Recently I have been sorting out unedited old photos from various old hard drives, and picking out the good ones. These are from 2012, of a place called Bedgebury in Kent. It’s a strange and a beautiful place which provided me with relief at a very hard time in my life. I didn’t have a computer at the time I took them, and they’ve kind of sat on the hard drive ever since, like a tooth with a hole in, due to the associations with that particular time in my life. I didn’t know if I wanted to post them without the context, but I also didn’t want to address it either. Enough time has passed now.
I had just finished a Masters, and simultaneously discovered that my then boyfriend had been pretty continuously cheating on me.
We had met the previous summer. He was very keen right away, and was the one to push for a serious relationship very quickly (much quicker than I would have liked, but at the time it felt like we were a team). Three months down the line, after an incident where his housemate tried to strangle him, we ended up living together. I had previously been splitting my time between Brighton (where I studied and could borrow a friend’s room), London (where I was working in a museum) and Kent (where my mum lived, and where my stuff was because I was a broke post-grad), and now I made the move full-time to London, which I had never intended but was willing to give a go.
As soon as we lived together, a switch flipped. He was simultaneously extremely clingy and wanted all of my time, all the time, but also acted like I was boring and not good enough. He ignored my birthday. He attemped to pick fights when I had important deadlines or was having a good time. He didn’t seem to have any friends besides me, and resisted my attempts to encourage him to have his own life and interests (and I wasn’t getting out much either because I had very little money). I felt like I had been baited and switched with a different boyfriend, and like something was horribly wrong, but didn’t know what to do.
By that summer he was telling me I was “so unattractive he was ashamed to be seen with me in public”, hassling me about my weight, telling me he “deserved a hotter girlfriend” and screaming in my face that I was a liar and a fake when I told him he looked nice. Every activity was an uphill struggle to avoid him either having an outright tantrum or passively-aggressively sulking. We went for a walk on a nice sunny day once, and got a waffle from a stand. It should have been a nice time, but he started accusing me of “making him eat in the street like a dog”. I wanted to walk away, but I couldn’t afford to move out right as I was finishing the course, and the Sunk Cost Fallacy makes you hang in there. I didn’t even have a computer of my own to use for my studies, I borrowed his as my old laptop had finally died.
Towards the end, we went to visit his parents in Spain for two weeks. I was trying to finish my dissertation. He told me again that he was ashamed to be seen with me. There was a heatwave and the aircon kept breaking down.
After a few days, when I was asleep, he booked himself a ticket back to London without me, claiming a “work emergency”, and left me behind in Spain. His mother was furious with him and felt really sorry for me. I was bewildered, deeply hurt and just didn’t know what to make of it. I spent the time working on my dissertation (on paper as he had taken his laptop) and trying to figure out the logistics of splitting up.
As soon as I arrived back, he apologised for acting like a dick, blamed the heat stress, and acted super loving for a day or two. It was even more confusing and upsetting, but I had my eye on the prize, and went down to Brighton for a few days to hang up the exhibition. He was supposed to have helped me with an IT thing for the show, kept not doing it, and then threw a strop when someone else offered to help instead. So it didn’t get included in my exhibit.
I came home after hanging the exhibit, and thought we were going out to dinner to celebrate. While I was in the shower, he left the house, deliberately leaving the computer on, showing his facebook messages with a woman from his work.
It turned out he had been having an emotional affair with this co-worker pretty much the whole time, which eventually turned physical, and that she had been revelling in “stealing” someone and feeling like she had got one over on me and was important and special. They spent a lot of time talking about me and how unattractive and boring I was, which was particularly bizarre and hurtful. I dumped him via text, and when he eventually came home, we had a screaming row, and I moved out immediately.
Of course it was devastating. I should have been enjoying finishing my post-grad studies, but instead everything was a horrible mess. I had to move back in with my mum, and I got terrible gastritis that wouldn’t go away. I kept puking up bile and blood, and had trouble eating.
I was relieved to be rid of him, and looking forwards to life without him dragging me down, but these things still have long-lasting psychological effects (I still have real trouble watching anything that has an affair plot). Talking with other people who have experienced something similar, possibly the thing that really burns is how totally disposable you feel. You thought this person cared about you, and then feel like a total fool when it turns out from their actions that they don’t at all.
Or perhaps as well, how powerless you are. I couldn’t have stopped my boyfriend cheating by somehow becoming prettier or thinner or more fun, or keeping him under lock and key. He decided to cheat because he is selfish and doesn’t care about hurting others.
I needed money, and I needed a job, and I needed a boost to my self-esteem. Then the summer camp I had previously worked for asked me if I was free to work on an autumn course.
Bedgebury Park is a stately home that had previously been a boarding school. The school had closed down several years before, and new buyers were finalising the sale (it now seems to be some kind of luxury holiday resort with yoga and horse riding), so the owners were renting it out for temporary courses, of which ours was to be the last one. Our students filled a small section of the building, and the rest was essentially abandoned (more of that later).
It was a relief to be teaching kids, and planning activities, and seeing them enjoy them. We went on nature walks around the grounds, and had a bonfire, and created scavenger hunts. There was a whole room full of old school play costumes they had fun with.
A local historian came to give the students a tour of the house and tell them about the ghosts, secret doors, and sunken manor under the lake. There’s a whole Elizabethan era house at the bottom of the lake. At some point the owner wanted a new, up to date manor on the hill, with a fashionable lake. It turned out to be cheaper to flood the old house than to demolish it first.
When I wasn’t working, I spent a lot of time either wandering the grounds or sitting in the library. I found it hard to relax in my spare time, and the sparse dorm room I was sleeping in was beyond depressing (and I didn’t have a computer I could watch tv on), and the staff were on a rota with different times off. So I ploughed my way through a load of classic literature. I was struggling to eat or keep food down, especially as the canteen food was greasy, so I ended up eating a lot of pot noodles and fruit in my room just to have something to fill me. So expanding my mind with some Graham Greene was very welcome.
I still have that T.S.Eliot book on my shelf. When it came to leave, the caretaker let the teachers each take a couple of books, seeing as they were only going to the charity shop anyway.
My reading spot.
The rest of the huge building was a maze. The majority of the doors were locked to prevent the kids from wandering around too much. One day when they were out on a trip and it was my day off, the caretaker gave me the key and said feel free to go exploring, because he had seen me taking photos.
The building was a strange mix of extremely grand, and extremely institutional.
The floors also didn’t quite run horizontally how you’d expect. Sometimes you’d walk along a long corridor and come out higher or lower than you expected.
Upstairs there were several floors of abandoned dorms. Going to boarding school is my idea of hell. School was okay for me because I went to a large school with a wide choice of people and not particularly strict rules, went home every day to do as I liked in my spare time, and had extra-curricular activities I went to outside school where I also had friends. Boarding schools tend to be small, and you’re locked in there with the other kids 24/7, having to live under school rules and organised activities all the time. Hell.
In fact, Neil Gaiman has a story where all the dead alumni return from Hell to a boarding school and haunt and torment a boy who has had to stay there over the holidays by himself. I also feel that a lot of the problems with our elite politicians and their lack of empathy stem from being sent away to boarding school at a very young age. I mean, I think boarding schools can be a positive experience for teenagers if they’re a certain kind of personality who thrive in that environment, but not for a seven year old.
There was something sad but fascinating about the abandoned bedrooms- they had probably seen a lot of unhappiness and teenage angst over the years.
Especially the ones full of broken furniture. The new owners must have got through a lot of skips.
Imagine being a teenager and never having any privacy unless you were on the toilet.
When I moved back to London about four months after I took these photos, I initially rented a short-term room off a rich Australian family who lived in Spitalfields. The sort where everyone was an ambassador’s child. The daughter was away at boarding school, and it turned out my room was actually hers (perhaps they actually had less money than it seemed). It had no trace of anything personal in there. Imagine shuttling between a school dorm, and an Air BnB room all the time.
Always having to keep your valuables locked up in a safe.
One of the main reasons the students were not allowed upstairs was that the caretaker didn’t want them messing around on the roof terrace. I image now it’s a luxury yoga retreat, the roof gets way more use.
There must have been legions of servants there in the stately home days. Most of the dorm rooms were clearly former servants’ rooms.
I was there for a couple of weeks, and although I still felt appalling, at least I had money in my pocket and a confidence boost that at least a bunch of teenagers had enjoyed meeting me and doing activities I’d created. I ended up returning to London again a few months later, again without planning to, and because I was offered a job, but I guess that’s a story for another time.