we should.

That evening we joined the community for their Sunday evening celebration. There is something uplifting about joining an international group united in worshipping a God whom they clearly love. The community is international because it includes a good number of young volunteers from all round the world who come to improve their English and to serve God, which they do primarily in looking after the needs of the guests who come on retreat, for conferences or simply for rest and refreshment. From my point of view the worship led by four of the volunteers was refreshing and personal including as it did one of my favourite modern worship songs, "This is my prayer in the desert"
On Monday I was loaned the house's mobility scooter (rather nice all-singing vehicle) and we toured the house and grounds. I must say it's all remarkably wheelchair friendly. The grounds and house are more accessible than any National Trust property I've visited - which is nice since the gardens and grounds are good places to find tranquillity as well as creation's beauty, both God- and man-made. I'm told that there are disabled-friendly rooms with wet-rooms to stay in, which is unusual. I'm hoping to find out more about these facilities since it seems to me that really disabled-friendly places to stay are few and far between. 

Andy and Paul, new directors,
with the old church behind
It is a remarkable estate, quite near the coast, with 200 acres of parkland and woodland, but it's more than that. I suspect it's one of those "thin" places, sites where the division between heaven and earth seems thinner than normal. Whether that's because of the house's recent history as a praying community, or because of a tradition of faith in the Ashburnham family, or whether because in the centre of the estate, cheek by jowl with house, stands the ancient village church, I don't know. My guess would be it was the last that broke the barrier - rather as T S Eliot describes Little Gidding in The Four Quartets: the "place where prayer has been valid", "the intersection of the timeless moment". I'm not much of a one for "sensing atmosphere". But Ashburnham was for me one place where hope seemed close and the spiritual seemed to matter -

"You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid."

I was sorry to have to leave.

(PS I apologise for the photos. I'd left the camera on the wrong setting. So my pictures were overexposed and don't give a true indication of the rich colours.)

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