I was out on a country walk a few weeks ago, based on a local village picked from the map more or less at random by my sister. Henfield is the charmingly medieval village name, and what should we find there but The Cat House. Amazing village, amazing house!
It’s a Grade II listed building now, since the 1950s, which is when the picture below was taken.
The lovely people at Francis Frith allow free use of their photos on websites, after a courtesy email, and I’m indebted to them for this. And this is part of the description on the British listed buildings site: “Probably 16th century timber-framed refaced with brick, now painted, on ground floor and with weather-boarding above, painted in imitation of timbering with figures of a cat holding a bird under the eaves.” And that really, really doesn’t do justice to the place – it’s so quirky, and so beautiful!
The quirkiness started with a nineteenth century owner, Bob Ward, who kept canaries. A canary was killed one day by a cat, owned by local churchman Nathaniel Woodard. Ward was enraged, to put it mildly: he put pictures of the cat, holding the bird, all round his house, so it would be seen by the churchman every time he passed the house on his way to the nearby church. Ward also put up strings of shells to rattle in the wind – presumably to disturb the cat on its future hunting forays. There’s also rumour of a black figure appearing at a small window, called the zulu hole, when the churchman walked by.
A 19th century painting by M. Russell, held by the Henfield Museum, shows how quirky the quirkiness got, shown immediately below. The Museum has been kind to me too, instantly allowing me to show this amazing painting, which was commissioned by Bob Ward himself.
This is real! Its not a hippy tangent from the 1960s, its a historically accurate depiction of what the amazing Bob Ward did over the years, painted in 1882. I think it’s fantastic, I was beside myself with joy when I discovered this photo.
The Henfield Hub website mentions that “Robert Ward bought a number of metal bird scarers – the cats that now line the upper storey – and positioned them all round his house, at ground level, threading a long string through them on which he tied a large number of bells. Whenever Nathaniel Woodward passed on his way to or from Henfield Church, pulling of the string saw him greeted by the sound of metal and bells to remind him of the ‘crime’ his cat committed.” That man must have really loved his canaries, and hated the cat.
My own photos are below, and I’m missing an overall view of the front, sadly – I was so entranced by the detail, I completely forgot. Never mind – I’ll be passing that way again, and I’ll make sure to get another view. Of course, it’s also a private house, owned and occupied, and that has to be respected too.
It does make me wonder about the phrase “the cat that ate the canary”, which seems to be an American saying according to this blog. Cathouse is an American phrase too – not one associated with actual cats, of course … Staying in America for a moment, cinema loves the phrase as well: there was a Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard film in 1939 called The Cat And The Canary, but the title was used as far back as 1912, in a silent short, and then in a full length film in 1927. Thank you IMDB.
A little cat struts along the ridge of the thatch, tail held high and proud: the thatcher’s signature, or extra cat-ness?
Such a great afternoon out!