"Up on the roof"

A personal account of a visit to Halstead Hall

Sunday 28th September, and one of my personal ambitions were about to be unexpectedly realised: a visit to Edith Nesbit’s childhood “secret” rooftop hideaway at the wonderful “Halstead Hall” in Kent.

The Edith Nesbit Society had arranged a picnic/get-together in the grounds of this previously mentioned 200+-year-old Georgian style property in the village of Halstead. Edith Nesbit herself noted it to be probably the best loved of all of her childhood homes. “Daisy”, (Edith Nesbit), had lived at the “Hall” from the age of 14 with her Mother and Brothers for a period of approximately three years from the Spring of 1871.

People who know me also know that my main interest in Edith Nesbit is her story of “The Railway Children” and the following partial excerpts regarding “Daisy’s” time at Halstead from “A Woman of Passion” by Julia Briggs might also help to explain my fascination with “Halstead Hall”.

“One excitement that Daisy could still share with the boys, however, was the railway. If they ran down the field at the back of the house, they found themselves by the track, which cuts deeply through high banks of chalk, finally disappearing into tunnels in both directions. Walking along the sleepers, as the Railway Children were to do, the Nesbits could follow the line until it finally reached Chelsfield Station, although it was quite a tidy walk for them. Reading “The Railway Children” and knowing that it was partly written from her memories of Halstead, it is easy to imagine the young Nesbits going down regularly to wave to particular commuter trains, exploring the station and making friends with the porters and station master, being alarmed by a landslip close to the line (the cuttings are very steep round there), and perhaps watching a paper-chase disappear into the tunnel, and wondering what they would do if one of the runners did not come out again. Certainly the red flannel petticoats which Bobbie and Phyllis take off to stop the train before it reaches the landslip were worn by children in the 1860’s/70’s, but not in the Edwardian age when the book was actually written”.

So then, these are the grounds for my keenness to visit the Hall, but there is a certain location within the Hall that I desperately wished to see and experience for myself:

In the ceiling of Daisy’s room there was a trap-door – ‘ by turns a terror and a charm’. With the help of a ladder, it was possible to climb up into the space between the roof and the beams, and by squeezing between the beams you could (and still can) come out in a narrow passage that runs round the whole house, under the eaves. From here another narrow wooden door leads on to the flat centre of the roof, where all four tiled ridges slope down to form a little rectangular area lined with lead, from which the rainwater is carried away. ‘This, until the higher powers discovered it, was a safer haven even than the shrubbery.’ It was the perfect hiding place: by shinning up the tiles to the ridge, it was possible to look all round the house unseen. Another trap-door beside the boys’ room gave them access to the roof as well. In the loft space, they all kept books and some provisions – ‘Happy, vanished days, when to be on the roof and to eat tinned pineapple in secret constituted happiness.’

The scene now set, I joined the picnic with not a little excitement. We had been granted the use of the grounds and the amenities of the house for the afternoon, but I think we all hoped that we would be allowed a short peek into the house itself.

After we had eaten our picnic and Margaret McCarthy, (Chairman: Edith Nesbit Society), had read to us some extracts from “Long ago when I was young” by Edith Nesbit, The owner of the property came out for a chat with us. During what seemed to become an impromptu question and answer session, somebody asked about the rooftop hideaway. To my amazement the owner offered to take anyone who was brave enough to tackle the “assault-course” of the loft, up on to the roof. Of course, I was in like a shot, “Try and stop me,” I said!

So the owner, myself and two fellow members of the Society: John Kennet and Anne Harcombe, made our way into the house and up the stairs to where one of the two loft hatches were situated. The balance of the picnickers, who did not wish to miss out on the start of our adventure at least, followed closely behind.

The owner disappeared up a ladder in to the dark recesses beyond, asking us to wait while he had a look to see if he could find an easy route through. After what seemed like an eternity, he returned and asked us to climb up the ladder and shimmy up through the loft hatch one by one until all four of us were crouching in anticipation. Once into the roof space, we were plunged into almost total darkness as we began to follow the owner, who incidentally, was the only one of us to carry a torch, in and out between all the beams and eaves. I have to say that I was very glad to be following directly behind the owner and had the benefit of some torchlight at least, John and Anne had to feel their way around as best as they could, only catching up when the owner stopped to point out some new obstruction in this obstacle course.

At this point I must mention my amazement when I considered what this journey must have seemed like to three Victorian children. The roof space is very cramped inside, being “Georgian” in style it has a very low roof, the rafters and eaves are plentiful and they lie in wait in the dark to hit you on the head just when you least expect it. The corners consist of some very tight turns and one has to tread very carefully indeed on the crossbeams that appear out of the gloom under your feet, to avoid going crashing through the ceiling of the rooms below. Did the children take candles so that they could see the way? The mind boggles. However, all these observations are those of a “nearly” Fifty year old, I can imagine how I would have felt about this particular “adventure playground” as I think back to my tree-climbing days, those long ago halcyon days when I did not get the aches and pains that I do now!

At one particular place in the roof, we saw an open lead lined gutter that ran widthways across the inside of the roof, this was to take the rainwater away from the central gullies to the outside drainage system. The other thing that soon became evident was that although the owner had had to carry out some considerable work on the roof some six years ago, the whole inside area had regained the level of dust and grime that no self-respecting “Georgian” loft should be seen without!

            At last we came upon the little doorway that leads out onto the hidden area of the roof. This was to be the biggest, or I should say smallest, obstacle so far. The doorway is so small that you have to turn sideways on and lift one leg up and out on to the roof and then with a heaving, grunting and groaning, ever so gently ease yourself up/through the doorway almost scraping off your nose in the process, then all of a sudden, you’re there.

            Once our eyes had adjusted to the daylight, it was possible to see that we had emerged into what amounts to be a small four-sided tiled valley. Disregarding the later extension, the construction of the roof is such that it runs all around the four outer edges of the house and would have left a large square void in the middle, but there is another roof section that runs from the front to the back of the house that divides this square into two narrow valleys. The doorway leads only onto one of these valleys, and to gain access to the other, one would have to scramble up over the centre roof section, across the ridge tiles and back down the other side. The top and sides of the little doorway are covered with sheet lead and scratched in to the surface on the right hand side as you face the door, is the name “Edith Nesbit”, now whether this is the real thing or not I would not care to conjecture, but it certainly adds to the atmosphere.

It is a strange world up on that roof, I felt a sense of freedom, and yet at the same time, a sense of security and protection, and also knowing that this is a place that perhaps you should not really be, inevitably a sense of “naughty” adventure. I could well imagine the young Nesbits having a fine old time up there, and in particular I could “see” Daisy encamped with her tinned pineapple, writing her lines of verse and perhaps, in the warm afternoon sunshine, daydreaming of things to come. The ridge of the roof runs above eye level all the way round and this adds to the feeling of seclusion and isolation that you get in this place. I was asked if I would like to climb up on to the outer ridge tiles and have a look out over the edge of the roof at the garden below and the lovely Kent countryside beyond, I could imagine Daisy doing this in order to spy on the people that came to use the village pond which constituted part of her rear garden. The original builder of the house had decided to fence in the village pond as part of his property, but the authorities forced him after a long drawn out lawsuit, to allow the local community the use of this common resource, hence Edith’s later description of the rear garden “running around three sides of a pond”. All too quickly it was time to leave and after we had taken a few photographs we prepared for the return journey through that doorway, I was very grateful that I was in fact the last person to leave the “secret hideaway”. For just a few seconds, just as Daisy would have been, I was on my own in this magical place, and for a brief moment I felt much as she must have done about this little private world.

Once back inside the roof and after some discussion, it was agreed that we intrepid explorers might try a shortcut through the roof to the loft hatch. By means of a tiny lift up doorway between the centre and rear roof sections, we were able to make our way back to the hatch in short order.

Back on Terra Firma, we relayed our accounts of the adventure to our fellow members.

         I have visited quite a few of Edith Nesbit’s old haunts, but I don’t think that I have ever felt as “close” to “Daisy” as I did in this place. Perhaps it is only wishful thinking, but I’d like to think that here in this wonderful old Georgian farmhouse, there once lived a real life “Railway Child”.

Pete Coleman 2003