By Rachel Ang
By Rachel Ang
One of the most lovely ways to pass a summer’s day in Britain is to visit a beautiful garden. And one of the loveliest is the cottage garden of Monk’s House, once home to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, and the backdrop for the creative outputs and torrid love affairs of the Bloomsbury Group, which included T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey.
Leonard and Virginia Woolf purchased the Rodmell property in 1919, attracted by the “shape and fertility and wildness of the garden.” Although the existing conditions were primitive, for the Woolfs it was a labour of love. They worked tirelessly to improve and beautify the house and gardens until Leonard’s passing in 1969.
It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of the garden for the Woolfs. According to biographer Victoria Glendinning, “the garden was sometimes the third person in the marriage.” Although he had no gardening experience when they first took ownership of Rodmell, Leonard soon fell in love with the garden, tending to it every day, keeping detailed records of his activities, grafting his own extremely productive fruit trees and even founding the Rodmell Horticultural Society in 1941.
For Virginia, the garden was both refuge and inspiration. Each morning she walked through the garden to her timber lodge (a converted tool shed) within the orchard, a secluded oasis for solitude and work. This is where she wrote the bulk of her novels. The walk became a crucial part of her creative routine. Like many writers she kept a regular diary, and the garden features heavily throughout. The beauty and peace the garden afforded her was a panacea during her well-documented periods of mental illness and depression. Even during the most severe periods of her illness, she would work from her bedroom, moving her chair around the room to catch different views throughout the day.
It was also a social space for Virginia to entertain friends and confidants. After the Woolfs’ purchase of the property she wrote to friends, describing her deep pride in its pulchritude: “The point of it is the garden. I shan’t tell you, though, for you must come and sit there on the lawn with me, or stroll in the apple orchard, or pick – there are cherries, plums, pears, figs, together with all the vegetables. This is going to be the pride of our hearts I warn you.”
In 1980 the property was given over to the National Trust. Today the house and garden have been preserved and carefully tended to, maintaining the dream which meant so much to Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The interior spaces are just as unique as the garden, painted by Virginia in vivid hues of blue, yellow, pomegranate, and her favourite colour, green.
Virginia and Leonard’s 29 year marriage was one fraught with difficulties and depression, but also replete with and surrounded by great beauty and love. Their home and garden is a witness to the incredible life they built. When Virginia committed suicide in 1941 after struggling for years with mental illness, she left a note for Leonard, saying: “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.” Monk House is a testament to their happiness together.
To get to Monk House from London, take a Southern Railway train from Victoria Station to Lewes. The trip takes just over an hour and costs about £27.20. From there you can walk about a mile to the village of Rodmell. It is open to the public from April to October.
Rodmell, Lewes, East Sussex, BN7 3HF
t: 01273 474760