Owletts, Kent, is a country house 1.3 kilometres to the northwest of the village of Cobham, Kent. The house was originally built for Bonham and Elizabeth Hayes, successful farmers in the Cobham area. The red-brick Kentish Yeoman's house is symmetrical, two storeys high, with sliding sash and dormer windows. The house interiors date in part to 1684, and include a remarkably ornate Carolean plasterwork ceiling above the prinicpal staircase. The house passed in 1894 to the Edmeades family of Nurstead (also in the parish of Gravesend), then by marriage to the Baker family. In 1862 the renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker was born here. Owletts became Herbert Baker's home in later life and he made numerous alterations including the addition of a porch and a wing on the north-west corner of the house. He also removed the wall between the entrance hall and the drawing room and in that room installed an ornamental 'Empire' clock. The family filled the house with specially commissioned or collected furniture. The house has a garden partly designed by Gertrude Jekyll, who was introduced to Baker by Edwin Lutyens (her friend) when he was working with Baker in Ernest George and Harold Peto's architectural office in London. Acanthus plants growing in the garden are symbolic of Herbert Baker's architectural profession. Also within the garden is a bird-bath formed from Tivoli Order variant Corinthian capitals salvaged from the old Bank of England building by John Soane when Sir Herbert rebuilt the Bank (between 1925 and 1939).
From his Kent home Owletts in home, Sir Herbert invented a unique clock allowing him to tell the time all around the world. The electrical workings were co-designed with his son, Henry, and built on a mechanical arm that allows the clock to be pulled out of the wall for ease of maintenance. The front of the clock and its surrounds show Herbert’s love of symbolism. Sir Herbert believed that the sun never set on the Empire. This clock was designed to represent the commonwealth, and was a localised reminder of his connection to the Empire. It was his work across Africa and India that provided opportunities, formed him as an architect, and gave him the name and wealth to take on the family home. He brought the world into his front room, uniting this Kentish Yeoman’s house with the global connections that allowed it to still be standing. Made in Medway College in 1933 with help from students, the clock was designed to run on ball bearings, with the dial geared to rotate once every 24 hours. The electrical motor makes a gentle whirring noise, and has a clever pull out system meaning the back of the clock swings out on a mechanical arm to allow access to the workings. The clock has worked up until recently, and is awaiting some expert attention.
The symbolism (clockwise) - • The lion standing atop, with a crown and no initials is the UK. • S*AK - South Africa and Kenya are represented by an anchor combined with the astral constellation the Southern Cross (the first place Sir Herbert would have seen this constellation). • IOC - Indian Ocean with a boat resembling a dhow. The crescent moon perhaps is a nod to the Sultans and Zanzibari naval power and history. • IND - The star of India is 4.5 hours ahead. • B - Burma's symbols is at present unknown, it could be representative of the peacock? • SHK - Singapore & Hong Kong are squeezed in • AUS - covering 3 time zones, for Australia you can see the Southern Cross encased with wattle flowers. • NZ - New Zealand shows the Southern Cross, an icon that is still representative to this day. • Pacific - spanning four time zones, the mighty pacific ocean is symbolised by a ship • Canada - the symbols represent the fish for Vancouver, corn for Saskatchewan, the English rose for Ontario and the fleur de lys for Quebec. • NF - New Foundland was a separate country until 1949, when it became a province of Canada • Atlantic - with the last ship crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean, the voyage finishes back in the UK.
A watercolour charts Sir Herbert Baker's journey back home, with each picture highlighting some part of his travel. The start of the journey begins with the iconic Taj Mahal, at Agra, near New Delhi in India. Overhead you can see the magnificent peacocks - the national bird of India - who symbolise grace, joy, beauty, and love. From here he travelled along The Ridge, part of the fertile Avarilli Range, illustrating the tents in the camp and the elephant transport. Upon reaching the ancient city of Nashik, you can see Sir Herbert's fascination with the use of oxen to haul water from the well and the women carrying the water on their heads back home. Leaving India. The last stop in India was Bombay (now called Mumbai), whose port was originally built on seven islands. From here he sailed across the Arabian Sea, arriving at Aden, a port city in the Yemen. Behind the city you can see the first of three volcanoes that Sir Herbert encountered. Afterwards, he journeyed up the Red Sea, past Mount Sinai and onto the Suez canal where you can see them dredging the canal. In Egypt, you can see the iconic Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx in Cairo, with camels alongside. Europe. Sailing across the Mediterranean, past Crete and then onto Sicily, you can see Mt. Etna with a small cloud of smoke. At Messina, you can see the Greek mythological sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. They were believed to live on opposite sides of the straight meaning sailors had to choose between two dangers, either of which could bring them harm. Upon leaving Sicily, you can see another volcano, Mt. Stromboli, spewing out smoke. Passing Corsica, the next stop was Marseille in France where you can see an illustration of the Transporter Bridge, which was built in 1905 and destroyed in 1944. Afterwards he journeyed to Paris, where you can see the Sacré-Cœr and the Iéna bridge. Overhead you can see an early form of flight, the airship, which were soon to be used during the war for aerial warfare. Homeward bound. After crossing the English Channel, the white cliffs of Dover stand proud, with a line of railway wagons waiting to be loaded onto a ship. On arrival in London you can see Nelson’s column and St Paul’s cathedral, flanked by an equestrian statue of Wellington. On his way back to his wife and children, Sir Herbert stopped at Owletts to visit his mother and then back home to Nurstead.
After completing his architectural apprenticeship, Herbert began working for Ernest George and Harold Peto. With them from 1882 - 1887, he then opened his own office in Gravesend in 1890. Two years later, his colonial adventures began when he embarked for South Africa to seek his fortune. After receiving the patronage of Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape colony and leading imperialist, he began his work in South Africa. He remained there for the next 20 years, designing many public and religious buildings, as well as private houses. In 1912, Sir Herbert joined Edward Lutyens in India, where they began to work on the government buildings in New Delhi. He was to design the Secretariat buildings on Saisina Hill, flanking Lutyen's Viceroy's House and Parliament House. A row developed between Baker and Lutyens when it became clear that Baker's design, with its steep gradient for the central axis, obscured the view towards Lutyen's buildings. The 'Bakerloo' affair soured relations between the two architects for the next two decades. After Delhi, Sir Herbert worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission. His designs included the huge cemetery at Tyne Cot, Belgium; the Delville Wood South African Memorial and Neuve Chapelle Indian War Memorial, both in France. He also designed the highly regarded War Memorial Cloister at Winchester College (1922 - 24). Although he had been praised for many of his other buildings, some of his buildings such as India House and South Africa House (both in London) were considered to be 'variable' in quality. His reputation was damaged by his rebuilding and enlargement of Sir John Soane's Bank of England, in which much of the earlier structure was destroyed. However, following his death in 1946, his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey, indicating the regard felt for his lasting contribution in England and beyond.
There is a drop-off point immediately outside the house, with two steps up to the front door. Wheelchair access is around the back - please ask at the main door. House: two steps to entrance. Ground floor accessible. Seats on ground floor in each room. No lift to landing. Grounds: uneven and loose gravel paths, slopes, some steps, grass and undulating terrain. Toilet, not adapted, is accessed via two steps. Assistance dogs are welcome. Can only accept cash payments.
Location : Owletts, The Street, Cobham, Gravesend, Kent, DA12 3AP
Transport : Sole Street (National Rail) then bus (311, 416, 695). Bus Routes : 3, 311, 416 and 695 stop 7 minutes away.
Opening Times : April through September, Sundays 11:00 to 15:00
Tickets : Adults £4.00; Children £2.00
Tel. : 01304 207326