After a fabulous week, we reluctantly left Dorset and drove to East Sussex. A journey that should have taken about three hours stretched to four because of road problems but never mnd; it was worth it. We stayed at Bo-Peeps Farmhouse, for two nights and while we were there we visited Monk’s House, Berwick Church and Charleston Farmhouse – and the local pub on an evening, of course! The lovely lady, Eileen, at Bo-Peep’s seemed anxious that we take a torch for our walk home from the pub and I thought she was over reacting. Silly me.
Monk’s House – The Woolfs’ Country Retreat
These are photographs of Monk’s House taken when I visited on 10 September 2015.
In July 1919 The Woolfs bought Monk’s House for £700 and transported all their furniture via two horse drawn carts. Their new home was not luxurious. Rainwater washed through from the garden to the house, mice disturbed them at night jumping into the beds, but over time the primitive conditions improved and, as Virginia’s work earned her money, they made improvements. They had the kitchen redone and made a writing lodge in the garden (information from Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris p64-65).
They later installed a hot water range and a bathroom and had an extension in 1929.
Electricity would have been available to wealthy people but Virginia would never have seen a television. I asked my mother in law when she first had electricity in her home. She told me that newly built council houses in Royston, South Yorkshire, had electricity from 1926 but most private rented homes didn’t have electricity until the mid 1950s. Black and white television would have been commonplace in homes after the second world war.
What first surprised me about Monk’s House was that it was down a lane in a village with other houses and I had expected it to be rather more isolated. To my inexperienced eye other nearby properties looked like they had been there as long as Monk’s House had, in that they fitted in quite nicely; so it seemed that Virginia and Leonard had neighbours. The second thing was that it was smaller than I thought it would be.
Well, it turns out that Monk’s House is a 17th century cottage and some of the properties nearby had been built in the 1950s. I think I had better stick to literature and not get too involved in the history of architecture. So, maybe Virginia and Leonard were more isolated than they would be today but certainly some properties nearby would have been around at the time.
I started in the garden. A considerable (about 3/4 acre) and charming garden with bowling green, orchard, allotments, footpaths and flowers. Deckchairs were set out and positioned as if to watch the bowling on a summer’s day.
Above: the garden with Virginia’s bust marking the place where her ashes are scattered; the allotment area, and, anyone for bowls?
For me, the most poignant part of the garden was Virginia’s writing lodge. Think of a big garden shed with windows and ‘patio’ doors giving views of the garden on three sides. Virginia liked her solitude and wrote many of her novels in this lodge. A simple place with a desk and a couple of chairs. However, despite its beautiful location, the peace and the feeling of privilege, I thought it had a sadness about it.
Above: Virginia’s desk, the front of the lodge and the patio side of the lodge. Virginia and her friends used to sit in their deckchairs on this patio so it wasn’t all about Virginia being alone; not all of the time.
We entered the house through the conservatory which was like a greenhouse; not a conservatory as we think of one, with furniture and a place to sit and chat, but one filled to the rafters with plants.
What I really loved was the deckchair on the small balcony above the conservatory. I can imagine Virginia sitting there, reading perhaps or writing; thinking and brooding and looking out at the expansive garden and views.
The first room was the sitting room with armchairs round the fireplace, Leonards writing desk, a large table and books, of course.
The next room was the dining room. A bit squashed I thought. Apparently Virginia didn’t even know how to scramble an egg. The servants would have managed all the food and its preparation. One of the guides at Monk’s House told me that the two cottages at the bottom of the Lane (about a two minute walk away from Monk’s House) were for the gardener and the cook.
My favourite room was Virginia’s bedroom. This ground floor room is an annexe to the main house. The only access is directly from the garden. Virginia liked to be away from the noise of the house and this was her retreat. The room was furnished with a single bed under one of the windows. Virginia would have been able to see two aspects of the garden from her bed. Book shelves were on the walls including several above the head of the bed.
Above: The fireplace in Virginia’s bedroom; simply furnished; Shakespeare’s works (hand covered by Virginia); bedside table with a lamp designed by Vanessa – and note the bell; the outside access to the room.
The guide in this room said how the housekeeper would enter the room on a morning to find screwed up bits of paper all over the floor. Each piece of paper would have the same sentence on it but with perhaps just one word changed.
We were not allowed to go upstairs so really there were only three main rooms on display and it really was much smaller that I expected it to be. The stairs themselves though were worth noting. I assume the National Trust has ‘furnished’ them with books as they would have been in Virginia’s time. I love the trail of books on the stairs. A true book lover’s house.
When Leonard died in 1969 he left the house to Marjorie Parsons (artist) who had been his partner after Virginia’s death. Marjorie sold it to the University of Sussex in 1972 and it was acquired by the National Trust in 1980.
I had wanted to visit this house for several years but the distance was always an obstacle. I am so pleased we went and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Next: Berwick Church and then Charleston Farmhouse.