Lunch summoned by a naval bell, runaway donkeys and cows, a ‘kidnapped’ minibus, plus a huge kitchen garden that helped with wartime food rationing are all part of the rich and colourful history at Polegate’s Bernhard Baron Cottage Homes.
The complex of flint cottages and buildings, tucked back from the main Eastbourne Road, quietly reached its 75th anniversary during lockdown in October 2020. With residents divided into two self-contained ‘bubbles’ and no visitors allowed due to Covid-19, it certainly wasn’t the way the homes would have liked to mark the milestone event.
However, a big party is planned this summer - to celebrate when residents from the cottages and main building can once again mingle and when all restrictions are lifted - and in the meantime a book has been revised to bring the homes’ history right up to date.
Set in five acres of grounds and gardens, the hundreds of motorists who drive past the site each day probably mostly know the homes for the prominent stag statue situated near the entrance without realising what goes on behind the scenes, or the long and sometimes eventful history connected with the site.
The Bernhard Baron Cottage Homes started life as the Diplocks Cottages which were built in 1936 as a memorial to Caleb Diplock, a wealthy Polegate resident and landowner who lived with his family at the old Southdown Hall estate where the stag statue was first situated. The 12 cottages were constructed for ‘poor and needy’ people living within three miles of the parish church, but in 1945 some of Caleb’s distant relatives succeeded in contesting his will and the cottages were put up for sale.
The homes were saved through the help of the Bernhard Baron Trust, set up in memory of the namesake cigarette magnate and philanthropist, and other generous donors. They were renamed and first opened their doors to evacuees made homeless during the Second World War. Managed under the trusteeship of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, today the homes comprise 24 individual cottages and 34 en-suite bed-sitting rooms for individuals and couples from all religions and backgrounds.
The book provides a fascinating overview of the various developments and events since the homes opened, and these days the modern spacious accommodation and grounds, with a tranquil Peace Garden, ponds, flower beds and circular pathway, are a far cry from the original Diplocks Cottages. For example, the end of 1945 saw contractors for the War Office move in and remove 50 ‘dragon’s teeth’; cone-shaped concrete anti-tank obstacles scattered amongst the cottages and estate during the war. And when the first 10 residents arrived in October of the same year the electric cooker in the main kitchen didn’t work and the first meals had to be cooked in three different cottages.
Catering was further complicated by the restrictions of wartime food rationing and a local man who was employed as a general handyman and gardener grew vast quantities of vegetables which he then sold to the kitchens. A record from the time states: “Mr Small has lifted and put into store 16cwt of potatoes, 4cwt of carrots, 4cwt onions and 3½ cwt of beetroot.”
In 1961, when the foundations of the new wing had been laid, the wardens introduced monthly logs; providing more insights - frequently colourful - into day-to-day life at the homes. Indeed, in the first entry the warden at the time wrote under the pseudonym of her St Bernard Dog, Polly!
The log provides a snapshot into various characters who have resided at the homes over the years, such as a retired naval officer. It reads: “On arriving at the homes he did not think much of the lunchtime bell, so he wrote to the Admiralty asking for a naval bell and the supplied one. He was always happy to mend items such as saucepans and did this in his room.”
Another practical resident of the time, who owned a motorbike, was an excellent woodworker and had a vice fixed to the arm of his chair so he could work on various projects. It was residents like him that inspired the idea of the current shared workshop. And at one time a clothes store in Eastbourne allowed dresses to be brought to the homes on approval. One warden was privy to a conversation between two residents, aged 92 and 93, who were trying some on. She recalled one lady turning to the other and saying: “Not that one Louie, it makes you look old!” However, Louie clearly liked it and was not put off the by the sartorial advice.
At one time there was a field attached to the estate, which led to some loveable temporary residents in the shape of Joy and Beauty, a pair of donkeys from the Raystede Centre for Animal Welfare near Lewes. A shed was provided for them as residents didn’t like the thought of them being outside in the cold weather. On one occasion they escaped and were found running around Polegate crossroads.
The field was later leased to a local farmer for grazing. His cows also proved to be escape artists after they found out how to lift the latch on the five-bar gate with their noses and find their way to the window of the wardens’ cottage - usually at evening meal times!
Further afield, there were adventures with the homes’ minibus which was used to take residents on outings and holidays. A after a new minibus was delivered it set off on a trip to the Lake District and was stolen from a car park at an overnight stopping place. A replacement was hired and the residents’ holiday went ahead. Police later found the minibus, minus its wheels, which was later restored to working order and never ‘kidnapped’ again.
Over the years the Bernhard Baron Cottage Homes have been considerably expanded and upgraded, whilst sympathetically retaining the look of the original flint cottages. Recent improvements include the reception and office areas, kitchen, dining room and main lounge as well as providing free Wi-Fi throughout the property and installing digital televisions.
As the Bernhard Baron Cottage Homes move forward into their diamond jubilee year, Manager Jan Andrews reflected on the many challenges of the past 12 months.
She said: “We separated the cottages and the main building into two separate communities as we felt this would be safer. As all the residents usually share the communal areas in the main building, including lounges, dining room and activity areas, and we hired a large marquee which became the ‘social hub’ for the cottage residents. As restrictions ease in care homes we hope to be able to reunite our two communities back together again in the near future.”
Lastly, a fitting summary of life at Bernhard Baron Cottage Homes comes from an extract from the log written by former warden Donald Tear, who worked there from 1965 to 1971, and said: “Through the years there has been a lively bunch of elderly youngsters living here, who have not lost their power of enjoying life together.”