The South Downs Way is chalky magnet for ramblers who can follow the route across the south-eastern coastal counties of England, from the Itchen Valley of Hampshire, all the way to Beachy Head on the coast at Eastbourne.
It’s an inspirational adventure for hundreds of thousands of people – including one of the greatest British writers of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf, who found this landscape utterly enchanting and drew from it constantly.
She believed, as many do, that there’s nothing like the freedom of walking to clear the mind and rejuvenate the spirit: the exhilaration of becoming lost in your own thoughts.
She wrote: “Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only
the outline of her face remains. The outline of Sussex is still very fine.”
So fine was it, Virginia and her husband Leonard bought Monk’s House, nestled in the village of Rodmell, in 1919. It’s is a tranquil 17th-century weather-boarded cottage and the place she said would be their home “forever and ever”.
And in a way it still is. It has been carefully preserved by the National Trust, so that you can visit the house today to see how the couple lived. The house is full to the brim with their character and spirit. Many of their favourite things are still there, making it appear as if they’ve just gone for a walk.
Monk’s House appealed to them because of the “shape and fertility and wildness of the garden.” It’s still as appealing today, and you can wander among the lawns and ponds and a sturdy vegetable garden. Leonard Woolf was a keen gardener and Virginia was inspired by his green-fingered nature. She loved the garden – the tranquillity and the peace: these surroundings helped her to concentrate on her writing.
When you step out of the back door, entirely separate to the house, is Virginia’s own bedroom. In an essay in 1929 she famously wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. And so she did. She kept a notebook by her bed in case she was woken by inspiration. In the morning, she would write and rewrite her work in her garden room.
Her famous writing room is at the bottom of the garden. She paid to have it moved from the other end so she could look over the views of the South Downs while she worked. She wrote, “£157 to move a writing room: a lot of money but worth it”. (And you can now stay in the garden studio, see page 95.)
It was in this small wooden lodge that many of her novels took shape including Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, The Waves and Orlando. Her final novel, Between the Acts published posthumously in 1941, is steeped in references to Rodmell and its traditions.
Bloomsbury in Sussex
We know quite a lot about Virginia from her own diaries, but Leonard kept an almost obsessive record of their life. The Woolfs liked their daily routine. Lunch was always at 1pm and tea was at 4pm,
which Virginia called, “the cream of the day”.
Afternoons were for reading and socialising with friends, who’d pop over to debate the great matters of the day. These included TS Eliot, EM Forster and John Maynard Keynes. All of them were members of the Bloomsbury set, a group of highly influential intellectuals at the centre of which were Virginia and her sister Vanessa Bell.
Virginia Woolf was brought up in a big house in London, a place she found noisy and overbearing. Monk’s House is by no means small, but it feels homely. Visits to the retreat in the country became longer, until they made it their full-time residence in 1940.
War takes its toll
The ‘fine outline’ of Sussex constantly revived the soul of Virginia Woolf, but she was a complex woman who was known to suffer from depression. In the end, neither her friends nor the Sussex countryside could console her. On 28 March 1941, aged 59, Virginia, overcome with the unbearable prospect of another World War, filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse, taking
her own life.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car from London, take the A27, at the first Lewes roundabout, follow signs for Kingston, then Rodmell. The nearest mainline station is in Lewes; trains run from London Victoria, Brighton, and Eastbourne. Southern Trains also stop at Southease Station about a mile’s pleasant country walk away from Rodmell.
FIND OUT MORE
Monks House, Rodmell, Lewes, Sussex BN7 3HF
Open 29 March to 29 October; check for daily opening times.
The Abergavenny Arms
Newhaven Road, Rodmell BN7 3EZ
A friendly local pub offering great food, plus afternoon cream teas Thurs to Sat.
Deep Thatch Cottage B&B
Rodmell BN7 3HF
A beautiful 16th-century timber-framed thatched cottage plus outhouses; full English is served in your room.
South Downs Way
Winchester to Eastbourne
This 100-mile route, crossing the beautiful South Downs is one of Britain’s National Trails; the majority of the path is a bridleway, so can be used by horseriders and cyclists, too.