“Oh the joy of walking!” – From Charleston to Monks House on foot

by charlestonattic

“I am extremely happy walking on the downs […] I like to have space to spread my mind out in.” (Virginia Woolf’s diary, September 5 1926)


CHA/P/2283 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, Map of South Downs, ink on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust

As cool autumnal colours spread across the landscape and misty grey mornings shade the South Downs behind Charleston, we remember our last week with our fellow interns Alice and Samantha. This last week together, the last in September, was bright and warm. On one glorious morning we strode out from Charleston, taking inspiration from Virginia Woolf, following in her footsteps across the Downs to her seventeenth century cottage Monks House in Rodmell.


Striding across the Downs

Having scaled the steep ascent, following our navigator Alice, we looked down upon Charleston as Virginia Woolf would have done, writing to Vanessa Bell in May 1916 “I wish you’d leave Wissett, and take up Charleston”. At that time Vanessa was living with Duncan Grant and David Garnett at Wissett Lodge in Suffolk where the men had been working the farm as conscientious objectors. When later that year the Central Tribunal decided that Grant and Garnett could not be self-employed but must find work elsewhere, Vanessa Bell followed up on her sister’s suggestion of a move to Sussex. She secured work for Grant and Garnett with Mr Hecks at the neighbouring New House Farm and obtained permission from Mr Stacey, the tenant of Charleston, to whitewash the walls, creating the blank canvas for the Charleston we know today. This was all in September, and they moved in October, 99 years ago. As we looked down at Charleston from the top of the Downs we too felt excitement, as Vanessa Bell must have done on her first visit, at the prospect of beginning our own chapter at Charleston working with the Angelica Garnett Gift.


Autumnal produce from Monks House garden

On we strode, following the undulating line of the Downs, described by Virginia Woolf as like “long waves, gently extending themselves, to break quickly; smooth & sloping”. Coming over the crest of our final rolling hill we crossed the river Ouse and made our way up to Monks House. The garden was still in full bloom. We passed a box of marrows and apples and navigated our way up from the succulent greenhouse through the small garden spaces to the lawn spreading out from the left of Woolf’s writing studio. Here a performance was taking place. Spectators sat in a circle of deckchairs around an actor giving a reading from Woolf’s novel Between the Acts. The passage fit the day perfectly, as if it described the scene before us:

“Rows of chairs, deck-chairs, gilt chairs, hired cane chairs and indigenous garden seats had been drawn up on the terrace. There were plenty of seats for everybody. But some preferred to sit on the ground […] The trees barred the stage like pillars. And the human figure was seen to great advantage against a background of sky. As for the weather, it was turning out, against all expectation, a very fine day.”

Our own Becky was chosen from the audience to take on the persona of the “small girl, like a rosebud in pink” whose lines open the play within the novel. Afterwards we made our way back down to the house itself.


Writing desk at Monks House

The Woolfs did not move to Monks House until 1919. Their previous country home in Sussex was at Asheham House, just three miles away in Beddingham, where they and other members of the Bloomsbury group had stayed from 1912. When in March 1919 the Woolfs were given six months notice to leave, they began a search for a new home, resulting in the purchase of Monks House in July. Virginia Woolf records her pleasure at their success at auction in her diary writing “We own Monks House (this is almost the first time I’ve written a name which I hope to write many thousands of times before I’ve done with it) for ever”. She writes at length about the abundant produce in the garden, which Leonard Woolf seems taken with, and for herself she states “it suits me very well, too, to ramble oft among the Telscombe downs”.

Indeed, the location was perfect to feed her love of walking, an activity which helped her to think through her writing. Settling into life in Rodmell in early 1920 Woolf writes of how Monks House offers a much richer supply of walks than Asheham did. Years later in 1934 she still felt strongly about hiking across the Sussex landscape, writing in her diary:

“Oh the joy of walking! I’ve never felt it so strong in me […] the trance like, swimming, flying through the air; the current of sensations & ideas; & the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour”. (Woolf’s diary, October 1934)

On top of the Downs she is swept away in thought. She seems to find a freedom in walking that enables her to release her creativity.


Woolf’s writing studio in Monks House garden

Our first forays into the Angelica Garnett Gift have mirrored and even traced the Sussex countryside that surrounds us here at Charleston. Duncan Grant’s map of the South Downs charts the bold contours of the land. We have found sketches of cows and horses who Woolf may have met on her local rambles. And a small butterfly has also found its way into our box.


CHA/P/2266 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, sketch of a cow, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/P/2267 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, sketch of a horse, pencil on paper. Photograph © The Charleston Trust


CHA/P/2306 Recto. butterfly cut out, paint on card. Photograph © The Charleston Trust