Skip to content

where we travel south to the downs of sussex

August 29, 2010

saturday was a day that we had eagerly anticipated for several months.  we were going to sussex, and although we have been there for the past three summers in a row (more about that obsession later), this time we had a new experience to look forward to–  we were going to meet lois and her husband, hugh, whom i had “met” through ebay, where lois offers her splendid hand painted furniture and accessories painted in the style of the bloomsbury artists who resided at charleston.  i had purchased a number of items from lois, and we had struck up an online friendship that made me very eager to meet her in person.

the good travelers (why, yes, i TOO can be a good traveler when the situation warrants…) arose early and walked the two blocks to the tube station that would take us to the train at charing cross station.  train travel is so lovely–  it is so easy to purchase a ticket and step directly onto a train and just sit back as the landscape unfolds around you.  the ride to brighton was relatively quick, and from the brighton station we walked the few blocks to the car rental where we had reserved a car for the day.   everything went as planned, although i am always a bit unnerved when traveling by car in the uk.  where most of the world drives on the “right” side of the road, brits drive on the “wrong” side, which requires constant thinking about how to navigate every turn.

we were running a bit ahead of schedule so we decided to stop in at alfriston, a charming little village very near the attractions that we were going to see.  the much ado bookstore on high street functions like a community center, with book groups, classes, and an amazing collection of new and used books, including the biggest selection of books about the bloomsbury group that i have ever come across.  we passed some time there and found a couple of treasures that we could justify dragging home in our luggage.

as our 12:30 meeting time approached i found myself feeling a bit nervous.  we drove the short distance back to charleston farmhouse where we were scheduled to meet in the gift shop.   as soon as the farmhouse came into sight my heart skipped a beat.

we all arrived at the same time, and upon greeting one another lois and i were swept up into a big and very genuine hug!  hugh purchased out admission tickets and we had time to sit in the café to enjoy coffee and dessert before our scheduled tour.  it was easy to sit and converse with them–  even the husbands were relaxed and it felt like these were old friends that we were reconnecting with.  lois has an infectious laugh that still makes me giggle each time i think of it!  our 1:00 tour time arrived before we knew it, and then…  magic.

approaching the house i always imagine vanessa bell appearing in the doorway.

because the house has been lovingly restored down to the smallest detail it is easy to imagine life there as it was then, and the cast of bloomsbury characters is very much alive in my mind as i go from room to room recounting the history of this marvelous place where such an incredibly gifted assortment of individuals maintained a lifelong friendship.  although it had its beginnings in the bloomsbury district of london, it was charleston to which this group of friends and lovers returned for decades, through two world wars and beyond until the last remaining member of the original group, duncan grant,  passed away in 1978.

one can never truly explain one’s passions to another, rather one can only hope that other passionate individuals instinctively understand the depth of feeling possible when a chord is struck that resonates to one’s very core.  such is my passion for the bloomsbury group, and i am indeed an incurable fan and admirer of the way that each individual was able to pursue his or her own passions with the full support of other group members.  i take advantage of every opportunity to further my learning about this legendary group, and that has been considerable over the years.  b. has been most supportive of this interest and has become a fan in his own right, lucky for me.  this, however, was the first time that we had shared our passion with anyone else, and it added a wonderful dimension to the experience!

lois and i, having both been through the house several times before, delighted in pointing out small details to each other knowing that our interests were matched in each other.  lois, in fact, has created her own small business specializing in painted finishes for walls and furnishings.  it was utterly delightful to share such a meaningful experience with someone who understands how very important this is.  fortunately our tour guide on this day was witty, humorous, and had a true storytelling approach to sharing the history of this amazing place.  all too soon the tour had come to its end, and as we exited through the studio door it took a few moments in the beautiful garden to bring closure to this memorable experience…

fortunately it was still early and our plans included another important stop.  from charleston farmhouse we drove the short distance (well, not quite so short since we got a little, ahem…  LOST at one point and had to double back) to rodmell, where we headed to monk’s house, the home of virginia and leonard woolf.  virginia, who was vanessa bell’s sister, and her husband leonard were among the founding members of the bloomsbury group and continued to entertain friends at this, their country home, which was within walking distance of charleston.

in my excitement at a) sharing monk’s house with lois and hugh, who had not yet been there, and b) being ALLOWED to take photos inside, i failed to notice that my camera was on the wrong setting, so i must apologize for the grainy quality of these photos.  however, i at least have a record of our visit, and for that i am grateful.  the first thing i noticed was that the cat that had befriended us on our first visit a couple of years ago was there to greet us again as we entered the house.  this cat is remarkable–  he seems to be the reincarnation of a beloved pet that we lost almost a decade ago in color, markings, demeanor, and affection.  when we first met he followed us all over the grounds, stopping when we stopped and moving on with us when we moved.  it was uncanny.  and here he was again, and on the table no less!  i loved that, not because i’m a fan of cats being on tabletops, but because it lent such a human dimension to this experience rather than an austere “museum” air.  leonard and virginia loved their animals, and this felt so right.

it doesn’t take long at all to work one’s way through monk’s house, as it is a far more modest home than one anticipates and certainly much smaller than charleston.  however, much of the interior decoration was in fact done for them by the artists in the group, so there is art at every turn and it is important to pay attention to detail.  there is a docent in each room to explain the history of the objects, and each was very warm and inviting.

like charleston, the garden out back was a profusion of blooms and the view of the downs spectacular.  the back half of virginia’s little studio stands as she left it, with the front portion filled with displays of photographs timelining the history of the bloomsbury group.  spending time here is like going backwards through history, to a time when conditions were often quite harsh but human fortitude strong.  i always come away changed somehow.

it was time to say good-bye to our new friends, our long-anticipated day coming to its end with the closing time for monk’s house, but lois had a surprise for me–  this LOVELY painted frame, which is such a treasure!  and good news!  we have agreed to meet at charleston again next summer, this time on a sunday when the tour is self-guided and we can spend as long as we like admiring the work of a legendary group of individuals whose legacy live on.

*  next up:  where we go to regent’s park, tate britain, and float down the thames

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 9:13 am


    How lovely to re-live that beautiful day with you on here!

    You’ve brought it all back to me, which is making me smile enormously, and just perfect timing, as I’m going to Charleston again this Saturday! This time with a coach-full of ladies from the Westcliff on Sea WI. I’ve asked the good folk at Charleston if we can possibly have Patsy, who took us round, as our guide – she was a hoot, wasn’t she? I loved the part when you said you ‘always come away changed, somehow’ – I know exactly what you mean. It’s as though a little bit of the spirit of the place gets into you and opens up small doors inside you you didn’t know you had. I always come away very thoughtful and determined to redecorate my whole house – but then life gets in the way again….

    See you next year!

    Lois xxxx

  2. wingedpaths permalink
    January 25, 2011 9:00 am

    Thank you so much for taking me with you on your travels through England, in a manner of speaking. My novel is set in England (South Dorset, actually), but I have never been and there is a good chance I never will. This is a fantastic way to get a glimpse of the country, and I am enjoying it immensely.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: