Thursday, 2 July 2009

In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf

On Saturday 13th June I walked 8 miles from Monk’s House in Rodmell (Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country house) to Charleston (Vanessa Bell’s country house that she shared with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant!) via Firle Place, as part of the guided walk ‘In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf’, organised by The Charleston Trust. The walk was led by two artists, Judith Stewart and Christine Arnold who were interested in the effect walking has on the creative process as well as what inspiration they might get from talking to all of the people who had signed up to do the walk.

At 10.30 we all gathered at Monk’s House with just enough time to have a quick wander about the garden. The last time I had visited was in September when many of the plants were past their best, but this time it really was in full bloom and very impressive.

We were briefed on the itinerary for the day and after having given our order for lunch we left Monks House and wound our way down to the river, over the railway at Southease, before beginning our climb up the South Downs. The hill was steeper than it looked and it just seemed to keep on going. It was fascinating to see the way the trees have grown at an angel as they are battered by the wind.

At the stop of the hill we stopped for a very welcome breather. Looking around, I could see all the way back down the hill to Rodmell, and in the other direction Newhaven was in the distance.

Five minutes later we set off again and wound our way across the top of the Downs until Firle was in the distance, before descending a very steep hill that was almost as difficult to walk down as the other side had been to walk up. At the bottom of the hill was the very picturesque village of Firle, which we were told is mostly still owned by Lord Gage and his family. It looks like quite an idyllic place to live, with beautiful houses and equally beautiful gardens to match.

The lane we were walking along wound around a corner and I thought we were about to stop for lunch, but when we rounded the corner the vast estate of Firle place came into view and we had a short walk across a field of sheep before we stopped for lunch.

Firle place was quite a spot to stop for lunch and I think we all would like to have imagined that we lived there and could eat lunch like that everyday. It really is quite a magnificent setting. It is normally open to the public but on this occasion it was shut, much to the disappointment of two weary walkers who had seen us tucking into our lunch and were hoping to get something similar.

With the prospect of a cream tea when we got to Charleston we all set off again, across the estate and over a few fields until we had finally made it, a little sun burnt and with aching feet but all in one piece. By the time we had got to Charleston we were all ready for a cup of tea, a scone with cream and jam, and most of all a sit down.

I can’t quite believe that Virginia Woolf used to do this walk regularly, as it was really quite strenuous. I suppose I have read so much about how her illness affected her physically that I assumed that she was not very strong, but I think actually Quentin Bell mentions her walking a lot in his biography, as well as her father’s exploring nature, so she was perhaps more of an outdoor type than I imagined. I really enjoyed imagining Virginia doing this walk, in an old coat and a large hat, striding out across the downs. I had brought a copy of her diary from 1919 with me, so whilst we stopped at the top of the Downs I took the time to read a couple of passages about the Woolf’s move to Sussex, buying Monk’s House and visiting Vanessa at Charleston

At the start of the walk Judith and Christine had said that their interests lay in the thought process that occurs when you walk and the conversations that you can have with the people you are walking with. All sorts of people came on the walk, most people were local, some like me were from farther a field and there were different levels of interest in Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and ‘Bloomsbury’. It was really interesting to hear different peoples reasons for coming and to share the experience of walking together. I am by no means an artist but I am a keen photographer and so with the idea of walking inspiring the creative process I did try to take some photos that I felt summed up the walk and these are my efforts…

I had a good conversation with Judith about Virginia Woolf and walking, and was able to talk about ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ as Judith has also done some work on 15th? Century women very much like the women mentioned in the story. Interestingly she also hails from Norfolk.

I was also interested in the walk from the perspective of reading Virginia Woolf’s work in context with the places that she lived, and so visiting Monk’s House and Charleston is a way of experiencing a little of what her life might have been like. They are both also wonderfully inspiring places in themselves and I don’t think I could ever tire of visiting them.


  1. You have made a very enjoyable documentary of this walk with super photographs, which include the walkers. A nice touch. Thank you. All I got to do in Firle when I visited in 2001 was to visit the church and note the grave of Quentin Bell, which was the only one that hadn't been tended to.

  2. Such beautiful photos of a part of the world I used to know well.
    Lots of good walking country.
    I lived in Telscombe ( a little village nestled in the downs) in the early 70's.
    We often walked to Rodmell and looked into monk's House Garden.

  3. What a delightful idea for a blog! I'll be back.

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post about your walk in Woolf's world. Your photos add so much. I have posted about this on Blogging Woolf, directing readers to your site.

  5. I only discovered your blog a few days ago. Your walking tour with its wonderful photos was a real treat for those of us who haven't had the privilige of visiting England. I've read a lot of Woolf before but really like your idea of doing so chronologically so will be doing some re-reading.

  6. Thank you to blogging woolf for the mention, I was very excited when I read that.

    I am glad that you are all enjoying my account of the walk, it was a great day, very inspiring to see the places that Virginia Woolf walked and wrote.

  7. In " The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn" Woolf recounts Joan's walk to Walshingham and says ..."I thought of the serious things of life - such as age, and poverty and sickness and death, and I considered also those joys and sorrows that were for ever chasing themselves across my life." I wonder, perhaps, if Virginia may have contemplated life in this manner as she took walks similiar to yours.

  8. Hi Dan - still here, life is getting in the way of reading and writing!

    I liked your comment relating back to Joan Martyn, there is lots of talk of walking and journeys in this story which is all the more interesting knowing how much Woolf herself walked.

    I am currently working on a post about Virginia Woolf's first "novel"

  9. maravilloso y documentado recorrido
    (wonderfull and documentary walk)
    an argentinian admirer
    of Virginia Woolf
    (una admiradora argentina de ...)

  10. Virginia regularly walked all over London as well as from her two homes in Sussex. She walked nearly every day after lunch and before tea. I think it must have been really terrible for her to have London bombed; my theory is that the war, destruction of her London homes, books, etc. noise of planes, etc. in Sussex contributed to her state of mind in 1941 when she committed suicide.
    Thank you so much for the lovely and interesting article---visiting the area next month, but that walk is not on then.