Travel: Charleston

Wil­liam Cook

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

As my train trun­dled to­wards Lewes, I should have been en­joy­ing the Sus­sex coun­try­side – but I was far too busy swot­ting up on those in­fer­nal eggheads, the Blooms­bury Group.

It felt like be­ing back at school, cram­ming for a big exam and wish­ing I hadn’t put off all my re­vi­sion un­til the night be­fore. What is it about the Blooms­ber­ries that makes me feel so stupid? Am I the only one who never quite un­der­stood what the fuss was about?

When I was asked to pre­view the new gallery at Charleston, the Blooms­ber­ries’ Camelot, I jumped at the chance. But I re­alised how lit­tle I knew of them.

I liked Vir­ginia Woolf’s es­says, but I found her fic­tion al­most un­read­able. I Top: stu­dio with fire­place dec­o­rated by Dun­can Grant, and tiles be­hind the stove by Vanessa Bell at Charleston (above) knew more or less who’d slept with whom (those Blooms­ber­ries did quite a lot of bed-hop­ping) but could I tell a painting by Vanessa Bell from one by Dun­can Grant?

Yet I reckon I’m not so dif­fer­ent from most vis­i­tors here – ea­ger to learn, but a bit em­bar­rassed by their ig­no­rance. And af­ter a few days here in Blooms­buryshire, I feel I know a good deal more.

Vanessa Bell (Vir­ginia Woolf’s sis­ter) and her hus­band, Clive, moved to Charleston in 1916. You can see why they fell in love with this sturdy farm­house be­side a pretty pond, sur­rounded by an­cient fruit trees. It’s only seven miles from Lewes but, a cen­tury since they ar­rived, it still feels re­mote – a per­fect artis­tic re­treat.

With them came their two sons,

‘Life is a dream,’ wrote Vir­ginia Woolf. ‘ ’Tis wak­ing that kills us’

Ju­lian and Quentin, and their friend Dun­can Grant, who soon took Clive’s place as Vanessa’s part­ner. Quentin’s widow, Anne Bell, who re­stored Charleston and edited Vir­ginia Woolf’s diaries, died in July, aged 102.

Dun­can also had af­fairs with fel­low Blooms­ber­ries Lyt­ton Stra­chey and John May­nard Keynes – it would have made rather a good Carry On film. In 1919, Vanessa’s sis­ter, Vir­ginia, and her hus­band, Leonard Woolf, took on Monk’s House (a smaller house but just as charming), eight miles away.

Noth­ing had pre­pared me for the pow­er­ful aura of Charleston. The gar­dens are idyl­lic, but it’s when you step in­side the house that the place starts to work its magic. Dun­can has been dead for 40 years and Vanessa nearly 60, yet it feels as if they’re still here. Partly that’s be­cause the house is full of orig­i­nal books and paint­ings, but above all it’s be­cause the walls and fur­ni­ture are adorned with their vivid, avant-garde de­signs. It’s in­cred­i­bly in­ti­mate. I didn’t want to leave.

I’d been in­vited down here to see how Charleston is chang­ing – not the house it­self, thank good­ness, but the new gallery in the ad­join­ing farm­yard. It will house tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tions, mak­ing Charleston a venue for con­tem­po­rary art, not just a relic of the past. This grace­ful ex­ten­sion, largely funded by £2.44m of Lot­tery money, is cun­ningly con­cealed be­hind ex­ist­ing sheds and out­houses. Along with the gallery, there’s a new events space and restau­rant. Given the re­de­vel­op­ment’s scale, the view from the house re­mains re­mark­ably un­changed.

Af­ter a de­li­cious lunch at Charleston, I set off on foot to Ber­wick Church, a few miles away. I wanted to see the fres­coes that Vanessa and Dun­can had painted. I also wanted to see some of the land­scape that had in­spired them. I passed Keynes’s old house (pri­vate, but still worth see­ing from a dis­tance) and, within min­utes, I was out in open coun­try­side. Lewes is a com­muter town, barely an hour from Lon­don, yet now I was alone on the South Downs, the wind the only sound, and not a soul in sight.

I’d been walk­ing for about half an hour when I reached a clus­ter of cot­tages, hud­dled around a cross­roads. A hand­some old farm­house caught my eye. This was where artist, critic and cu­ra­tor (and Blooms­bury stal­wart) Roger Fry used to live. The ad­dress was ab­surdly whim­si­cal: Bo-peep Farm­house, Bopeep Lane. A sign out­side said they did B&B. Luck­ily, the own­ers, John and Eileen, were in. They showed me round: three dou­ble bed­rooms, all en suite, £120 a night with break­fast. What a de­light­ful place to stay, I thought, as I wan­dered on.

The church was well worth the hike. Vanessa’s Na­tiv­ity and An­nun­ci­a­tion are spec­tac­u­lar, but it was Dun­can’s Four

Sea­sons fresco that re­ally moved me. Vanessa’s pul­pit paint­ings were van­dalised af­ter she died, and re­painted by Dun­can. De­spite the frag­ile na­ture of its cargo, the church re­mains open day to day.

I stopped for a pint of Har­vey’s, the lo­cal beer, in the Crick­eters Arms around the cor­ner, and then walked a mile to Ber­wick and caught the train to Lewes. The Ber­wick Inn, be­side the sta­tion, is a good place to stop off for a bite to eat (or for an­other pint) if you miss your train.

Charleston is only one half of the pic­ture. The other half is Monk’s House, A room of her own: Vir­ginia Woolf at Monk’s House in 1939

where Vir­ginia and Leonard stayed. Like Charleston, it feels so friendly and homely – even more so, in fact, on ac­count of its smaller scale. The build­ing is 17th-cen­tury, but its colour­ful, ec­cen­tric dé­cor makes it seem pos­i­tively modern – you’d prob­a­bly still be re­garded as pro­gres­sive if you fur­nished your home like this to­day.

This is the house where Vir­ginia left her sui­cide note, be­fore drown­ing her­self in the nearby River Ouse, her pock­ets filled with peb­bles. So, it’s tempt­ing to say the house feels sad and haunted – tempt­ing, but un­true. It feels supremely peace­ful, es­pe­cially her writ­ing lodge and airy bed­room, where she wrote her com­pact mas­ter­piece, A Room of One’s Own.

From here, it’s a couple of miles to South­ease sta­tion, and the train back into Lewes. You can walk there through South­ease vil­lage, with its en­chant­ing me­dieval church, or through the wa­ter mead­ows and along the River Ouse. Al­though Monk’s House seems a happy place, I can’t re­call the last time I came across such a des­o­late river­bank – bare, bereft and life­less, like a derelict canal.

‘Sus­sex is no longer young,’ wrote Vir­ginia, not long be­fore she died, ‘and she is grate­ful for the veil of evening as an el­derly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the out­line of her face re­mains.’ I read that sen­tence sev­eral times over as I waited for my home­bound train.

I feel dif­fer­ently about the Blooms­bury Group now I’ve been to Monk’s House and Charleston. They seem less in­tim­i­dat­ing, less clever-clever and more hu­mane. And though I still find Vir­ginia Woolf a strug­gle, some things she’s writ­ten have stayed with me, long af­ter the prose of au­thors I far pre­fer has faded. ‘Lock up your li­braries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the free­dom of your mind,’ she wrote in A Room of One’s Own.

You won’t re­gret a trip to this part of the world. But try to re­sist the rid­dle of why this hap­pily mar­ried, cre­atively ful­filled woman chose to die. You won’t solve it. ‘Life is a dream,’ she wrote in Or­lando. ‘ ’Tis wak­ing that kills us.’

In­stead, pon­der that pe­cu­liar group of peo­ple – pre­ten­tious, ir­ri­tat­ing, yet rather won­der­ful – who turned their un­usual way of life into a unique work of art.

The newly re­fur­bished Charleston opens on 8th Septem­ber; charleston.org.uk (£14.50, adults). Lewes is the near­est main­line sta­tion

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