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