The Virginia Woolf Pilgrimage: Monk’s House

Southease is, really and truly, a village in the middle of nowhere. The train station lies in a valley cut by the river Ouse, whose (in)famous connection we shall come to shortly. People rarely ever get off here- they travel on instead to the more “bustling” towns of Newhaven and Seaford, to throw themselves into the tumult of humanity, in strictly relative terms. We are walking to Rodmell today to visit Monk’s House, technically in Lewes, but easier to access on foot from Southease.

And so, we are the only two people to get off on the small platform- possibly the only one tinier than this is the one at Three Oaks. All we have is a hand-drawn map copied off the Internet. There are no fancy maps at the station, no manned ticket office. As far as the eye can see, there are vistas of gently curving hills and on one side, chalk cliffs. Trains stop here only once in an hour, so we have to look up the time-table and make sure we are not too early or too late for one.

Southease, in name and in appearance, reflects an aspect of immense relaxation and calm. We feel almost like intruders as we finally figure out which direction the village lies in and walk up to the short bridge spanning the brown waters of the Ouse. It is one of the loveliest days we have had, all blue skies and wispy clouds and sunshine. The hills have lost some of their velvety lushness, but they are still very welcoming. A few picnickers laze on the other bank, the languor the day has inspired in them evident in their eyes and their limbs.

We walk up the only road in sight; it passes by a few mansions protected by high walls and dense clumps of trees. Further ahead, a grey church comes into sight; no extravagantly built cathedral, this, but very charming and with a round tower, one of only three in Sussex. The church is quite small and spartan on the inside, but the green-dappled sunshine throws charming shadows on the pews through the narrow windows. Churches never fail to awe me, especially when so endowed with antiquity as this one, tucked away in the South Downs in a remote village few people have heard of.

We continue our trek to Rodmell, climbing up and down the slightly parched slopes. With such a grey summer, it is surprising how little rain seems to have fallen here. Thirty minutes of idle walking, and we are in Rodmell and in another churchyard. We pass through it and down another road to find ourselves in front of Monk’s House.

This beautiful house with its splendid gardens and marvellous views of the South Downs and the chalk cliffs was Virginia Woolf’s retreat. She spent her weekends here; she had a glorious writing room, now adorned with pictures of Woolf, her husband Leonard, and members of the Bloomsbury set and others who visited her here. E M Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Vanessa Bell and T S Eliot were among those who came over to spend time with the Woolfs in this lovely country house.

With much of the furniture and the crockery the Woolfs used still in place here, it is hard not to imagine the spirits of the writers floating around, inhabiting the house and the gardens, finding inspiration for their thoughts and conversations. Virginia had a very pretty bedroom, supplied with bookshelves, an armchair and a fireplace on which her niece had painted a lighthouse: on extremely cold days, we were told, she chose to stay and write here instead of walking to the detached writing room outside.

Woolf led a troubled life. Was she a victim of her own ingenuity? It was hard not to feel for her as we were exposed to the pains she took to sequester herself from the rest of the world when she wanted to write: but she seemed by no means a loner, for she was obviously surrounded by friends and loved her sister’s children as if they were her own. It was almost eerie to walk the grounds she loved, traverse the paths she took, and to stand on the bridge over the Ouse, the river into which she walked to her death, weighing her coat down with stones. She was cremated and her ashes scattered in the grounds of Monk’s House. The hours Virginia spent writing must have made up, to some extent, for the despair; then, at some point, her reserves of strength might have dried up, the voices grown too clamorous for comfort.

There is something sacred in the very air of Monk’s House. It is heavy with dreams and inspiration. I don’t think much has changed since the Woolfs were first here, their low house getting flooded almost as soon as they arrived. This, however, is a less eventful day. The streets slumber quietly in the afternoon sunshine, and the Abergavenny Arms up the road prepares for tea. Perhaps the scenes that play out today do not differ dramatically from those that gave Virginia her ideas: but I can see why she chose to live and die in this little village in the South Downs.

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