My boyfriend surprised me last Friday evening with a weekend away as a birthday present. I was told to meet him at Charing Cross station and we’d go from there. We got on a train and it was quite dark by the time we arrived in Burwash, Sussex where we stayed at Pelham Hall, a beautiful modern B&B. It’s a 14th century house that’s been lovingly decorated by its friendly proprietors. It’s a strange feeling arriving somewhere in the dark because it was only in the morning I saw what a sprawling picturesque countryside surrounded the place. Living in overpopulated London it’s easy to forget sometimes that a short train ride away there are such rural places. A short walk away from Pelham Hall over a field is Bateman’s which was Rudyard Kipling’s Jacobean home. We hiked by to see this impressive property from the exterior, but of course I was much more interested in visiting the nearby properties inhabited by the Bloomsbury group.
The first place we visited on Saturday morning was Monk’s House, Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s long-time rural residence in the tiny village of Rodmell. Visitors are only able to walk through the ground floor rooms of this 17th century cottage including the study with Leonard’s odd collection of shells and Virginia’s favourite reading chair, a dining room, a staircase with a pile of books on every stair (apparently upon Leonard’s death there were over 6000 books in the house) and a kitchen partially screened off with a portrait of the Woolf’s cook. There is also a greenhouse at the entrance of the house which has hanging grape vines. We were able to purchase some of these grapes from the shop which only asked for a donation. At the back of the house is Virginia’s bedroom housing artwork by Vanessa Bell and a bed which has a view of the garden. The garden itself is quite large and impressive with many flowers, fruit trees and vegetables growing, a pond and a scattering of statues. One section of the garden has busts of Leonard and Virginia next to which is the tree under which her ashes were scattered. At the end of the garden is a small structure with photographs of the Woolfs and the many guests they entertained at the cottage which they inhabited from 1919 until Leonard’s death in 1969.
What really brought the house alive were the many guides sat throughout the property who were brimming with enthusiasm to talk about the history of the estate and stories about the Woolfs. At one point, a volunteer gave an animated reading from Mrs Dalloway in the garden. It was amazing to learn that almost all of the furniture and decorations in the house are the originals including some famous portraits of Virginia and a shelf of Virginia’s books. What a fantastic experience to come in such close contact with the place where she spent so much time when “The Waves” is a novel which has meant so much to me throughout my life.
Next we drove to nearby Charleston House which was the long-time residence of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. This was a much larger establishment and it was thrilling to take the tour through the farmhouse as nearly every room is painted in Grant and Bell’s distinctive styles. The wallpaper, bookcases and furniture are covered in their own colourful designs. Of course, paintings fill nearly every wall ranging from the works of famous artists to local friends. Even the lampshades in some of the lower rooms were decorated with Vanessa’s son’s distinctive colander shades which scatter drops of the fading daylight across the ceiling. It’s easy to imagine how such a large, lively residence could be the central point for gatherings of artists. Although I’m familiar with the broad facts about Virginia’s life, I knew comparatively little about the complex relationships between Duncan and Vanessa and the many other members of the Bloomsbury group. What a complicated state of affairs! I didn’t watch the recent drama series ‘Life in Squares’ about the group, but that evening we downloaded and watched the first episode. It’s a rather silly dramatization, but good indulgent fun.
Before heading out to a pub for dinner we made a final stop at the nearby Berwick Church which contains many murals painted by Duncan and Vanessa. It was interesting to see the style of paintings – so much more realistic than many religious scenes with soldiers and likenesses of members of their immediate family included.
I had the most fantastic weekend and it’s given me a renewed love for Virginia Woolf’s work. I hope to go back and read the Persephone Books edition of her Diaries later this year after I finish reading all the submissions for the Green Carnation Prize. I feel really lucky and grateful to have had this experience. It was an especially thoughtful present.
Have you ever visited Monk’s House or another residence of one of your favourite writers? Did it change how you read them?