The name Ightham Mote — whose four-consonant apparent tongue-twister contributes to the surprisingly easy Item Mote — may be derived from the Anglo-Saxon words eyot and ham, meaning island home. True or not, this medieval Kentish home does indeed arise from its shallow moat like a small island in a patchwork of half-timbering that in places jetties out above gloriously weathered Kentish ragstone. Its four sides wrap around an internal courtyard. On a windless day Ightham charmingly floats above its own reflection.
The moat is part of a gentle, free-flowing run of water that starts with stew ponds to the north of the house and ends in a large lower pond to the south. This addressed the need for fish stocks with clean water and for drains to be emptied. Even so, a whiff of stagnation was hard to miss close up on the Easter Monday of our visit. No doubt in medieval times with its long-drops in regular use, things would have be riper. The moat is between one and three metres deep so drainage was clearly more important than defence. Even so, the moat is as old as the house whose foundations date back to the 1340s.
Ightham’s moat and outer courtyard wrap neatly around the building, but the place’s charm lies in the way the building itself shields its private inner courtyard. Many of its living spaces look out over water or inwards into the intimate courtyard and some, such as the library and new chapel, do both. If you time your visit to enter the house morning and afternoon, you are rewarded with changed light patterns and shadow falls which help you appreciate the place’s quirkiness. A mix of building materials — red brick, pale lime render, faded oak timbers, lead gutters and downspouts, cobbles, stone corbels and the hard grey limestone of Kentish ragstone — run up against each other to give an organic and comfortably informal feel to the place.
The west face looks out onto the outer courtyard through stone mullioned windows. The east face is a medley of half-timbering, stone and red brick, resembling a row of medieval houses. The south face is a satisfyingly uniform run of half-timbering jettied out above the ground floor’s stonework, punctuated with stone-mullioned windows.
Ightham Mote’s courtyard, showing the Great Hall; its chimneys and fireplace were added in the 1470s.
As befits a house of this age, there are puzzles beyond its name that still seek answers. The identity of the original builder remains unknown. No adequate explanation has been furnished as to why such “a vile papistical house” as Ightham wasn’t thoroughly searched — and no Catholic priest holes were ever found. Why Cromwell’s soldiers failed to find the house, when set on looting it, with other Parliamentary families living nearby, can’t be explained. Why the Old Chapel was replaced with a New Chapel through a license granted in 1638 is lost in obscurity.
These loose ends arguably benefit Ightham Mote. They sit not uncomfortably alongside the famous letter on display in Ightham’s library. It was written by a Charles Henry Robinson who first visited the place as a tourist from America in the 1920s and ‘fell under its spell’. Returning in the 1950s to ‘see what had become of’ Ightham, he found it was for sale and made an offer to the agents. On his return passage on Queen Mary his concerns about the cost of making the place habitable got the better of him and he penned a letter to retract his offer. Unfortunately, the post office on board ship was closed and Robinson had time to reflect. The intended purchase went through and Charles Robinson subsequently became the owner of Ightham from 1953 until 1985, investing substantially in its restoration and upkeep. Stops and starts, twists and turns seem to be locked into the very fabric of this lovely house.