Monk’s House, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s former home, is one of my favourite places on earth. Nestled in a picture-perfect village in the heart of the Sussex Downs, the National Trust owned property offers a marvellous glimpse into the life of one of Britain’s greatest writers.
When she first viewed the house, Virginia wrote: the rooms are small…the kitchen is distinctly bad. There’s an oil stove, & no grate. Nor is there hot water, nor a bath… These prudent objections kept excitement at bay; yet even they were forced to yield place to a profound pleasure at the size & shape & fertility & wildness of the garden.
Monk’s House garden is indeed everything an English country garden should be, complete with beehives, an orchard, winding paths, a wisteria arch and a writing shed. Walking amongst the pink-tipped blossom, with the bees buzzing and a light breeze stirring, I felt as if I’d stepped back in time to a more tranquil era, when there was space in the day-to-day hum of life for tea in the garden and picnics under trees.
We spent ages in the garden, sitting on deck chairs in a shady patch of grass and admiring the glorious views. ‘All nature is to be had in 5 minutes,’ said Virginia of the South Downs, and I do see her point: this particular corner of Britain is especially lovely, and it is easy to see why so many writers and painters alike have been inspired by it.
It isn’t just the garden, though, that makes Monk’s House special – I love the house itself, which is filled with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s instantly recognisable designs and has an atmosphere of calm serenity. Virginia, apparently, was particularly fond of green paint, and the sitting room is painted a remarkable, pistachio ice-cream shade. There is a very lived-in quality to the room: all the usual writing paraphernalia is left out on Leonard’s desk; books are piled on tables and lavender sits drying in bowls. It is as though the Woolfs have just that minute stepped out – perhaps on a walk over to Charleston to see Vanessa and Duncan – and will be back before sunset to take tea in the cosy armchairs by the fire. Incredibly, I can reach out and touch a chair that Virginia perhaps once scraped back in a hurry to leave the dining table.
Only the ground floor of the house is viewable to visitors, but happily Virginia Woolf’s bedroom is one of the rooms open to the public and must not be missed. It is a room surrounded by garden, with a door leading direct to the outside. Standing at the doorway, you can look down the whole stretch of the garden to the church tower presiding over the treetops.
‘A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,’ Virginia famously wrote in A Room of One’s Own. It is easy to imagine that inspiration would fly from the pen in such an appealing room, although apparently it was used as a bedroom alone, rather than a work room, as Virginia was very particular about the height of the table she used to write. Still, such a room would provide a fine refuge at the end of each day.
Beautiful as Monk’s House is, there is a hint of bitter-sweet poignancy that clings to the air; a touch of sadness that mingles with the echoes of footsteps trodden long ago and the words of Virginia Woolf, which used to reverberate through the house as she read aloud in the bathtub every morning (where the acoustics were good), checking the rhythm to her lines was right. It is impossible not to walk through her former home without remembering the novelist’s tragic end. Equally, though, it is impossible not to feel that, when she could find happiness, she found it here.
Returning to Monk’s House made a memorable end to our recent day in East Sussex, and if you haven’t been yourself, I do urge you to go. It has an incredible atmosphere that is all its own and must be experienced in person for it to truly resonate.
Have any of you visited Monk’s House already? What did you think of it?
++ See my post on Charleston House, home of Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister) here ++