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The Present Past: Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House

A photograph of Virginia Woolf's living room

Monk’s House, in the village of Rodmell, near Lewes, in East Sussex, was Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s home for a few decades; they bought the house in 1919, a quick purchase after having previously bought a windmill a short distance away – the two preferred the Rodmell home so they moved in. Wikipedia dates the cottage to both the 1500s and the 1700s – the latter seems more likely, but regardless, it was altered during the Woolfs’ time. They bought some of the surrounding land. Virginia had an extension built for a bedroom and later a writing lodge. After the author’s death, Leonard remained at the House, often joined by Trekkie Parsons, a married artist who is believed to have been his chaste lover. Following Leonard’s death, Trekkie sold the house to Sussex University in 1972 and the National Trust bought it in 1980, turning it into the museum you see today.

A photograph of the front door of Monk's House

Arriving at Monk’s House, a white-washed half-hidden cottage down a gorgeous English country road, you find a space in the small car park and walk back to the entrance. The National Trust has set up their ticket office and shop in Leonard Woolf’s garage; the door-to-street environment, so different a choice to every other Trust property I’ve visited, gives you your first glimpse of what you’re about to experience. Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you exit back onto the road and head for the front garden gate. You pass the front door, surrounded by overgrown plants (another hint) and continue to the back garden, past the greenhouse which is effectively also a conservatory.

A photograph of the conservatory/greenhouse at Monk's House

And there you are. The door to the house is in the greenhouse, and in front of you stretches a number of small garden areas which, if you visit during the hotter months (there’s likely also some overgrowth in autumn) cover… everywhere. The Trust have kept the property close to the way it was when Virginia and Leonard owned it, and they have let the laid-back atmosphere remain. At Monk’s House you can sit in the garden, lay on the lawn, play bowls, relax on a bench, have a picnic, and take your time. The House itself, its rooms very small, is limited to a certain number of people at any one time so that you can properly enjoy it, and even when busy remains a casual experience. I’ll start with the House.

A photograph of Monk's House dining room

You walk in through the greenhouse door into what is now the dining room; its function changed from bedroom to dining room when Virginia extended the house. A staircase directly to your right holds books; it’s closed off, likely due to space. Presumably the first floor holds the room that was Leonard’s – certainly there is a balcony on which the Trust have placed deck chairs and a few other windows. The dining table is roped off because the furniture is at least partly original – the decoration on the chairs was created by Virginia’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. The painting of Leonard you see to the left was done by Trekkie Parsons. To the right, not pictured, is Vanessa Bell’s famous painting of Virginia. The room also houses Leonard’s bowling balls.

A photograph of the fireplace in Virginia Woolf's living room

To the left of the dining room is the living room, shown in the opening photograph to this post. The fireplace above is the other end of the room. You can probably tell from these just how small the house is. Due to the smallness I didn’t take a photograph of the kitchen, which is at the far right side of the dining room. It’s tiny; it holds a dresser and a cupboard that was painted by Trekkie (the Trust says whilst she was waiting for food to boil), and a few other kitchen items.

A photograph of Virginia Woolf's bedroom

From the kitchen you return outside. Then you take a left turn into the extension built to house Virginia’s bedroom. The author had this room built so that she had a place to write, and it’s indeed inspiring, light shining through the windows, the walls painted a bright colour. On the shelves stand her self-bound volumes of Shakespeare. Virginia soon found that the bedroom wasn’t quite what she was after in terms of her concept of a room of one’s own, and so she and Leonard built a writing lodge.

A photograph of the view from Virginia Woolf's bedroom door

This is the view that awaits you as you turn to leave the room. I couldn’t not include it.

A photograph of the purposefully-overgrown gardens

Here’s the view from further right. It’s hard not to fall in love with this place. If you’ve ever seen the garden that inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett you’ll know that it was quite average apart from its walls. I can’t help but wonder if Virginia and Leonard decided to create their own homage to the book.

A photograph of flowers in the garden at Monk's House - red flowers are in focus against a background of greenery and purple flowers

Leonard was the gardener of the pair and he designed the space to be atmospheric and inspiring. The garden to the right of the greenhouse, the first garden you see as you step onto the property, contains a sunken pond (photo below this post). The path shown just above, purposefully overgrown, that’s parallel to the one from the bedroom door, takes you to a few side-by-side flower gardens which continue on to a couple of lawns, one which holds the burial places of the couple’s ashes.

A photograph of Leonard's burial site

Virginia’s spot has a similar plaque and bust to Leonard’s; there was a group picnicking beside it so I didn’t take a photograph, but you can just about see the plaque at the right edge of the photograph. The burial spots were chosen for their elm trees, which have unfortunately both since died; Leonard’s was blown over in the wind, Virginia’s had problems with mold.

A photograph of the writing lodge

As you move on further, part of the garden opens into a wild area where the Trust have a shed and green house they use for upkeep. The village church is this garden’s neighbour. Beyond that is Virginia’s writing lodge. The lodge has been split into two sections via a windowed wall, allowing you to see the room as it might have been set up whilst not having to worry about knocking things over. The section in which you stand has a collage of copies of A Room Of One’s Own on the wall, different covers and pages from many different languages. According to my research, the fairly tidy desk is fantasy; Virginia kept her space less organised. It was here she wrote almost all her novels. (You can find a photograph of the outside of the lodge at the bottom of this post.)

A photograph of the lawn at Monk's House

Out of the door and to the other side is the lawn on which the Woolfs invited their friends to play bowls; the view is stunning; it’s easy to see why it was so favoured. On this lawn is also a pond, currently the host to water-boatmen, dragonflies, water fleas, and lotus flowers. On one side of the lawn, near the lodge, is the allotment. The other side takes you back to the House, your longer-than-it-first-seemed walk around now complete.

A photograph of the wild(er) garden at Monk's House

Whilst I may have visited on a glorious day, I would say that you could visit whatever the weather or season (besides winter when the property is closed for all-round maintenance) and enjoy yourself. The experience of the place is such that it’s going to inspire you no matter what.

The rest of my photos

A photograph of the writing lodge - exterior

A photograph of peach and purple coloured flowers in the gardens

A photograph of the orchard

A photograph of a red and yellow flower in the far garden

A photograph of an in-progress flower border. There's a wooden wheelbarrow and seedlings in pots as well as a piece of slate which reads, in chalk, 'We are reinstating this long border which Virginia Woolf described as burning and blazing. Pop back to see progress

A photograph of the first garden you come to once through the gate - the sunken pond with statues around it. Neighbouring houses can be seen over the fence

A photograph of Leonard's garage

A photograph of the inner staircase

 
 

Kelly

September 7, 2019, 1:14 am

What a beautiful place, especially all the garden areas. That greenhouse at the entry is rather spectacular, as well.

Lovely photos all around.

jessicabookworm

September 13, 2019, 3:42 pm

What a quaint home and beautiful garden. Reminds me I really do need to read something by Virginia Woolf at some point in my life!

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