Bloomsbury Pilgrimage: Monk's House + Charleston
Making a trip of visiting the stopped-in-time homes of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, including bracing walks across the South Downs and a cozy coaching inn
In 1937, Virginia Woolf, inhabiting an 18th-century cottage in Rodmell, wrote that the Downs in East Sussex were “enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look.”
All these years later, her exclamation is no less true. Which is why, when you visit, you ought to do yourself the favor of settling in for a few days. Sure, you could take the train in and out of London on the same day to tour Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House or her sister Vanessa’s Charleston—plenty of people do—but I wholeheartedly encourage a proper deep dive in order to fully immerse yourself in the magic. After all, these are the countryside stomping grounds of the famous Bloomsbury Group (Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, etc), the whipsmart and wildly eccentric early 20th century writers, artists and thinkers, famous for their radical views and uninhibited appreciation and convergence of the arts, the intellect, aesthetics and everyday life. In other words, the OG English bohemians.
Our itinerary for visiting Monk’s House and Charleston includes walking alongside the River Ouse, across a section of the South Downs Way covered in flocks of sheep and connected by kissing gates, treading many of the same footpaths that Virignia would have taken to visit Vanessa. Monk’s House has been a literary pilgrimage among Woolf devotees since it first opened to the public in 1980. In the past decade, however, it’s Charleston that has achieved an Instagram-propelled cult status—with Vanessa as the high priestess of the Bloomsbury Group. Patti Smith once did a residency at Charleston (“I found it like home.”), leading her to shoot a series of black-and-white polaroids of the house. Annie Lebovitz photographed it for her book Pilgrimages. Endless artists and designers cite it as a font of inspiration—including the superstar ceramist Ginny Sims, who recently partnered with Charleston, exhibiting her work as part of a dinner series at the farmhouse.
And yet, all the attention doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. There’s an ephemeral world of creative genius inside these walls that no amount of photographs (including our own) can possibly reproduce. If you have the opportunity to go, it is absolutely worth it.