“Temptation whispers from the window” – A visit to Virginia Woolf’s garden at Monk’s House

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“You must come and sit there on the lawn with me, or stroll in the apple orchard, or pick – there are cherries, plums, pears, figs …” (A letter from Virginia to Janet Case in July 1919.) It was a beautiful sunny day when I went to visit Monk’s House, the weekend home in Sussex of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. The bowls set is left out for people to play, just as it would have been when the Woolf’s lived there. I know this because I’ve read it in her diary.

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The copy of A Writer’s Diary that sits on my desk is a first edition, 1953. It was my father’s copy, his name on the flyplate, and he must have brought it when it first came out. I wish I’d known my father then, with his dreams of writing fiction too before we all came along, his four children, and he had to put aside those dreams and earn a living for us all. It has never only been women who needed a room of their own.

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The fact he owned the book at all was a surprise when I first found it. Not an altogether good one, bringing with it the shame of how I had never asked my dad about his favourite writers. But then he’d never told me. At Monk’s House, there are surprises everywhere. Tucked under a table, the RHS guide to putting on a horticultural show. Was this Virginia’s? Perhaps more likely to be Leonard’s since he took over quite quickly: ‘Our garden is the envy of Sussex… This is all Leonard’s doing … I offer my admiration, but am seldom allowed an active part.”

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And in Virginia’s garden writing room (converted from an outhouse in 1921), there is currently an exhibition of informal photographs, diary entries and extracts from letters to show another – more informal, less ‘museumy’ side to Monk’s House.

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Such as Lytton Stratchey and his sister playing chess outside.

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Catherine Smith and I put our faces up against the glass panel to peer at where Virginia must have worked. We’re both writers too, and I try to catch our reflections. It makes us look as if we are half in, half out. Trapped between conscious and unconscious. The state you fall into when you write well and hard.

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Like our minds, these are not ordered gardens.

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The flowers tumble over each other,

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rather like paint on furniture.

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And everything recorded in such precise detail. “It is the loveliest of evenings … Asheham fields shorn to the colour of white corduroy; Leonard storing apples above my head & the sun coming through a pearly glass shade; so that the apples which still hang are palish red & green; the church tower a silver extinguisher rising through the trees.”

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Even that view of the tower has been painted.

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And this snail in the pond…

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It too brings the memory of something written. And it’s true. Memories hang over Monk’s House. Ones of water just as much as words.

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We stride over the lawn as if we’re on stepping stones – did she put her feet here too on her way from her bedroom to write?

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“[Tomorrow I] shall smell a red rose; shall gently surge across the lawn (I move as if I carried a basket of eggs on my head) light a cigarette, take my writing board on my knee; and let myself down, like a diver, very cautiously into the last sentence I wrote yesterday”.

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And it feels apt to visit somewhere like this, preserved as if she still lives here, on the cusp of a possible war, on the day the Government are debating what to do about Syria. To visit somewhere so peaceful, so out of the real world. So apparently far away from London.

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The Woolf’s were at Monk’s House on the last night of peace before the Second World War, and Virginia wrote, “Yes, it’s a lovely still summer evening; not a sound. A swallow came into the sitting room.”

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And it was here, (no one wants to mention it but we all want to see where it was that she did it. We all talk about visiting ‘the river’) on 28th March 1941 that she wrote her last letter to Leonard, before walking down to the Ouse to fill her pockets with stones and to carry on walking into the river.

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We watch the swans on the river with three academics, ‘here on a conference’. They wear their university’s names on their shirts. Catherine and I talk about an 18th century suicide note I’ve just found which talks about ‘all this buttoning and unbuttoning.’

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Before we leave, perhaps to clear our thoughts, we visit the allotments again – another surprise.

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How lucky would you be to get an allotment here. Although there’s a quote from Virginia I love, written about this garden, ‘Wind enough outside; within sunny and sheltered; & weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.’

Isn’t that wonderful? The self-observation needed to pause and say, yes, this is happiness. And I think most gardeners would recognise that feeling too. The ‘queer sort of enthusiasm.’

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To finish, the last diary extract typed out from my dad’s copy of Virginia Woolf’s diary, sitting in front of me now. And here is a photo of Dad too, probably around the time he bought this book. I like to think about him sharing Virginia Woolf’s post, although he would have tut-tutted that it was his daughter who put him there. He’d be worried I was ‘showing off’. Again.

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Sunday, March 8th.

Just back from L’s speech at Brighton. Like a foreign town: the first spring day. WOmen sitting on seats. A pretty hat in a teashop – how fashion revives the eye! And the shell encrusted old women, rouged, decked, cadaverous at the teashop. The waitress in checked cotton. No: I intend no introspection. I mark Henry James’ sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency. By that means it becomes serviceable. Or so I hope. I insist upon spending this time to my best advantage. I will do down with my colours flying. This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in. Suppose I bought a ticket at the Museum; biked in daily and read history. Suppose I selected one dominant figure in every age and wrote round and about. Occupation is essential. And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage mat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.

MONK’S HOUSE, Rodmell, Lewes, is run by the National Trust and open to the public. The website is here.
Garden visited – August 2013

Please note: All the photographs are my copyright. If you would like to use one, please contact me first. Thank you.

A visit to Kirkharle – where Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown began

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So, the above might not be the picture of a garden you’re expecting from the birthplace of the man who has been called the ‘Shakespeare of Gardening’ but the house that Lancelot Brown was born in was once situated where this car park now stands.

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It’s at Kirkharle Hall in Northumberland which was owned by Sir William Loriane when the Brown’s were tenant farmers on the estate. Lancelot started at the Hall as ‘gardener’s boy’ at the age of 16, and it was from here that he moved to work with Lord Cobham at Stowe. It was the start of a journey that changed much of the shape of British landscape as we know it today.

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Although there’s not much of the original hall left and the outbuildings are now a thriving crafts centre, it still retains a strong link with Capability Brown. That’s his portrait in the sign above.

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And in fact, the grounds are being landscaped to follow what is thought to be Brown’s first design – rather wonderfully found by accident amongst old papers by the current owner of Kirkharle in 1980.

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The place is part commercial, part educational, with the balance – at the moment – just right.

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What I wanted out of the trip – aside from a pot of Capability Brown handcream and cashmere socks – was to get a feeling of what shapes an artist’s vision (and in my book, gardens are definitely art). Is it possible to find this out from looking direct at what they might have seen as a child?

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This window for example is in the Church where Lancelot Brown was baptised in 1716 and which, as the child of an estate worker, I’m guessing he must have spent much of every Sunday. Did he look at the window and dream of a view just seen through a solid frame?

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And then there’s the spot in the Churchyard where his grandparents are buried. Did it give him the idea of seclusion in the midst of openness?

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Here’s the way he would have walked to his school in Cambo, two miles back and forth every day. Was it just too much of a straight trudge for those little legs, and did he sometimes dream of a more serpentine trail?

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I can’t find a record of his school achievements, but I’m guessing grammar was well taught. A conversation with Hannah More in 1782 shows this: “‘Now there,’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing at another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”

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But what’s for sure is this monument almost next to his house, and dedicated to one of the Loraine ancestors would have played a large part in a small boy’s imagination. It reads: “In memory of Robert Loraine his ancestor who was Barborously Murder’d in this place by the Scots in 1483”. The monument was established in 1728 (when Lancelot was just 12), and records how Robert Loraine had been coming back from the church when he was attacked by Scottish ‘barbarians’ who cut his body up into pieces small enough to stuff into his horse’s saddlebags and then sent the horse back to the house. Makes me shudder even now. Perhaps it was averting his eyes from this, or even forcing himself to look, that led to his sight breaks in otherwise solid lines.

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Oh look, there are still ‘rebels’ who don’t obey the boundaries… (That’s one of Lancelot’s famous ‘ha-ha’s’ by the way. I don’t think the sheep knows that though!) This free spiritedness of the inhabitants of the Northumberland countryside was always bound to create someone who didn’t always follow the rules!

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And, of course, clumps of trees and surprises everywhere.

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So although – this is becoming a habit – traditionally not a garden, Kirkharle feels an important place to visit for anyone interested in garden history. There’s also the wildlife, the plants, the wild natural beauty.

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And the other people. This couple are in their 80s but had driven here from Newcastle. We’d seen them laughing and talking together in the cafe earlier – they were flirting with each other as warmly as if on a first date so it was wonderful to find out after just how long they’d been married! Garden visiting does this to you, I’m sure…

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My research into Capability Brown is personal at the moment. I’m planning a novel about his wife, Biddy Brown, who was born on the other side of the country, in Boston in Lincolnshire.

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I’ve visited her birthplace too – and although her childhood house has been demolished too, there is one house of that period left in the square she lived in and it’s known she was close friends with the inhabitants. Look how different it is in appearance from Kirkharle Hall. At the time they met (1737) Boston was the second busiest port after London and Biddy was the sister of a well-to-do merchant, soon to be mayor. I can’t help wondering how much she must have influenced Capability Brown, especially as I learnt that the plant collector, Joseph Banks came from Boston too and although younger, was undoubtedly a friend of Biddy’s family. Did she perhaps introduce him to Brown? So much more to find out!

And so here’s a poem for you – inspired by childhoods, and gardens, and grammar!

Garden Punctuation
Sarah Salway

Peace is the line of a horizon
shaped like the story of soil,
written without breaking the rhythm,
commas and full stops so carefully placed
that all you hear is the swell of the view,

and it’s as green and moist as night grass,
a memory of lying, legs akimbo, watching stars
and you point out the Plough and the Bear,
although you don’t have to do anything
but sink deep into the ground, looking up

as you feel the heft of the land under,
and there’s nothing to see here but green,
the trees gently rock you, air strokes you,
water sparkles, sun warm on your back,
and for this moment, you’re safe,

only the end of day to make for, each hour
planted with capabilities, until later
walking along the path, grass under toes,
you watch circling birds ready to migrate,
in tune with a world that keeps turning.

Garden Visiting with a Five Year Old…

As with Tudeley, most of my garden visits are taken either by myself or with other ‘adults’. Yesterday, however, I was lucky enough to get to walk round Knole Gardens (different from the park and only open on Tuesdays) with a five year old girl. She very kindly took the photographs for this post for me too….

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There are massive advantages to a smaller-sized garden companion, such as playing I Spy and spotting all those usual things to be found in a garden: T for Trees, G for Grass, S for Sky, O for Octopus…

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And then there’s the fashion side of it. Lovely as my normal garden peeps are, they don’t wear sparkly skirts and sandals with stars on. And nor do I. However, garden visiting, I’ve learnt, is more colourful with a little bit of glitter…

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Forget about walking slowly down paths. Skipping or running as fast as you can gives you a completely different view…

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… especially when you stop DEAD ON THE SPOT because you’ve seen something interesting…

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… and then of course there is the essential ice cream after. During which I learnt that my friend has recently got one of my favourite childhood books, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Her mum is going to read it at bedtime to her. Ah…. the joy of that book. I’m not sure whether it awakened most in me a love of gardens or a love of food – all those little iced biscuits and descriptions of meals inside.

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So here is a poem for you (and for my lovely friend yesterday) not about gardens this time, but about my food memories from the books I loved as a child…

Eating my way through the children’s classics

Maybe this is where it began? A wish
for iced biscuits to eat in bed, mysterious
Marmaduke Scarlet’s plumcake, parkin,
Devonshire splits, cream horns, gingerbread…

so Mum, sighing at my sighs, added lashings
of lemonade and boiled eggs to our picnics
(but where was the cold-tongue-cold-
ham-cold-beef-pickled-onions-salad

-french-bread-spotted-meat … enough, Ratty!)
A tea in front of a blazing fire instead
with little-friend-Susan, toasting muffins
on forks, eating bread and strawberry jam

as red as the ‘raspberry’ cordial that Dinah
drank with Anne Shirley as the gables
shook, overcome by ‘a tendency to laughter’
even more unholy than William’s liqrish water

until finally, not even Pippi throwing eggs
for pirate pancakes could compete with Jo,
wrapped in a blanket, crunching her way
through apples and the most delicious books.

Yes, that was the start. This quiet hunger
for words, as timeless as marmalade
sandwiches hidden in a small bear’s
suitcase and now always wanted on voyage.

Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent. Website here.
Garden visited: 20th August 2013

The Labyrinth at All Saints’ Tudeley, Kent

Churchyards may not be traditional gardens but in the context of this website I believe they can count, not least because they are so often havens of wildlife and nature.

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However, they DO have to contain something man made (apart from bones, of course) and the Churchyard at Tudeley is special because of the turf labyrinth that’s open for visitors.

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As my friend and Labyrinth expert, Alison, has taught me, labyrinths were a feature of many medieval cathedrals, and the mother of them all is to be found in Chartres Cathedral, so there is something right about them being found in churchyards. The model for the Tudeley one has been taken from a design found in Damascas, with helpful numbering to take you through to the middle, where a simple wood carving symbolises being held in safety.

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It was the perfect day to visit Tudeley, and I was lucky to have the perfect companion in Victoria Field (and her dog, Poppy).

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This was Vicky’s first visit to the church so I could experience – through her – the wonder of entering such a simple building…

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… and being taken by surprise by the beauty of the windows designed by Marc Chagall inside…

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… and as always, I spotted something different. Because this happens every time, I wonder if it is because of who I visit the church with. A trip several years ago with my ever-patient friend, Alice, taught me to stand close enough and long enough to see the artist’s scratchings which now make the design almost unbearably poignant…

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This time, I couldn’t help but notice how the light seems to spill over on to everything. It is almost as if it wants to colour the world…

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Indeed, there is a mixture of personal and public tension with this gift of the commission of a world famous master such as Chagall to remember the death of one twenty-one-year old local girl, Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, who died by drowning. Her family donated the windows to commemorate the accident, and subsequent spiritual support from the heavens, which is shown in the main window…

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When Chagall agreed, after some persuasion, to take on the commission, he visited Tudeley and after seeing the church was reputed to have said, ‘It’s magnificent, I will do them all.’ It took over 15 years for all eleven windows to be completed. And the scale of the beauty is breathtaking.

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And generous too. Although perhaps because of this, I have to admit that I found this simple hymn number display (I’m sure there is a proper word for it!) given in memorium for another 21 year old who died at the same time just as personally heartbreaking.

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We are indeed all equal, as this little sign in front of a back plain window shows….

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A lovely way of showing this symbolically is in the altar covering, where each word was stitched individually by different volunteers and then pieced together…

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… and perhaps even our glasses for our ‘breakfast picnic’ by the labryinth which – although plastic and definitely not beautiful – insisted on making their own reflections!

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After Tudeley, Vicky and I drove on (with only a little accidental detour) to the nearby St Thomas a Becket Church at Capel where we stood under the yew tree where, according to legend, Becket preached…

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Oh but look how lush Kent was looking yesterday:

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It was a remarkable morning, and one I wanted to capture with this poem … I’m not sure I’m quite done yet, but I hope it gives some spirit of the visit.

And after two Churches,
a picnic breakfast
amongst the graves,
a missed turn
down country lanes,
there’s still too much to say.

Our words are stained glass
overspilling windows,
the extra circle
round the labyrinth,
a second language
stitched in satin.

I follow you to your car
waving as you drive away,
and like an ancient echo
from a cracked yew,
continue our conversation
all my way home.

Greyfriars Garden and Chapel, Canterbury

This must be one of the quietest gardens in Canterbury. Although it’s just off the High Street, it’s hard to find and accessed through an unprepossessing courtyard off Stour Street.

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But so well worth a visit.

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It was originally an island site, and home to the first Franciscan monastery in England (I’ve written about the Franciscan gardens here. They are only open on certain days, unlike Greyfriars which is open free to the general public). I don’t know if it was just me, but I definitely feel that I’ve stepped onto an island of tranquility here.

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The  chapel dates from the 13th century, and there’s some debate still apparently as to its original use. It may have been an infirmary. Amazing though to think that it was built during the time of St Francis of Assisi.

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The garden is in two parts, separated by the river. In one, there is a path cut round a circle of wildflowers…

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… and a narrow riverside strip divides this one from the other…

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… which seems to carry the memory of a parterre, or infirmary garden with wild roses and scented honeysuckle now growing up the walls…

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Not surprisingly there are benches to remember happy times spent here…

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Last year, as part of the Wise Words Festival, I set up a little ‘stall’ to help people write postcards to strangers. They could take home postcards with messages that meant something to them too. It was intended as a quiet chance for communication and reflection, that seemed ideally suited to the atmosphere of the garden…

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.. and so the poem I’ve written for Greyfriars follows this theme (I wrote it on a bench looking at the river, here):

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Letter to a Stranger

Last night I dreamt of a blue plate

piled high with words shaped like strawberries *

and this morning I followed the path

round a green bowl filled with wildflowers.

How I long to walk in circles,

popping words into the open mouths

of passers by. Trust. Kind. You. Flourish.

Look, I want to say,

so much has gone before us,

so much will happen next,

not every day needs a destination

or even to make sense

to have a good meaning.

So much beauty everywhere.

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* This dream came because I’d read Edwin Morgan’s Strawberries at the Wise Words Feast of Words. It felt it fitted with the garden too!