A SLIGHTLY different post this week…. (all the photographs below are my own, by the way)
I recently visited the East Sussex home of Virginia Woolf – Monk’s House. Virginia & her husband, Leonard, purchased it 1919 for £700 as a retreat from their often hectic London life. The 18th century weatherboard house was in a poor state when they moved in but with the income from her successful novels the Woolfs’ slowly modernised and refurbished both it and its grounds.
Monk’s House is located in the main street of the quiet village of Rodmell which is just three miles (approx 5 kms) from Lewes. Virginia’s country hideaway is very near to her sister’s (the artist Vanessa Bell) house ‘Charleston’ in the neighbouring village of Firle. So near in fact that Virginia regularly cycled and walked to Vanessa’s house. (For details on how to get to Monk’s House from central London see the directions at the bottom of this post.)
During their years at Monk’s House the Woolfs’ entertained some of the best-known literary and artistic figures of the day such as the authors E.M. Forster, T.S Eliot, Lytton Strachey and Vita Sackville-West, the economist Maynard Keynes, and the artists Duncan Grant and Roger Fry.The house is full of reminders of the talented circle in which the Woolfs’ moved. In the sitting room the table and chairs were decorated in abstract designs by Vanessa Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant. Original paintings and portraits by the family hang in every room. And Virginia’s bedroom also has a beautifully tiled fireplace with a small painting of a lighthouse, painted on it. It was a present from Vanessa after the success Virginia had with her novel, ‘To the Lighthouse’.
In the 1930s, Virginia’s writing lodge was built at the far end of the garden under a chestnut tree. The lodge has a small patio in front of it and on summer evenings visitors would come and sit here to watch games of bowls being played on the lawn. Today the lodge also contains a small gallery of black and white photographs which show Virginia and Leonard relaxing in Monk’s House with family and friends.
It was in the writer’s lodge that Virginia wrote parts of all her major novels including ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To the Lighthouse’ and ‘Between the Acts’ – as well as book reviews, essays, and letters. In the summer of 1931 Leonard came out to see Virginia in her lodge to tell her that ‘The Waves’ (which he had just finished reading) was a masterpiece. And, sadly, it was also in her lodge that Virginia wrote a farewell letter to her husband on a cold March morning in 1941 before walking down to the River Ouse, filling her coat pockets with stones, and drowning herself. After Virginia’s body was recovered three weeks later, Leonard scattered her ashes under a large elm tree in the garden.The gardens which surround the house are huge. Leonard was apparently a keen gardener and the grounds are as the couple left them. They are absolutely stunning. It was on the large open lawn that the Woolfs’ played bowls with their friends. Near the house there is an orchard as well as a formal garden where paths wind through yew hedges and a herbaceous area.
Virginia and Leonard divided their time between Monk’s House and their Bloomsbury house in London until 1940 when the latter was damaged in an air raid. They then moved into Monk’s House on a full-time basis. After Virginia took her own life in 1941, Leonard continued to live in Rodmell until his death in 1969. The plaque which Leonard raised to her memory is located in the garden. It contains a quotation from her novel ‘The Waves’:
”Death is the enemy. Against you
I will fling myself unvanquished
and unyielding – O Death!
The waves broke on the shore.”
Monk’s House opening times
Although Monk’s House is now owned by the National Trust and is open to the public it is still very much a workplace for artists and writers. Visitors cannot go upstairs because it contains an artist in residence. I like to think that Virginia would approve of this.
Monk’s House is open 5 afternoons a week (Weds-Sun) from April to October. For more details see the Monk’s House website.
How to get to Monk’s House by public transport from Central London
If you plan to go to Monk’s House by public transport you may find the directions on the Monk’s House website aren’t very helpful – so if you’re coming from central London these are the steps I took:
– catch a train from London-Victoria station to Lewes station. The journey takes just over 1 hour. (For train times and ticket prices visit the National Rail website)
– from Lewes station get the 123 bus to Rodmell village. The journey takes about 15-20 minutes. You need to get off at the stop which is opposite the Abergavenny Arms pub. (If you feel like something to eat & drink, the pub does great lunches. They also do cream teas from 3-5pm – Mon to Sat only.)
(WARNING: the 123 bus only runs once per hour (if that) from Mon-Fri and every 2 hours on Sat. There are no buses on Sun. Make sure you catch the last bus back from Rodmell to Lewes!)
Walks around Monk’s House and the South Downs
If you fancy a walk on the beautiful South Downs which takes in both Monk’s House and Charleston, take a look at this walk (PDF document) from National Trails. I did part of the trek on a sunny weekday and it was practically free of other walkers.
Video clips and photographs of Monk’s House
Brief clip of Monk’s House and Virginia Woolf’s connection with it