'There seemed an infinity of fruit-bearing trees... I could fancy a very pleasant walk in the orchard under the apple trees, with the grey extinguisher of the church steeple pointing my boundary...'

Monks House, Rodmell
And if I needed inspiration for gardening, and a place to go and catch a bout of gardenitis, then it was surely going to be those words and more from Virginia Woolf's diary (Thursday July 3 1919) and  a visit to Monks House in Rodmell in Sussex for myself. This the country home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and bought by them in 1919 for £700, visiting In Fran's lovely company, all sufficient to ensure contagion as we pondered the plants and wished they'd all been in seed...ahem.

Monks House
In June 1919 Virginia had just bought another house nearby in Lewes, Round House, without telling Leonard but then realising how impractical the house would be, living up to the name with its round rooms. Imagine buying a house and not telling your husband...it says something about their marriage perhaps. I sense a bit of a battle for the trousers, and perhaps Virginia's lapses into madness and the need for care the only chance for Leonard to truly take charge and exert an authoritative upper hand.

Or maybe this was an impetuous act on the part of a free-spirited and independent woman struggling under the yoke of marriage and convention...

Sighting an auction poster for Monks House...'an old-fashioned house standing in three quarters of an acre of land' and en route to take a closer look at Round House, Virginia sensibly keeps her enthusiasms in check and attempts to look critically and unfavourably on this 'unpretending house'. However both house and garden quickly wriggle their way into both hers and Leonard's affections 'after the fashion of a mongrel who wins your heart', and they must have had an anxious few days prior to buying it at auction.
Vw house garden view
I will never forget how sick with tension we were about buying this house and at about the same time of year too. It was two weeks before we could see inside as the owner, a widow giving up all hope of a sale, had gone away and taken the key with her. Two weeks of looking round and round the outside and we had bought it in our minds regardless of the problems (legion as it turned out, but right up our street for sorting). We would park the car over in the Methodist Chapel car park and view it from afar, praying that our offer would be accepted, sleepless nights and pots of tea at 3am dreaming of what life might be like if / when we lived here, and thinking of little else 24/7 but that it might all come to fruition.

Anyone who has been chasing the house of their dreams will know of the stress which Virginia mentions as they attended the auction for Monks House...

'In short, we decided walking home to buy if we could, & sell Round House, as we conjecture we can. Eight hundred we made our limit, which, according to Wycherley, gave us a good chance of possession. The sale was on Tuesday. I don't suppose many spaces of five minutes in the course of my life have been so close packed with sensation...I looked at every face, & in particular at every coat & skirt for signs of opulence, & was cheered to discover none....some of the substantial farmers might well have their rolls of notes stuffed inside their stockings...someone bid £300. "Not an offer" said the auctioneer, "a beginning."

When the hammer finally comes down at £700 in their favour little wonder that Virginia is 'purple in the cheeks' and Leonard is 'trembling like a reed.'

Now owned by the National Trust, Monks House is a little treasure to walk around. No teasels on chairs, just an unwritten agreement that of course you wouldn't dream of sitting on them, though it's mighty tempting...
Monks House
And there are little glimpses of Bloomsbury beauty at every turn...
Vw house 5
Vw house 18
Vw house 1

That shade of green ( Farrow & Ball Folly Green, near as, I reckon) must have been a favourite, reflected as it is in everything from the walls to the stove, and Angelica Garnett confirms as much many years later...

'Green was Virginia's colour; a green crystal pear stood always on the table in the sitting room, symbol of her personality.'

Vw house 7
Yet the privations of a 1920's rural dwelling are evident too in Virginia's diary entry from that first objective viewing, the kitchen is 'distinctly bad', the rooms are small, there is no hot water, no bath, no facilities and no E.C... I assume that to be an Earth Closet.

Virginia WoolfDespite its description as a 'welcome country retreat from London', and yet with the eventual addition of a new kitchen and hot water and a bathroom some six years later, I still can't begin to imagine how perishing cold and uncomfortable Monks House may have been. Even on the warmest Summer's day the tiled floors would have been chill underfoot, and the low, dark beamed ceilings, (with which we too are familiar) would do little to lift Virginia's spirits when feeling low. Sacrilege though it may be ours are painted cream to give that feeling of lightness right above your head. And then there were the mice in the beds to contend with (we haven't had that problem yet) and broken windows wedged shut with toothbrushes (nor that) but we have been reduced to pumping bath water in from the cattle troughs when our spring supply leaked.

But Virginia frequently shares moments of utter joy there too...

Monday 31 May 1920
The first pure joy of the garden... wind enough outside, within sunny and sheltered & weeding all day to finish the beds ina  queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.' 

The garden, even so early in the season, was looking beautiful, and I only wish I had taken a notebook round and jotted down the names of the plants. No wonder it was Leonard's pride and joy, but luckily there are clues in the diary about the planting.. zinnias, nasturtiums, dahlias and irises, mock orange and gladioli, clarkia, calceolaria, larkspur, scabious and campanula all get a mention.
The garden at Monks House
Watch this finely tilthed space...

Oh yes, and one more thing, absolutely anything goes in the lampshade department...
Virginia Woolf's lampshade...