It is a truth universally acknowledged that you never get around to visiting places on your own doorstep. I have been meaning to go to Charleston, home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, for years, but have somehow never managed to find the time. Happily, Easter holidays and willing travelling companions combined to finally make my dream a reality last week, when Miranda, Donna and I went on a lovely jolly to Bloomsbury country. We arranged to meet in Lewes, and so I drove down alone through the beautiful Ashdown Forest, snowflakes floating gently from the freezing sky. At my first glimpse of the Sussex Downs, I gasped out loud. This quietly dramatic scenery is breathtaking; in the white light of a snow heavy sky, the bleached grey-green of the landscape gave the soft rise and fall of the undulating hills a dreamlike quality. No wonder so many of our greatest artists have flocked here for inspiration.
Lewes is nestled in the folds of the Downs and surrounded by chalk cliffs. It is a lovely example of an historic town, with a long high street made up of a variety of beautiful period buildings, many of which are independent shops resisting the ceaseless march of the chain store; a ruined castle; a medieval church; a striking war memorial; a river; a brewery; and mazes of cobbled streets filled with exciting discoveries to be made on days when the temperature is not sub zero. Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell knew Lewes well; they came regularly to do their shopping, and no doubt used the train station when travelling down from London for weekends. I don’t think it can have changed much since they first arrived in 1916, though they certainly wouldn’t have been able to have a delicious lunch at Bill’s, or buy vintage Malory Towers books at The Fifteenth Century Bookshop, like we did.
After we had explored Lewes as much as we possibly could without freezing to death, we decided to head off to Charleston. The house is situated in open countryside about a ten minute drive from Lewes; on a sunny day, you could walk there through the fields in an hour or so. The location is idyllic; the Downs rise in every direction, sheep potter in the surrounding fields and the peace is tangible. The house itself blends seamlessly into the landscape; its mellow ochres and greys are timelessly beautiful. Outside the front door is a willow fringed pond; to the side is a flint walled garden; to the back there is nothing but open countryside as far as the eye can see. It is perfect.
Inside, where no pictures are allowed, all is as if everyone had just downed tools and wandered out for an afternoon stroll. The walls and fireplaces are decorated in vibrant colours by Bell and Grant’s own hand; their books, paintings, ornaments and crockery are strewn throughout every room and the bright and beautiful designs of the Omega Workshop are prominently displayed. While this all makes it seem like a museum, or perhaps even a shrine, somehow it is not. It still feels lived in; it is positively saturated with life. Every room is a piece of art in its own right, but not self consciously so; this house was designed for pleasure, not pretention, and this is made clear by the often spartan furniture. Goodness knows how so much bed hopping happened when all of the beds are barely two foot wide!
My favourite room had to be the studio; added on by Bell and Grant and built to a design by Roger Fry, it is double height with a gorgeous glass roof and is absolutely flooded with light. Bell and Grant used to paint in here together, and again, it was just as if they had put their paintbrushes down and gone into the garden for some fresh air. There is a converted gramophone case containing a radio in one corner, next to drying racks filled with canvases. A huge Russian Samovar style stove sits in a fireplace, with shabby armchairs either side. Shelves of art books line one wall; paintings, busts and general ephemera lie scattered everywhere. It is a space that oozes creativity; if I had a studio like this, where I could watch the weather roll across the sky, I feel I too could create a masterpiece.
On a glorious day in summer, with the garden in bloom, the surrounding countryside glowingly green and golden, and the sunlight chasing across the Downs, Charleston would come close to Paradise. Unfortunately, we were not visiting in such conditions; the biting wind and driving sleet sent us running for cover after our tour. However, we’ve all joined as Friends, and will be going back for the Charleston Festival in May. Hopefully we’ll get a glimpse of that Paradise next time, and will be able to romp across the Downs to Virginia Woolf’s cottage in nearby Rodmell, and have a picnic on our way. I can’t wait!