Spot the odd one out. William Pitt the Elder, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward. Give in? Well it’s Oscar, unlike the other two he never graced Dymchurch with his presence, at least not to my knowledge. Pitt visited the New Hall (one of the oldest courthouses in Great Britain) in 1804 to try and convince the landowners of the Marsh that they needed a canal to repel the threat of a French invasion. He got his way, we have the Military Canal, plus a nice long row of Martello Towers as well.
However, my main interest in all this is to write about Noel Coward and Athene Seyler. Around 1925 Noel was starting to do quite well for himself, he had four shows running in the West End and was known to a worldwide audience. He also had an overwhelming urge to establish a country home in or around the Marsh. It’s fairly common knowledge that whilst house hunting, Noel stayed for a while at a cottage next to the Star Inn at St Mary in the Marsh. He rented the cottage from Harold Body a farmer, miller, builder and something of a dealer in property. It was Harold Body that eventually offered to sell Noel “Goldenhurst” a large and ancient farm on Giggers Green Road.
Not so well known is that the great man also stayed in Dymchurch during his quest to find the perfect rural idyll. Noel Coward was friendly with the actress Athene Seyler and stayed with her at her second home, Barn House, which is situated just behind the seawall.
Athene Seyler is one of those familiar faces who used to crop up in a certain type of English film playing slightly dotty old ladies.
She was married to James Robert Sterndale-Bennett who was from a well-known and important family. Sterndale- Bennett, who was a grandson of the renown composer Sir William Sterndale Bennett , died in 1941. Athene then moved in with fellow actor Nicholas Beau Hannen. Hannens’ wife refused to divorce him and it was only when she died that the couple were married in 1960.
It’s interesting that the National Portrait Gallery have photographs of Athene at Barn House taken by the studio, Bassano Ltd.
Alexandra Bassano specialised in high society and royal portraits. The photographs at Barn House were taken on the 30th August 1922. There are also Bassano portraits of artist Paul Nash and his wife Margaret. They were taken on the same day in the same place. The Nash’s were good friends with the actress, she and Paul took walks together along the seawall. In all the pictures Margaret Nash and Athene adopt a “Bohemian” look typifying artistic people at leisure in a country setting.
Athene Seyler lived a very long life she died in 1990 aged 101, having enjoyed an illustrious career on stage and screen. A well known quotation from Athene was “My work was my holiday to me, I enjoyed it so much, I had a smashing time”.