With its sandstone columns and Union Jack flag fluttering in the wind, Saint Hill Manor looks like a quintessential English country house. Set in rolling Sussex countryside on the outskirts of East Grinstead, it has served as the seat of numerous moneyed families over the centuries. Yet visitors approaching the gates are confronted by a bank of CCTV cameras and a troop of security guards.
Saint Hill Manor is the spiritual home of Scientology in the UK, where L Ron Hubbard spent almost a decade refining his beliefs. And 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 attachment to Scientology – whose adherents eventually "discover" through paid-for courses that we are really all extra-terrestrial entities known as thetans trapped in human bodies by an evil Lord Xenu – was a factor in Holmes's 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, buying Saint Hill Manor from the Maharaja of Jaipur in 1959 and living there until 1966. While in Britain, the science-fiction author developed and wrote many of the books that set out the core beliefs of his new faith.
Those who have been inside say the manor is like a museum to Hubbard's life, while a nearby complex with castle-like battlements acts as one of Scientology's most prestigious training colleges. As a movement that proselytises, Saint Hill puts on daily tours. According to a sign outside the main gate the public is allowed in free of charge. But when The Independent visited – declaring that we were reporters who wanted to see what the public tour was like – we were not allowed.
We were greeted by a female guard from the Netherlands. "You should definitely go in and see, it's so beautiful in there," she said. "The manor has many exhibitions showing you all the good things L Ron Hubbard did." But when she radioed to her superiors that the guests were reporters, the reply 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. The Independent left emails and phone messages but received no reply.
East Grinstead itself was a centre of nonconformism in the 19th century and has 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 The Independent spoke to were willing to talk – anonymously – about the presence of Scientologists in the town. The views ranged from grudging acceptance to hostility. "The best way to describe it is an uneasy coexistence," said one local businessman. One anecdote that repeatedly surfaced concerned John Travolta, another high-profile Scientology adherent. Last year he tried to book a table at the local KFC and was rebuffed. As one resident said: "That made the town chuckle."
A 'life-changing book' costs me £13, but I don't think I'll be back
Jonathan Brown in Manchester
Lisa greets me with a warm, bright smile and a firm handshake. She looks me straight in the eye and asks me what I know about Scientology. The answer is frankly, very little – apart from all the bad stuff, I tell her. She smiles sympathetically and we move to a seat to talk about it.
This is Scientology's northern UK outpost: A six-storey building on Manchester's Deansgate. It is here that about a dozen or so followers assemble every Sunday for a "service" and where church courses are organised and run. At first glance it looks like a bookshop, except that all the titles are by the same author, L Ron Hubbard.
The former sci-fi writer's works seem to cover all aspects of human existence. There is Hubbard on self-analysis, problems at work, happiness and of course Scientology.
But for the casual inquirer, our first port of call is a discussion of dianetics, an anti-psychiatry system of mental health improvement devised by Hubbard in the 1950s which is the bedrock of Scientology.
In an age of uncertainty, there is little in the way of doubt here. I ask why it is that some seem to be suspicious of the movement. "There are people in the world who don't want people to get better," explains Lisa, who discovered Scientology five years ago after being referred by her sports coach. Scientology, she says, is a combination of science and religion, but it can be practised by any creed. It is about the "natural laws of life" and the application of "technology" to make ourselves and those about us better. It is, I am informed by Lisa, like "the law of gravity – no matter how many times you drop it – it is going to go to the bottom".
I ask why people think it might be a cult. "What's the definition of a cult?", she replies. "I think you might be able to leave the church when you have finished with us."
At the heart of the introductory offer is a "free stress test". Lisa unpacks a rather low-tech looking piece of equipment which looks like it might belong in the milking parlour, but is in fact an ohmmeter which measures electrical resistance.
She asks me questions about my life, my work and my family as I hold the metallic udders. I admit to being stressed by my boss – a claim which seems to be corroborated by the bouncing needle. I am asked how pressure makes me feel.
It is at this point that the book on Dianetics is introduced with glowing testimonials from jazz star Chick Corea and John Travolta. Its cover note claims it contains "discoveries heralded as greater than the wheel or fire".
Lisa says: "The book has sold more than 21 million copies, successful people read it and use it because the book really works." She says my boss-angst is affecting my life and I can change. "This book tells it exactly, why that happens and tells you how to fix it. You should get it. It's £13 and it will absolutely change your life," she adds.
I agree to make the purchase but decline to fill out a "receipt" with my name and address on it. As I leave I am given a clutch of pamphlets: "Your adventure has only just begun…" entices one leaflet urging me to "enrol now" for a £50 Hubbard dianetics seminar.
I don't think I will be going back.
It's clear I'll need to visit the dentist if I'm serious about converting
Liam O'Brien in The City of London
The £23m UK headquarters of Scientology is nothing short of palatial. Marble floors, white pillars and gold insignia are the order of the day, and it all looks clean, hygienic and impressive. To the left of the reception desk is an obsessively ordered display of Dianetics books and DVDs. You can buy both for a value offer of £29.
The centre, a 50,000 square foot building in the City of London, opened in October 2006. Police closed off roads, hundreds of Scientologists gathered with colour co-ordinated umbrellas and confetti was liberally fired into the air. It was as if L Ron Hubbard was enjoying a posthumous jubilee.
On the day I visited, it was far quieter. Members of the public can book themselves in for a tour, and in the two hours I spent in the information centre I was the only non-Scientologist there. In fact, for much of the tour I was the only person there, left to peruse the leaflets and videos alone. The clips, shown on flatscreen Panasonic screens with interactive touchpads, recall cheesy corporate infomercials, and there is no hint of the darkness alleged by media outlets and campaign groups. It's the soft sell.
There are more than 40 clips on offer, showing individuals' own stories of how Scientology changed their lives. Some are innocuous and vague to the point where you simply end up admiring their fabulous American teeth, while others are unintentionally hilarious. Before Scientology, "I would automatically just start crying," says Raina. An Asian student boasts that with the power of Scientology, he took his "B minuses to solid As".
So what do Scientologists do? A more appropriate question would be what don't they do. Help rescue people on 9/11? Rehabilitate victims of Rwandan genocide? Care for people during the New Orleans disaster? They've done it all. In another video booth, there are boastful claims of how Scientology has put down roots across the globe, even in Germany, described as the "heartland of intolerance".
Halfway through my video journey, an "auditor" – as senior members refer to themselves – asks me if I have any questions. She is incredibly nice and (I'm sorry to say, cynics) completely human. The staff will not be drawn on the Tom and Katie drama (a receptionist told me what would appear to be the official line: "It's the media, they like to twist things").
As I leave, having expressed a substantial interest in returning and purchased a book, I am given a personality test to complete as well as some extra materials, one of which is a book of tips on how to lead a better life. The third tip is "preserve your teeth" and "suggest to others that they preserve their teeth". It is possibly the most concrete, straightforward thing I've heard all day.