A Trip to See Vanessa and Virginia

They weren’t in, though.

My friends Shauna and Lauren (who were on the master’s course I did 2008/9) and I have been intending to take a trip to Sussex for about three years, and on Saturday we finally organised ourselves and did it.  Our itinerary?  Monk’s House and Charleston – being the homes of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and Vanessa Bell et al respectively.  When I say ‘et al’ that includes luminaries as various as David Garnett, Duncan Grant, and John Maynard Keynes.

We took the train to Lewes (which is lovely and where, ahem, I bought a couple of books – Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton and Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor) and then had a beautiful walk along the river to Monk’s House.  It really couldn’t have been a better day for it – we kept stopping and marvelling at how beautiful it was.  Normally I do this sort of gasping next to my brother Colin, who doesn’t care at all about views (“They’re just things from further away”) so it was a refreshing change to have people agree with my effusiveness.

Such a lovely walk to take!  Also oddly deserted.

Lauren and I get a bit too excited about it all…

After a picnic and some debate over the map (and me falling into a very deep rabbit hole for a moment – sadly no Alice-esque adventures) we arrived at Monk’s House, and I used my National Trust membership for probably the last time.  And we were allowed to take photos!  Here follows lots of photos…

Table painted by Vanessa Bell!

Shakespeare volumes bound & labelled by VW

VW’s writing shed

 It was so special.  I love Virginia Woolf, as you probably know, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so many years to visit Monk’s House.  To be in the same rooms in which she lived, seeing her furniture and wandering around her garden, was a really wonderful, quite moving, experience.

But we didn’t just go to one Bloomsbury Group home, oh no!  Next stop was Charleston, a few miles away.  We weren’t allowed to take photographs inside, so here is just the outside.  If it was a beautiful home outside (and it was) than the inside was utterly breathtaking.  Every wall and item of furniture was decorated by Vanessa Bell or Duncan Grant – abstract patterns creating a sponged-on ‘wallpaper’, a rooster painted above the window to ‘wake up’ the occupant in the morning, etc.  Despite being a rented house…!  And paintings hung everywhere, too.  All so stunning, and all the more special because they had been done by one of the residents or their friends.  They included a portrait of Virginia Woolf by her sister, Vanessa Bell, which I hadn’t seen before, and which I prefer to the famous portraits Bell did of Woolf.  I can only find a small part of it online (see right).

Our guide, called Angie, was exceptionally good.  She barely drew breath in the hour we had for the tour.  It would have been nice to have time to ask questions, perhaps, but I suppose then we’d have lost out on some of the prepared tour.  It catered to people who knew nothing at all about the occupants and their friends, whereas I think all seven of us on the tour already knew quite a bit, but it was still great to hear it from an enthusiastic expert.  I’m definitely intending to go back – and if you go on a Sunday, then you can roam freely.

Oh, and there was a man about my age in the gift shop who had a 1920s chair at home, and they were buying reproduction Vanessa Bell fabric (at £55 a metre!) to re-cover it.  I don’t know whose life gave me greater life-envy – the Bloomsbury Group and their idyllic house, or the man who would have that beautiful chair…

If you get the chance to go to either of these wonderful properties, do take it.  I can also definitely recommend the walk from Lewes to Monk’s House, which is exceptionally beautiful on a sunny day.  It was the most delightful day out imaginable, and I was rather worried that my impending cold would ruin it for me.  Luckily I managed to stave it off for a day – and it has come back now with a vengeance.  So it might be a day or too before you hear from me again, whilst I feel sorry for myself…

32 thoughts on “A Trip to See Vanessa and Virginia

  • May 21, 2012 at 3:18 am
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    Wonderful Day!! I know you were in 'heaven' the whole time. I don't think I've seen a copy of that portrait of Virginia by Vanessa before either. Would love to do the same – wanted to do it the last time we were in Sussex, but Charleston wasn't open on the day we had a driver. I know you were in 'heaven' the whole time.

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:35 am
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      It really is a wonderful portrait of Virginia, I don't know why it isn't better known. Hope you manage to see both houses some time, Nancy!

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  • May 21, 2012 at 3:20 am
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    Darn! Edit: Moved a comment around but forgot to delete the first mention. It's late, eyes are blurry.

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  • May 21, 2012 at 3:22 am
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    I loved reading your report on visiting both houses.

    I shall definitely plan a trip when next in England.

    Many thanks for the indepth report

    Helen

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:35 am
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      Everyone should go! I doubt everyone would find it quite as moving and exciting as I did, but I think a lot of blog readers would.

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  • May 21, 2012 at 6:01 am
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    These two houses are on my summer visiting plans, and you make me even more excited about seeing them! I might swing for enough material for a cushion I think, but a whole armchair would be glorious. Did you make it to Bill's after all that walking? It looks like such a great cafe. It's on my Lewes list too. Donna

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:36 am
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      It would be so lovely to have an armchair in Vanessa Bell's Yellow Grapes fabric… a man can dream!

      I didn't make it to Bill's sadly – picnic instead!

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  • May 21, 2012 at 7:19 am
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    Charleston is just magical, Definitely vaut le detour! Did you visit Much ado Books in Alfriston?
    I swear by First Defence for colds (nasal spray from chemist)and then at home lots of hand-washing to avoid spreading it about, and your own hand towel too. Do you share a keyboard/pencils/keys etc? People forget about those as a source of infection.

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:36 am
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      Didn't make it to Alfriston – I was trying to be good and not carry around lots of books (still bought two… that's good, isn't it?)

      I think I get holds so often because I bite my nails…

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  • May 21, 2012 at 7:34 am
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    I have never been to Charleston and have always longed to go so I am really really jealous. What a lovely time you had and how amazing that the sun was out too. I have however been to Monks House and had tea on the lawn there when I was a child, though I never saw the inside.
    Really sorry about your cold — you do seem to get a lot of them. I suppose you take all the right things — echinacea (sp?) is good, I think, for warding them off, though too late this time. Get well soon!

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:38 am
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      Oh Harriet, you would adore Charleston, I know it! I hope you get a chance to go when you're in England.

      I do get a lot of colds! I shouldn't bite my nails… but I should take echinacea, however it is spelt. It's so expensive, though!

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  • May 21, 2012 at 8:34 am
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    "They're just things from further away" – that's hilarious! I'm very envious of your trip, it sounds fabulous.

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:38 am
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      Colin is a funny man! But it does mean we don't really enjoy the same holiday activites…

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  • May 21, 2012 at 10:33 am
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    Monk's House interiors look *gorgeous* & delighted to here about a NT property that's accessible by public transport & feet.

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  • May 21, 2012 at 12:53 pm
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    JEALOUSY. I am going in the summer, once I finish my current job, and plan on staying a few days so I can wander around Sussex a bit. I too can't believe I've never been to Charleston and Monk's House – no excuse really!

    I had the horrific cold last week and am still sniffly and generally disgusting judging by the looks of people on public transport/my colleagues so I sympathise and send you get well wishes! x

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:39 am
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      Wouldn't a bloggers trip there be incredible? But have a wonderful, wonderful time in Sussex when you go – I look forward to reading your report later in the year.

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  • May 21, 2012 at 1:09 pm
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    Hi Simon, thanks for sharing your day. I have visited Charleston. The gardens there are lovely too, aren't they? Also the paintings in the nearby Berwick Church are beautiful. I think I know what you mean about feeling moved when visiting Monk's House – I had that experience when visiting Jane Austen's Chawton home – after years of immersing myself in her novels and the criticisms of her work and then coming halfway around the world, it was a big moment to tiptoe through her home!

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:41 am
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      I must go to Chawton again – when I went I'd only read one of her novels. Now, of course, I adore her – and it would be a much more wonderful experience.

      We really wanted to see Berwick Church, but were at the mercy of buses and thus couldn't. Next time!

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  • May 21, 2012 at 10:56 pm
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    What a gorgeous day out. Thank you for sharing it with us. Visiting those 2 houses is now on my would-like-to-do list. Do hope your cold is soon better.

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:42 am
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      Thanks, Gill! Do go if you get the chance – I wish I hadn't waited for so long.

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  • May 22, 2012 at 2:42 am
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    Sounds like a wonderful little trip, Simon! I have to say that I'm most jealous not of your getting to visit the famous homes but of the lovely walk you had – it's a gorgeous area and it looks like you had some stunning weather!

    I've never been particularly excited about the Bloomsbury Group but seeing everyone else's comments about how they long to visit these homes makes me feel a little guilty since I definitely had the opportunity. When I was at school in East Sussex, I used to go into Lewes a couple of times a week do research in the archives. I had a delightful time wandering about the town during my lunch breaks and browsing at the Bow Window Bookshop, where it was a very good thing indeed that I had a strict book buying ban in effect, but was never tempted to venture out to Charleston or Monk's Head. There are lots of places I wish I had visited while I was living down there but not those two – I think they would have been wasted on me.

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:43 am
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      Ha! You SHOULD feel guilty ;) Bow Window Bookshop looked very expensive, so we didn't go in…

      The walk was, despite my Bloomsbury Group fervour, still a highlight of the day. I kept being astonished at how beautiful it was.

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  • May 22, 2012 at 8:07 am
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    Sounds wonderful Simon – very jealous of your visit to Monk's House and thanks for sharing with us!

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:44 am
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      You're welcome, Karen! When I found out they permitted photographs at Monk's House, my main thought was "Oh, I can show everyone!"

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  • May 22, 2012 at 10:13 am
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    lovely photos simon ,I really want to go here now ,thanks for sharing ,all the best stu

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  • May 25, 2012 at 1:33 pm
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    Such a gorgeous post, you lucky devil! When I return to England, I would love to make this same trip…I just saw that June's World of Interiors features Monk House, get thee to a newsstand!

    Also just ordered Jansson's True Deceiver…can't wait.

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:45 am
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      Do, do! I'll come with you!

      Can't wait to hear your response to True Deceiver – I might even re-read…

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  • May 28, 2012 at 10:26 pm
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    Simon, do you remember how I wanted the Doves to join me on my visit to Monks House/Charleston three years ago, and nobody could? It was one of the most glorious days I've even spent while under an English sky, and I'm glad you've been now, too. But I have a practical question. How did you get between the two houses? The walk from Lewes to Monks House, beautiful though it is, takes time, and then it's several miles between L and MH. The day I went there the only way I could see both including the tour, was by arranging for a taxi between the two which charged me about 30 pounds. You couldn't have walked – did you? I want to do it again, you see. Once was not enough!

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    • May 29, 2012 at 8:46 am
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      I do remember, of course! I can't remember why I couldn't go, but was most upset about not being able to. Rectified now, although a dove trip would be delightful someday.

      Like you, we couldn't find any option other than taxi between Monk's House and Charleston – which came to £22.50. More than we thought it would be, but apparently less than it usually is – and between three of us it was manageable.

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  • May 29, 2012 at 3:26 pm
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    I envy you beyond words. Thank you for all the photos.

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