Article by Edward Biddulph
We tend to associate Ian Fleming with Goldeneye, his winter home in Jamaica, and London, where he spent much of his time, for instance at the Admiralty during the Second World War, at the Sunday Times afterwards, in his Mayfair clubs, or his own office in Mitre Court. Weekends, however, would invariably find him deep in the English countryside or on the coast, where he would travel to retreat from London’s high society or to play golf. In this article, we take a look at his homes in the country, and examine the impact that some of these would have on James Bond.
Braziers Park, Ipsden, Oxfordshire
Ian Fleming spent his earliest years at Braziers Park, a modest mansion near the village of Ipsden in south Oxfordshire. His parents, Valentine and Eve Fleming, bought the property in 1906 and lived there until 1914. Ian, born in 1908, would spend six years there. The house was built in the Jacobean style in 1688, but was transformed into a Gothic-style mock castle at the end of the 18th century. More building work was ordered by Valentine, who added a west wing, but retained the Gothic style. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner thought the house more sombre than elegant, though he admired its symmetry.
Braziers Park is best reached from the A4074, the road that runs between Oxford and Reading. The house is signposted about 15km north of Reading and is located off to the east at the end of a narrow lane. The house is not open to the general public, but it is run as a residential college that offers courses on wellbeing and spirituality, and is home to a community that maintains the house and the farm. There are open days and festivals at the house every so often, which may provide the best opportunity to visit Ian Fleming’s childhood home.
Joyce Grove, Nettlebed, Oxfordshire
Joyce Grove, a red brick and Bath stone mansion in the Oxfordshire village of Nettlebed, located between the small towns Wallingford and Henley-on-Thames, was home to Ian Fleming’s grandparents, Robert and Kate Fleming. When his father Valentine died in 1917 during the First World War, the house also became home to Ian, who, with his brothers and mother, would spend many weekends and holidays there. Ian continued to visit into adulthood, and would play golf with his grandmother at Huntercombe, an exclusive golf club nearby, or entertain golfers and bridge-players in the house.
Robert Fleming bought the property in 1903. He demolished the existing 17th century house and replaced it with a Gothic pile that Nikolaus Pevsner described as ‘a mansion in the dullest Jacobean style’. The family motto, ‘Let the deed shaw’, is inscribed on one of the walls, and the legend, ‘R.1904.F’ (RF = Robert Fleming) is carved into the stone above a window looking out to the terrace. Robert died in 1933, and the estate passed to his widow Kate. On her death in 1937, the estate went to Robert’s surviving sons. The house was then given to St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, and subsequently became a nursing home, a role that it continues today as a Sue Ryder hospice.
Ian Fleming’s time at Joyce Grove seeped into the James Bond novels, albeit in a small way. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Vivienne Michel’s first boyfriend, Derek, gives a false Nettlebed address to the cinema manager, who had caught him and Vivienne in flagrante in the auditorium. A case can also be made that Goldfinger’s house, ‘The Grange’, described in the novel of Goldfinger as ‘a heavy, ugly, turn-of-the-century mansion’, was inspired by Joyce Grove.
The house is located close to the centre of Nettlebed. As a Sue Ryder hospice, it is not accessible to the general public, though it opens its grounds approximately once a month to host a jumble sale, allowing visitors to see the outside of the house up close.
Summer’s Lease, St Margaret’s Bay, Kent
Ian Fleming had been a regular visitor to St Margaret’s Bay since 1948, when his friend and neighbour in Jamaica, Noël Coward, invited Ian and Ann Rothermere (they were to marry in 1952) to stay at his house in Kent and escape unwanted attention as they conducted their affair. Coward had leased a row of six white-painted properties, which were built in 1937 at the foot of the white cliffs and literally a stone’s-throw from the sea at the north end of the bay. His property, appropriately named ‘White Cliffs’, was a red-roofed building at the end of the row.
Ian loved his visits there, and in 1951 gladly took over the lease of one of the adjacent properties when its resident, thriller writer Eric Ambler, decided to move out. Ian called his house ‘Summer’s Lease’, and he and Ann would travel down from London over many weekends and a number of summers. The house offered them both a retreat and seclusion, but for Ian the house also provided a convenient base for rounds of golf at Royal St George’s in Sandwich up the road, access to the sea (he set up a telescope to look out at the passing ships and the distant coast of France), and inspiration for his writing.
It is a sign of Ian Fleming’s affection for his beach house and the area that St Margaret’s Bay would appear in two of his books. His third James Bond novel, Moonraker, is largely set around Deal a few miles to the north, and St Margaret’s Bay is mentioned several times. Alas, ‘Summer’s Lease’ does not make an appearance, but it is interesting to think that if the book had been filmed faithfully and on location, then the house may have had some screen time. Having taken a walk to the beach close to Sir Hugo Drax’s establishment, James Bond and Special Branch officer Gala Brand are relaxing, when the cliffs are dynamited and the chalk tumbles around them. Dazed, cut, bruised and covered in chalk dust, they walk along the shingle to St Margaret’s Bay. They clean themselves and take a meal (Welsh rarebit) and a few brandies at the Granville Hotel, which is on the top of the cliff overlooking the bay. In order to reach the hotel from the beach, James and Gala might have climbed the steps at the foot of the cliff directly below the hotel. And in order to reach the steps, they would have walked past ‘Summer’s Lease’.
In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the eponymous car takes flight with the Pott family on board over Canterbury on its way the Kent coast. Looking for somewhere to land for a picnic, the Potts notice that all the beaches – St Margaret’s Bay, Walmer, Deal, Sandwich and Ramsgate – are crowded with families with the same idea.
The properties are still there on the beach, and are an essential stop for anyone on a tour of Fleming’s Kent. In fact, if you want to experience the Fleming lifestyle, then you can stay in the properties for £185 per night (at the time of writing), being available as holiday lets through Airbnb. The Granville Hotel, however, is sadly closed for Welsh rarebit, brandies and any other business, having been converted into private apartments.
Old Palace at Bekesbourne, Kent
By 1957, Ann Fleming was looking to move away from London and the seafront house at St Margaret’s Bay to a grand country house. Ann had her heart set on Wiltshire or Gloucestershire, but Ian wanted to stay close to the golf at Sandwich. In the end, they decided on the Old Palace in the village of Bekesbourne, south of Canterbury.
The Old Palace, comprising a two-storey mansion, several other buildings, and extensive grounds, was suitably grand. It also had history. The site was first settled during the Roman period, and in the late 14th or early 15th century, a manor house and associated buildings were erected there. In 1540, the land was acquired by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who built a palace on the site. The palace was considerably enlarged in the later 16th century by Archbishop Matthew Parker, and further modifications were made by Archbishop Whitgift in the last decade of the 16th century. The palace did not survive for much longer, however. In the mid 17th century, during the English Civil War, the house was largely pulled down and the materials sold off. Just the gatehouse and traces of the stables and housekeeper’s house survived, which were subsequently incorporated into a new house built in 18th century. This was the Old Palace, which the Flemings would later occupy.
With its tall chimneys and crenellated parapet surrounding the attic, the main house has pretensions of something grander – a Tudor palace, perhaps – though its striking white façade contrasts with the red brick of the genuine Tudor gatehouse, which still bears the initials, inscribed in stone, of Thomas Cranmer.
Despite its colourful history, or perhaps because of it, Ann Fleming was miserable in the house. She complained about ghostly sounds and bangs inside, and the noise of passing trains outside. Ian conceded that they would have to move if it would make Ann happy.
Whitehall, Sandwich Bay, Kent
The Flemings left the Old Palace in 1960, but they were not to leave Kent quite then. That year, they took a flat in Whitehall, a building overlooking the seafront on Princes Drive in Sandwich Bay. Ann disliked the flat instantly, but for Ian, it was perfect: the flat was less than a mile from the Royal St George’s golf club.
The golf club was becoming a second (or should that be a fourth?) home for Ian Fleming. He not only played and socialised there, but he sat on the club’s committee, too, and in 1959, the club provided the setting for one of the greatest golf matches in fiction – that between James Bond and Goldfinger. While the club depicted in the novel Goldfinger is the Royal St Marks, it is also in Sandwich, and there’s no doubt that Fleming is describing his favourite course.
In the novel, James Bond is as familiar with the golf course and north-east Kent as his creator was. We learn when Bond arrives at the Royal St Marks that it has been fifteen or twenty years since he last played there, but he nevertheless remains on first-name terms with the resident professional, Alfred Blacking, and recalls that for a time during his teens, he played two rounds of golf every day of the week at the club. Bond’s journey through Kent to Goldfinger’s establishment near Ramsgate and then on to the Royal St Marks also demonstrates Bond’s familiarity within the region, as he casually notes the endless orchards of Faversham, the holiday bungalows of Whitstable and other seaside towns, the ‘dainty teleworld’ of Herne Bay, the jets of RAF Manston, and the ancient monument sign for the ruined church (built on the site of a Roman fort) at Reculver.
Sevenhampton Place, Sevenhampton, Wiltshire
Ian and Ann Fleming moved into what would be Ian’s final house, Sevenhampton Place in the village of Sevenhampton near Swindon in Wiltshire, in June 1963. It was Ann’s ideal home, but it was far from in an ideal state when the Flemings bought the house in 1959. The house required considerable repair, renovation and refurbishment, and it was four years before Ian and Ann could take up residence. The relocation took Ian away from his beloved Kent coast, but he consoled himself by the fact that he was reasonably close to Huntercombe golf club close to his old haunts in Nettlebed.
As with Bekesbourne before it, Sevenhampton Place is a substantial mansion, complete with parapetted attic, set with a secluded landscape of fields and woodland and water features. In a letter to Evelyn Waugh, Ann Fleming describes its forty bedrooms, billiard room and ballroom, though these rooms would be considerably altered. The site was occupied during the medieval period – earthworks that trace the remains of a medieval village and associated fields are visible in the fields to the north west Sevenhampton Place and around St James’ Church – but the house itself dates to the 18th century. The house was remodelled in 1904 before being remodelled a second time by the Flemings. The appearance of the house today largely reflects the 20th century works, but some of the 18th century elements have been retained, including the doorpiece and portico of the main building and the window arches, steps and doorways of the north wing.
Ian Fleming never warmed to the house like he had his others. By several accounts, the grounds were overgrown and the lake exuded a gloomy miasma. Ian wrote to Amherst Villiers, who built the supercharger for Fleming’s (and Bond’s) Bentley 4½ litre and painted the portrait of Ian that was reproduced in the special edition of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that he spent his time cutting down nettles and scraping mushrooms off his clothes because of the lake. Travel writer and family friend Leigh Patrick Fermor took a different view, and wrote about Sevenhampton’s enchantment and primordial vistas.
Today, Sevenhampton Place, also known as Warneford Place, is inaccessible to the public, but Highworth Road, the main road through the village, passes the gateway and driveway that leads to the house, and the south-east side of St James’ church overlooks the estate. Roves Lane, which extends south from Highworth Road, runs down the west side of the estate.
Ian Fleming died on 12th August 1964, not in Wiltshire, but in Kent, where he had travelled to be elected captain of the Royal St George’s golf club. As his nephew Fergus Fleming notes in The Man with the Golden Typewriter (Bloomsbury, 2015), he had moved to Kent at the start of his Bond career, and it seems fitting that his adventures with Bond should come to an end there. But it was at Sevenhampton where he was buried, and his grave can be seen in the churchyard of St James’ Church.
Bonding through Kent and the WhitLit Festival