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Smallhythe Place and Chapel Down Vineyard

Barry drove us on a picturesque route through Kent.  Landscape dotted with the white conical roofs of oast houses, tree blossom, daffodils and even a superb display of bluebells rolled past us. 

After coffee in Tenterden, we continued to Smallhythe Place, home of "the Queen of Theatre", Ellen Terry (1847-1928). The first thought on seeing the timber-framed two-storey 16th century farmhouse was "wiggly".  The soft ground, use of green timbers and age have ensured there are no straight lines in this building!

Ellen had fallen in love with the house while out for a drive with Henry Irving but it was not to come up for sale for another couple of years.  She finally moved there in 1899, finding it the perfect place to relax and find sanctuary after a long run at the Lyceum or being on tour.

Ellen Terry came from an acting background.  She and her eight siblings were expected to follow their parent's career. Her first part was at the age of 9 in "A Winter's Tale" and by 16, she opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London.  She left acting at 17 when she married an artist 30 years her senior but the marriage only lasted a year and Ellen returned to her parents and the theatre.  In 1868 she shocked her family by eloping with the architect Edward Goodwin. They had two children and for 6 years lived an idyllic country life in a dream house Goodwin designed for them.  By 1874 both their money and Goodwin were gone. Ellen was destitute but was offered a princely sum to return to the stage.  She agreed.  This was the start of her professional partnership with Henry Irving at the Lyceum.

It continued nearly 20 years until competition from new theatres and a disastrous fire at the Lyceum brought it to an end.  During this time, Ellen married again but was widowed and, in 1906, whilst touring America, she secretly married a young actor, James Carew.  After celebrating 50 years on the stage, Ellen began a world tour lecturing on the subject of Shakespearian heroines. She was made a Dame in 1925 and appeared on stage for the final time that year.  She died at Smallhythe Place in 1928.

The farmhouse is full of artefacts and memorabilia that illustrate this eventful life.  Theatrical costumes, jewellery, props, paintings, photographs and letters which belonged to Ellen and her contemporaries. The highlight is possibly the beetle wing gown which she wore as Lady Macbeth in 1888. John Singer Sargent painted her in this and the pose has been recreated to display the newly restored dress.  It is made from green cotton and blue tinsel, sewn all over with 1000 iridescent green and blue beetle wings.

Smallhythe Place from the rose garden

A dress worn by Ellen Terry decorated
with dark green beetle wings

The Barn Theatre adjacent to the house

Inside the church

A bust and portrait of Ellen Terry

At our welcome we learnt that, in terms of popularity and international fame, Ellen Terry could be compared to Princess Diana.  The extent of the frenzy her popularity created, is shown in a letter in which Ellen describes her reception on returning from America.  She tells of 50 photographers and reporters chasing her and how she flew into a carriage and pulled down the blinds whilst an enormous crowd outside implored her to put her head out.

Another item that caused a lot of comment was Ellen Terry's death mask. Although a little macabre, it shows that she never lost her beauty.

In the garden, the Barn Theatre was created after Ellen died.  It was used to stage a Shakespearean matinee every year on the anniversary of her death.  John Gielgud (her great nephew), Sybil Thorndyke and Peggy Ashcroft are some of the great names to have performed there.  The Barn Theatre Society continues to stage productions every year.

Ellen described the garden as her "daffodilly farm" and as we sat there to eat our cheese and ham platters, we were again reminded of Spring's arrival - daffodils, primroses, bluebells and fritillaries bloomed whilst, in the adjoining field, lambs bleated for their mothers. No wonder she loved the place!

There was information on the history of the area. In Tudor times, the River Rother had run further inland and a community of about 200 people was mainly involved in the shipbuilding industry.  In 1514 a great fire destroyed much of the village and it was probably after this that the farmhouse was built.

So much seen and learnt, but our day was far from over!  We walked through the garden to see the Tudor church built in 1516-17 to replace a chapel lost in the fire.  A striking feature of the church is that it is constructed from red brick, imported from the Low Countries in exchange for timber from the Weald of Kent.

Onward to Chapel Down Vineyard, which produces fruity wines from the chalky soil.  The shop had a mind-boggling array of local produce - rhubarb vodka, Chaucer Camembert and scallop pâté to name a few.  We strolled around the vineyard and herb garden to enjoy the views before going into the Swan Restaurant with its intriguing design, for afternoon tea (delicious jam!).

Then back into the, by now, exceedingly warm sunshine to climb onboard the coach for another pretty ride back to Worthing.

Text by Elizabeth Blake                     Photos by Janet Paterson and Rodger Boakes

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