Although I only live five miles away from Virginia Woolf's rural retreat of Monk's House, it has taken me ten years to get there. I tried to go on several occasions, but the house never seemed to be open, limiting its admission times to the odd afternoon. Fortunately, the National Trust have now extended the opening hours.
As yesterday was a particularly dull, dank, overcast day, with a muted light that felt as if the sun was failing, I decided that this was a good opportunity to enjoy Monk's House without being jostled by any Virginia Woolf fans - they're famed for their brutality.
It took ten minutes to reach the idyllic village of Rodmell, but the incredibly noisy birdsong made me feel as if I'd travelled to a remote, temperate rainforest. I was also slightly unnerved by the fact that although I occasionally heard voices, the village seemed to be completely deserted. Perhaps I've watched too many episodes of the Avengers.
Unlike many historic properties, the entrance fee was very reasonably priced at under a fiver, but that's probably because most of the house was off limits, with only four rooms on view. However, the gardens alone make Monk's House worth a visit:
The building in the background is the early Norman church of St Peter's. It is believed that the font predates the church and may be over a thousand years old. The view from the graveyard reminds me of an Eric Ravilious painting:
This is Woolf's writing room. It's an inauspicious-looking building, but played host to some of the most important figures of the early 20th century. For example, the man on the right is John Maynard Keynes:
Keynes is also in this photo taken in the garden, with Lytton Strachey on the left:
Here are some photos taken from inside the writing room:
Even on such a gloomy day, the garden still provided some colour:
This is the downstairs bedroom:
Compared to Charleston, it seems quite austere, but there are several nice touches by Vanessa Bell. The original books were sold after Leonard Woolf died in 1969, but they have been replaced with volumes from the same period.
Apparently, Woolf decorated the spines of these books as a displacement activity when she was feeling at a particularly low ebb.
The sitting room looks very cosy, with many appealing touches by various members of the Bloomsbury Group.
The large object to the left of the chair is a radiogram, with one of those wonderful dials that lists places around Europe: Luxembourg, Athlone, Paris, Budapest. Woolf was no stranger to the radio and made this recording for the BBC in 1937.
The photograph below is of the dining room, which is rather small for the social milieu of the Woolfs. These chairs have supported many famous bottoms, including TS Eliot's, EM Forster's, the Bells' and Roger Fry's:
The painting on the right is by Virginia Woolf. It's competently executed, but she clearly didn't possess her sister's artistic talents.
To coin Doctor Johnson's quote about the Giant's Causeway, on its own merits, Monk's House is worth seeing, but not worth going to see unless you're a Virginia Woolf fan or live within a 30-mile radius. If the whole house was open, it would be a different matter.
Fortunately, the creative powerhouse of the Bloomsbury Group - Charleston - is only a few miles away (Virginia regularly walked across the Downs to visit her sister Vanessa there), so it's possible to combine the two in half a day. Ideally, if you're fit and weather's good, you can walk from Monk's House to Charlestone via Southease and Firle Beacon.
I've been to Charleston several times and would strongly recommend it to anyone. The rooms are stunning and the guided tours are the most interesting I've been on. There's also a rather nice teashop that serves homemade cakes - a definite plus point.
For more information about opening times, this link takes you to the National Trust page for Monk's House whilst this one is for Charleston.
N.B - Since publishing this post, I've realised that I failed to mention the beautiful parish church in Berwick - only a mile east of Charleston - which was decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. No visit to Monk's House and Charleston would be complete without a brief detour to Berwick.
For fans of the moving image (and middle-aged men wearing floral, metrosexual shirts), this video contains a beautifully-shot five-minute film of Monk's House, complete with marimba music.