With its sandstone columns and Union Jack flag fluttering in the wind, Saint Hill Manor looks like a quintessential English country house. Nestled in rolling Sussex countryside on the outskirts of East Grinstead, it has served as the seat of numerous local moneyed families over the centuries.
Yet visitors approaching the gates are now confronted by a bank of CCTV cameras nailed to trees and a troop of smartly dressed security guards. Saint Hill Manor is the spiritual home of Scientology in the UK.
The divorce between Tom Cruise – one of Scientology's most famous and zealous adherents – and his wife Katie Holmes has put a new spotlight on the workings of the highly controversial new-age faith.
The US media has been quick to question whether Cruise's passionate belief in Scientology – whose adherents are said to eventually "discover" through paid-for courses that humans are in fact extra-terrestrial entities known as Thetans trapped in human bodies by an evil Lord Xenu – was a factor is Holmes' decision to separate and seek sole custody of their daughter, Suri. With its Hollywood supporters, aggressive legal teams and sparkling campuses, L Ron Hubbard's pseudo-scientific cult is often regarded as an entirely American invention. Few know about the prominent role Britain played in spawning his faith.
Scientology's founder spent many years in the East Sussex countryside, purchasing Saint Hill Manor from the Maharaja of Jaipur in 1959 and living there until 1966. While in Britain, the science fiction author wrote many of the books which would go on to form the core beliefs of his new faith.
Those who have been inside say the manor itself is effectively a museum to Hubbard's life, while a nearby complex with castle-like battlements acts as one of Scientology's most prestigious training colleges.
According to a sign outside the main gate the public is allowed in free of charge. But when i visited – declaring we wanted to see what the public tour was like – we were not allowed.
Initially we were greeted by a female guard from the Netherlands who seemed enthusiastic to let us through. "You should definitely go in and see, it's so beautiful in there," she said. But when she radioed through to her superiors that the guests were reporters, the reply was as swift as it was curt. "That's a negative," the radio crackled. "Sit tight and we'll send someone up."
A few minutes later a guard in a black uniform politely explained in an American accent that we would only get onto the campus with permission from the press office.
i left emails and phone messages but received no reply.
East Grinstead itself has a history of attracting unusual faiths. It was a centre of nonconformism in the 19th century and boasts one of the country's biggest Mormon temples.
"We've got all the religions around here," said one elderly resident. "I guess once you've got a couple turning up they all come."
Most of those i spoke to that day were willing to talk about the presence of Scientologists in the town, but – given the movement's growing reputation for going after its critics – they all balked at giving their names. The views ranged from grudging acceptance to outright hostility. Meanwhile, one anecdote which repeatedly surfaced was when John Travolta, another high profile Scientology adherent, tried to book a table at the local KFC last year and was rebuffed.
As one resident put it: "That made the town chuckle."
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