I have lived just down the road from Monk’s House, Virginia Woolf’s country cottage and garden, for nearly seven years, but only visited it for the first time this Easter weekend and was utterly enchanted.
What put me off visiting before was the prospect of taking young children around a small National Trust property, but the two oldest Little Weeds are now of an age where they can nearly be trusted – I say nearly as my oldest leaned casually on a treasured Bloomsbury table to fill in her Easter egg hunt booklet and was quickly reprimanded by the guide.
The garden, however, turned out to be perfect for older children (when the littlest Weed turned up after a walk with his dad he proceeded to kick the box balls and had to be swiftly escorted off the premises) – with plenty of room to run about and play bowls on The Terrace, a large lawn with a dewpond, part of a field bought by the Woolfs from a local farmer to protect their view.
Three years ago my husband aka Mr RGFBRTG (Rather Go For a Bike Ride Than Garden) displayed uncharacteristic thoughtfulness by buying me a copy of Caroline Zoob’s wonderful book Virginia Woolf’s Garden with sumptuous photography by Caroline Arber. I have pored over the pictures in this volume many times, so I felt like I knew the garden before I visited, but the reality was quite different.
First of all we visited the house, where the rooms are much smaller than they appear in the photographs, filled with fascinating mementoes of the Woolfs’ literary life and friends. My favourite room was Virginia’s bedroom, which has a separate entrance to the rest of the house and looks out on both sides to the garden. It is light and airy, so that you almost feel that you are in the garden. The painted green walls enhance this feeling of bringing the outdoors inside.
April is a good month to visit Monk’s House as the tulips are out, the trees in the orchard are in blossom and the magnolia in the Fishpond Garden is in glorious pink flower. Zoob explains that this Magnolia x soulangeana ‘Lennei’ is underplanted every year with the same mix of tulips; Esther, Negrita and Queen of Night.
When Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought Monk’s House in 1919, it came with the remnants of outhouses and even an earth closet which was for a time the only lavatory. These lent themselves well to being turned into ‘garden rooms’. To the side of the white clapperboard house is the Italian Garden, a shady area planted with tranquil greens and a small fishpond. Immediately behind the house is a small lawn and the ‘Millstone Terrace’ – in the nineteenth century, the house had belonged to a family of millers who also owned Rodmell Mill. When this was pulled down in 1912, several millstones were taken to the house, where Leonard and Virginia found them a few years later and incorporated them into garden paths, an idea pioneered by Gertrude Jekyll. Next comes the walled garden, one of the last parts of the garden to be completed by Leonard Woolf who in 1937 oversaw the building of a brick terrace where the laundry and earth closet had once stood. On our visit it was a riot of tulips, but Caroline Zoob describes how later in the year it is “layered with rich colours”, and I look forward to visiting again in the summer.
Underneath the window of Virginia’s bedroom which the Woolfs built as an extension onto the house sits a delightful border which Zoob describes in summer as filled with romantic blooms such as Rosa ‘Madam Alfred Carrière’, Rosa ‘Charles de Mills’, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Munster’, Russian sage and clary sage, clematis, lupins, white phlox and Japanese anemones. A restful lawn is divided from the path by cordoned fruit trees trained on wires, underplanted with Muscari armeniacum and yet more tulips!
Beyond the bedroom garden lie the brick paved ‘Fig Tree Garden’ and the Fishpond Garden with its matching busts of Leonard and Virginia. Although Virginia hated sitting for the sculptor, who had to leave the work unfinished, today it feels as though her bust looking out from under the magnolia tree contains the spirit of the writer living on in the garden.
For me, perhaps the most magical part of the garden is the wooden Writing Lodge, situated underneath the brick and flint boundary wall with the little 12th century church of St Peter’s, with views to the east looking out onto the Iron Age fort of Mount Caburn. According to Leonard, when she was not suffering from her periodic bouts of depression and illness, Virginia would make the daily journey across the garden to her writing lodge ‘with the daily regularity of a stockbroker’. I have written in an earlier post about how I would love to turn our rickety shed into a writing lodge of our own one day. In the meantime here is a picture of Middle Weed and me sitting on the small brick terrace where the Woolfs used to take tea with the likes of John Maynard Keynes and his ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova.
To the back of the garden is a large allotment area, where volunteers and villagers from Rodmell grow fruit and veg and there is also a large orchard which the Little Weeds enjoyed running around in search of garden gnomes hiding clues to name a flower and earn a chocolate egg. I guessed the answer straight away as this flower was the theme of the day – TULIP!