“One had a sense of links fished up into the light which are usually submerged.”
— Virginia Woolf, after visiting Knole, 23 January 1927
There is a window at Knole, a house with three hundred and sixty-five rooms: a room for every day of the year, they say, so many it’s rumoured that some remain unmapped.
This window is not grand. It does not glow with gold-tinted light. Nor does it command a prospect high above gallery or dining hall, presiding over brightly painted rams and leopards, pale gentle-faced courtiers and caryatid Medusæ, all the guardians of this noble house. No, this window nestles in the angle made by the join of landing and wall of a lesser member of Knole’s complement of fifty-two staircases.
I found it behind a door I’m not sure I was supposed to open. Its dove-grey walls came as a relief after the vibrant explosion of colour and texture in the public rooms. Through the window clear sunlight fell so softly that it did not carry any distance, but rather halted just past the frame. In this still place, where even the dust motes fell quietly, as if conscious of making too much noise, I sensed grace waiting for me, patiently but without fanfare, as is its nature. Unsure how much time I had before the inevitable arrival of guard or beadle, I stopped to rest my cheek on the stone sill of the casement.
“Casement.” Here is a word out of Tennyson, belonging to storybook princesses or one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s beleaguered heroines. As is tradition, my casement was narrow, mullioned, the glass within the frame bubbled and puckering. Together we gazed imperfectly out onto an interior courtyard, a view shared by similar casements scattered almost at random across a triangle of walls. Far below me, at the heart of this secret, an ashen figure crouched atop a knotty pedestal. The distorted buckle of the glass kept the image from coalescing into a nameable whole. Fountain, statue, remnants of both, collapsing into each other or propped together for storage, it was impossible to say. What is certain is that the arrangement had been forgotten. Or rather, that it existed out of time.
In my memory there are no doors onto the courtyard. The rational part of my mind lazily insists that there must have been a door somewhere down there, beneath the very window at which I was standing and occluded from my sight being the most logical solution…
Ten years later, stretching out my pen, I flick this thought away, listening instead to the distant sound of a clock ticking, for there is always a clock ticking somewhere, in the rooms at Knole, and I roll my head onto my other cheek on that deep cool sill, continue to wonder when the decaying form in the courtyard below last felt the touch of a human hand.
— amrh / June 2006, Sevenoaks, Kent, and September 2015, Mougins
At this writing, the photos of my visit to Knole are lost: either somewhere in that impossible mound I call “storage” or on a stolen cell phone. A journal entry from 2006 notes that “hardly any of the pictures I took either came out or reflect anything of what I perceived when taking them.” So perhaps their absence is for the best.
One can happily go blind looking at photos of Knole on the Internet. In the interest of preserving your eyesight, I recommend starting with:
the WikiMedia Commons photo set of Knole, several of which, by Nathaniel Lloyd, date to the time of Woolf’s visits in the 1920s;
the beautiful Pinhole camera series from Knole by John Sims from 2012, which comes closest to capturing the light as I remember it, albeit on a more renowned staircase:
and finally, backstage with the Knole Conservation Team, July 2013