Ripe

Scores of people remember The Great Omi, but once seen he was not the sort of man you could easily forget. This bizarre character, who claimed to be a member of an elephant worshipping cult, had a face and body that were covered in stripes like a zebra.

The former public schoolboy and army officer, who lived with his wife in a caravan in a lonely wood in the parish, had a plastic surgeon slap dye under his skin to create the remarkable effect. He also sharpened his teeth to points and wore elephant teeth in his ears and a baby elephant’s tusk in his nose. The Great Omi travelled the world with his wife (the Omette) and was a star of circus and stage from 1922 until the 1950s, the greatest tattoo attraction of his era. His appearance became more and more outrageous as the years went by, he took to wearing lipstick and nail polish and signed his pitch cards as the ‘Barbaric Beauty’. He and his wife came to Ripe in their declining years, and certainly livened up the whole area.

Another eye-catcher in the village is a house, The Old Cottage, a timber-framed building smothered in fantastic carvings: dolphins, cherubs, grotesque faces and patterns adorn the front. It dates from the 16th century and clearly not all the carving is contemporary. But some of it is believed to have come from Michelham Priory.

Ripe is small and undisturbed, and lying on the edge of the flatlands which finally rise to the south in the rolling curves of the Downs. It was referred to variously in the Domesday Book as Rype or Echentone, the second name living on in Eckington Manor, a chequer-brick early 18th century house.

In a village that has always been largely agricultural, and still is, it is nice to note that 500 years ago John Topyn left a cow, valued at 8s, to sustain the images of St John and St Dominic in the church.

The village is haunted by the ghost of a German pilot whose plane crashed here during the Second World War. A woman was driving along the lane near the scene of the crash one night when for no apparent reason everything in her car went dead, engine, lights, the lot. She looked out of the window and saw the phantom pilot sitting on a farm gate.

A brief resident of the village was the novelist Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano. He lived at White Cottage from 1956 until his death the following year.