Writer’s Re­treat

Monk’s House, Leonard and Vir­ginia Woolf’s charm­ing, art-!lled re­treat in Rod­mell, East Sus­sex, o"ers vis­i­tors a re­mark­able in­sight into the nov­el­ist’s life


No run­ning wa­ter, no bath­room, no heat­ing, no drainage and only a prim­i­tive out­door earth closet: most would agree th­ese short­com­ings don’t add up to the ideal coun­try re­treat. But, to Vir­ginia Woolf, Monk’s House ‘was the mon­grel that won my heart’, a sanc­tu­ary where she could write, live qui­etly with her hus­band Leonard and see friends, away from the demands of Lon­don life.

‘ The story of the house is a do­mes­tic love story be­tween Leonard and Vir­ginia,’ ex­plains Allison Pritchard, Op­er­a­tions Man­ager at the house, who has looked a !er it for the past six years. ‘In many ways they had a suc­cess­ful mar­riage and an equal part­ner­ship, and there’s a strong sense of that in the house still.’

The an­cient weath­er­boarded brick and "int build­ing was once three work­ers’ co#ages, set along a nar­row lane on the out­skirts of Rod­mell, near Lewes in East Sus­sex. Th­ese days, Rod­mell is a pros­per­ous, pic­ture­post­card vil­lage, backed by $elds that un­fold to the wa­ter mead­ows of the River Ouse. But in 1919, when Vir­ginia and Leonard Woolf $ rst came here, the vil­lage was rundown and the house ba­sic. It was the gar­den, three- quar­ters of an acre of wilder­ness, that drew them. ‘ The gar­den still comes as a sur­prise to vis­i­tors to­day,’ says Allison. ‘ It looks like a stan­dard plot, but

opens up be­hind, to a view of the 12th- cen­tury church that Vir­ginia re­ferred to as “the grey ex­tin­guisher” and, ev­ery a !er­noon, in al­most any weather, she would un­latch the gate and go walk­ing in the Sus­sex coun­try­side.’

The Woolfs par­tially fur­nished the house with items bought from an auc­tion of the pre­vi­ous own­ers’ be­long­ings. From the lots spread across the lawn for the sale, Vir­ginia and Leonard chose three prim­i­tive por­traits of the Glaze­brook fam­ily, millers who had lived in the house in the 19th cen­tury. Th­ese paint­ings re­main in the house to this day.

The cou­ple’s "rst weeks at Rod­mell were not aus­pi­cious. The kitchen #ooded on their "rst night and the house was cold and far from com­fort­able. ‘ It’s an un­pre­tend­ing house, long and low, a house of many doors,’ wrote Vir­ginia, wearily. But, as the years passed, her writ­ing in­come, and the suc­cess of the publishing busi­ness that she and Leonard founded in 1917 paid for im­prove­ments to be made. ‘They made poky rooms prac­ti­cal and put their per­son­al­i­ties into the house,’ ex­plains Allison. Two small down­stairs rooms at one end of the house were knocked through and a ground-#oor bed­room, where Vita Sackville-West once spent the night, was turned into a din­ing room. The kitchen was im­proved and ex­tended and, at one end of the build­ing, a new

The cou­ple’s !rst weeks here were not aus­pi­cious. The kitchen "ooded on their !rst night and the house was cold and far from com­fort­able.

self- con­tained bed­room was made for Vir­ginia. ‘One thing that’s miss­ing, though, is books. You have to imag­ine ev­ery sur­face cov­ered in books, and books piled all the way up the walls,’ Allison ex­plains. In fact, so many were stored up­stairs, the cou­ple were warned that the ceil­ing be­neath may well col­lapse.

Rooms were painted by Vir­ginia, in vivid shades of green, yel­low, blue and pome­gran­ate, and they be­came the colour­ful back­drop for works of art and fur­nish­ings by iconic Blooms­bury names. Vir­ginia’s sis­ter Vanessa Bell, Dun­can Grant and other mem­bers of their cir­cle each de­picted the gar­den, close friends and the sur­round­ing land­scape. Vanessa de­signed the fab­ric used on chairs and for cur­tains. She also painted the tiled ! re­place in Vir­ginia’s new bed­room with a de­sign in­spired by her sis­ter’s novel, To The

Light­house, and their shared child­hood home in St Ives. The din­ing ta­ble and chairs in the si"ing room were dec­o­rated by Dun­can Grant and Vanessa in Omega Work­shops style, with Vanessa’s char­ac­ter­is­tic cir­cles and cross hatch­ings, and Vir­ginia’s ini­tials em­bla­zoned on the chair backs. Dun­can’s tile panel, de­pict­ing Venus at

her Toi­let, pro­vided the top for a

Rooms painted in vivid shades of green, yel­low, blue and pome­gran­ate be­came the colour­ful back­drop for works of art by iconic Blooms­bury names.

co!ee ta­ble, and his de­signs were worked in ta­pes­try by his mother to make a mir­ror frame.

Although the house is now cared for by the Na­tional Trust, the sense of life here dur­ing the Woolfs’ life­time re­mains po­tent. Pho­tos of friends are propped on man­tel­pieces, Vir­ginia’s glasses re­main on her desk, the bowls they played on many a "er­noons are still in a box un­der the stairs. ‘ When they were here, their lives fol­lowed a well-prac­tised rou­tine,’ ex­plains Allison. Vir­ginia wrote in her writ­ing shed in the gar­den or her bed­room most morn­ings. Then, a "er lunch, she walked, played bowls, edited her work, had tea, wrote le#ers and lis­tened to mu­sic, all with what Leonard de­scribed as ‘the reg­u­lar­ity of a stock­bro­ker on her com­mute to work’.

‘Our mis­sion in the house is to show what life was like here and to try and de­bunk some of the myths as­so­ci­ated with Vir­ginia Woolf,’ ex­plains Allison. ‘Peo­ple may o"en be drawn in by the more sala­cious el­e­ments of her ex­is­tence: the fact that she was a de­pres­sive, had an a !air with Vita Sackville-West and took her own life. But when you come here, you see that her life wasn’t dom­i­nated by ill­ness. There’s a sense of her fun, cre­ativ­ity and wit.’ Per­haps that’s why Allison’s favourite paint­ing is the por­trait of Vir­ginia by her sis­ter. ‘She hated hav­ing her por­trait painted, but this shows her fresh-faced and youth­ful. Just as I like to imag­ine her.’

Vir­ginia de­scribed their re­treat as ‘an un­pre­tend­ing house, long and low, a house of many doors’.

The Chi­nese shawl on the chair was given to Vir­ginia by Lady Ot­to­line Mor­rell. The cur­tain ma­te­rial is a reprinted de­sign by her sis­ter, and is avail­able to buy at the Charleston Shop.

A small weath­er­board build­ing was in­stalled in the gar­den in 1934. Vir­ginia used it as her writ­ing room.

The Prop­erty Monk’s House is man­aged by the Na­tional Trust (01273 474760; na­tion­al­trust.org.uk). For more in­for­ma­tion about the gar­den at Monk’s House, turn to page 94.

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