A Bloomsbury Group pilgrimage!

Yesterday I spent an absolutely amazing day out in Sussex with a friend on a "pilgrimage". Having been to see Charleston House and Berwick Church three weeks ago and becoming obsessed with the Bloomsbury Group, I wanted to return to see Monk's House, the home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and also to visit the church in the village of Firle where Vanessa Bell, her live-in lover Duncan Grant and Vanessa's son Quentin Bell (from her marriage to Clive Bell) are buried. 

It was a perfect English summer's day - cloudless sky, a lovely cool breeze and temperatures around 25C.  Be warned now,  I'm afraid this blog post is serious photographic spam!!

First stop Lewes where we parked in the pretty historic centre at the top of the hill and headed to the Flint Owl Bakery for coffee. We shared a slice of the delicious Raspberry Bakewell but I could have happily eaten several cakes as they all looked so inviting! I bought a loaf of spelt bread of which I had a couple of slices for supper last night with a tomato, mozzarella and basil salad. There is nothing quite like fresh, crusty bread, is there?

We walked around Lewes looking at some of the little independent interiors shops and then we headed to the village of Firle as I wanted to visit the graves of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell who are all buried in the churchyard. Firle is a sleepy little idyllic English village. It reminded me of my country, New Zealand,  as there were a couple of honesty boxes where they were selling fruit and veg; unfortunately the vicar's mange touts and sweet peas were sold out !

A couple of hundred yards and we were entering the path up to Firth church. I was filled with anticipation about seeing the final resting place of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell but nothing quite prepared me for the beauty of the church and its graveyard or the poignancy of the moment when I found their gravestones.

The church is small and quite simple but there is a surprise addition in the Gage chapel (the Gage family were the original owners of Firle Manor) to the side of the main part of the church. This beautiful window was designed by John Piper and depicts a tree of life in heavenly Jerusalem entitled "Homage to William Blake's Book of Job". The window was installed in 1985 in memory of the Rt. Hon. Henry Rainald, 6th Viscount Gage.

We stopped at The Ram Inn in the village for a liquid refreshment. It was a favourite haunt for Virginia Woolf and her husband as they moved to live in Firle in 1910. 

Before we left Firle we drove through the gates of Firle Place and  across extensive parkland to see the house which is hidden from view. The Gage family’s 500 year history at Firle started when Sir John Gage, KG (1479-1556) built this great Tudor manor house, Firle Manor, which was completed in about 1543. Firle was remodelled in the eighteenth century. The external cladding is Georgian using Caen Stone to make it look like a classic French chateau which is really does resemble. The house is set in extensive open parkland. The interior of the house will be for another visit as we didn't have time on this occasion.  It is Tudor in style and circulates around a central courtyard. There is an extensive collection of paintings, porcelain and furniture including works by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Van Dyck, Raphael, Puligo, Zoffany and Teniers. 

Then back on the road to The Juggs pub in the village of Kingston for a quick lunch of whitebait and salad in the garden. It was originally a 15th century cottage and has a very cosy interior with the original low ceilings and beams.

We arrived at the beautiful village of Rodmell which is three miles south-east of Lewis, East Sussex. Seeing Monk's House for the first time was quite an emotional moment and entering the house had the same effect on me as entering Charleston House a few weeks earlier. I understand that women are known to weep when they enter Monk's House. Virginia's tragic suicide must have a lot to do with the feeling of sadness that envelopes you in the house. 

The house is an 18th century weatherboard cottage and is quite small but perfectly formed and it has been beautifully preserved over the years.  Caroline Zoob and her husband rented it from the National Trust for ten years and Caroline has written the most stunning book about the Garden with amazing photography by Caroline Arber. The book is entitled 'Virginia Woolf's Garden' and is a must-buy.  You couldn't few the few rooms upstairs as there are National Trust people living there to provide security for the house.  But we did see all of the ground floor - sitting room, dining room, kitchen and Virginia's bedroom.  The house was originally three cottages and this is evidenced by the different flagstones in the sitting room.

However the main feature of Monk's House is definitely the garden and it was for the garden that Virginia and Leonard bought the house.  During the Woolfs’ early years at Rodmell, Monk's House was a modest three-quarters of an acre of garden including an orchard and a number of outbuildings. Conditions were primitive and over the years the Woolfs made many alterations and additions, including improvements to the kitchen, the installation of a hot water range and bathroom with water closet and a two-storey extension in 1929. In 1928 they bought an adjoining field to preserve the beautiful views from the garden towards Mount Caburn.

The Woolfs spent more and more time in Rodmell, eventually living there full-time from 1940 when their London flat in Mecklenburgh Square, Bloomsbury was damaged during an air raid. The solitude of village life allowed Virginia respite from the tumult of London.

The garden is secluded behind flint walls and yew trees with the grey spire of St Peter's Church rising over the lovely old orchard. Virginia's lodge where she spent 22 years writing her novels is tucked into a corner of the orchard against the flint wall. It has been preserved behind glass with even her spectacles still on the desk.

The orchard contains some stunning old apple and pear trees which were laden with fruit. There were deck chairs under some of the trees where you were able to sit just as Virginia, Leonard and their friends used to. It was as if time had stood still.

The garden is divided up into rooms and has a glorious mix of colours and textures. There are gorgeous pots. urns, statues and sculptures in strategic positions which add further interest.  When you visit the garden now it has a special quality and a wonderful atmosphere. The garden slopes up and when backlit it has an incandescent quality. A spectacular view of the church rises behind it from every part of the garden and the flint walls and brick paths create different areas and vistas. There is an Italian Garden, a dew pond, a terrace, a bowling lawn as well as the orchard which was the Woolf's favourite part, with its fruit-bearing trees and beehives. 

For Virginia there was no doubt that the peace and tranquillity of the garden helped soothe her mind during her well documented periods of illness and depression. It was also a source of inspiration. Her morning walk through it to her writing lodge was a vital part of her creative routine. In a letter to a friend, she writes: “I sleep and dress in full view of the garden.” Her almost viridian green drawing room was a favourite, although her sister, Vanessa, laughed at her choice of green. But it was her favourite colour and helped (with the addition of the five windows) to bring the outside in. 

On a wall in the garden are a bust of Virgina and one of Leonard

The garden closes at 5.30pm and from 5pm the garden emptied of visitors except for the two of us and a group of six French people who were playing boules on the lawn (using the Woolf's set of bowls that are there for the public's use). The shadows of the late afternoon lengthened and it was a magical time to be sitting in one of the old deck chairs watching them play.

Reluctantly we left Monk's House when it closed and decided to take a stroll through the village of Rodmell and into the churchyard next to Monk's House. 

We headed back to London around 6.30pm having had a truly wonderful day - poignant and emotional moments in the Firle churchyard looking at the graves of Vanessa Bell, Quentin Bell and Duncan Grant and then the great pleasure of visiting the house and garden of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. I am totally addicted to the Bloomsbury Group now! I do hope you are lucky enough to visit these magical places.

You may also like to read