Tuesday, August 05, 2014

"That will be our address forever and ever"

After my emotional visit to the National Portrait Gallery for their exhibition  VIRGINIA WOOLF: ART, LIFE, VISION, the next day was given over to something I had been planning for a long time - going to Virginia Woolf's country home Monk's House in the small Sussex village of Rodmell.

We got the train from Victoria, changing at Lewes for the one-an-hour train to the unmanned station of Southease.  It is a mile walk from there to Rodmell and, for a city mouse like myself, it was an oddly disconcerting feeling for us to be the only ones on the road for as far as you could see!

We walked for a while until we saw a signpost saying 'Rodmell 1/2 Mile' which led us to a country path that wandered up a hill, down a hill, down some roughly constructed stairs and along a field's edge, all the time being fluttered around by butterflies and at one point a rather large Dragonfly that sat quite happily on a flower as I stroked it's wing but flew away sharpish when I opened my Pepsi Max bottle.  Maybe it preferred Diet Coke?

Then just as I was beginning to tire of walking, there we were in the village and turning down the quiet road which eventually leads to Monk's House.  The garage was been converted to a shop/visitor centre and, very excited, I opened the gate and walked up the side of the house to the entrance at it's back.  Virginia and Leonard bought the house in 1919 and were able to make much-needed renovations and additions as Virginia's books became more and more successful during the 1920s and 1930s. 

At once I felt happy to be there.  There are very friendly volunteers in each of the four public-access rooms, very happy to tell you about the history of the items on display and the Woolf's life in their home.  The living room is the first you enter and what strikes you first is the low ceiling and the cool, green colour-scheme that makes it a wonderfully calm area.  The colour was one of Virginia's favourites and it adds to the ambiance of the room, the easy chairs facing each other by the fire giving the impression of the Woolf's companionship, Leonard's writing desk open and waiting for him to tear off another letter railing at the injustices of the world...

On all the walls are paintings by those close to the couple, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant are of course represented highly, but there are also paintings contributed by Trekkie Parsons, who shared the house with Leonard after Virginia's death, up until Leonard's own death in 1969.  I was very taken with the low tables in the living room and bedroom, covered with gleaming tiles painted by Grant.

The dining room and kitchen are also on display as is Virginia's small, neat bedroom which was built onto the side of the house in 1929, originally as a writing room but she found it to be an ideal bedroom, it's windows letting in lots of sunlight and surrounded by the garden.

It was humbling to be there and see her personally hand-covered collection of Shakespeare plays and Vanessa's delightful tiled fireplace, painted by her for Virginia to mark the success of TO THE LIGHTHOUSE.

There is also Virginia's writing lodge in the gardens, a short walk away from the house across the lawn, it's doors opening up onto an unspoiled view of the Downs.  We were told that we were lucky that they had a full compliment of volunteers so the lodge was actually open to visitors and it was wonderful to stand there by her writing desk, her glasses and cigarettes still there waiting to be used.  The volunteer said sadly all we could do in there was look and breathe in the air.  That was fine for me.

There is also the very large garden to explore which, like the house, was made bigger as the Woolf's fortunes grew, allowing them to buy up adjacent plots of land.  We were blessed with sunny, warm weather which made it a delight to wander around it's terraces, hidden nooks and allotments.

For a Friday lunchtime it was nicely busy but not excessively so it was easy to wander around at your own pace, doubling back on yourself and exploring all the turnings.  On our wander we discovered the shell of Leonard's greenhouse which they are hoping to renovate and nearby was the side-gate out onto the adjacent lane.  It slowly dawned on me that this was the gate that Virginia used to slip away on that March day in 1941, physically and metaphorically turning her back on her life and writing to walk to the River Ouse.

Sadly the two elm trees - which the couple named 'Virginia' and 'Leonard' - that their ashes were buried under are no longer there.  One died through Dutch Elm disease while the other was blown down in a gale and one of the volunteers told me they would love to replant them if they could find an elm resistant to the disease.

After the necessary purchases from the garage shop, it was time to reflect and have lunch in the nearby village pub then to do the walk back though the fields to the station and return to London.  Virginia loved London life with it's teeming vibrancy and cultural whirl but when it all got too much for her, there was Monk's House to regain her equilibrium and to sink into the quiet she so desperately needed.

I am already looking forward to visiting again...

No comments: