Back to Charleston

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Just before the end of the summer holidays, I decided to return to Charleston, country home of the Bloomsbury Group, so that I could see the house at its best. When I first visited a couple of years ago, it was during the coldest Easter I can remember, and the bleakness of the sleet-filled sky and the lack of any life in the gardens made the experience a little less than what it should have been. Of course the interior of the house was not dimmed by the freezing wasteland outside, but everything does look better when it’s sunny.

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As Charleston doesn’t open until midday, I took a brief detour to the picture postcard village of Alfriston first, which I have longed to visit for a while. Its main street is ridiculously pretty, packed as it is with a hodge podge of historic and beautiful cottages, shops and pubs that look as if they have been around since Domesday. Much Ado Books, a well known and much loved independent book shop, has pride of place on the high street, and I loved poking around inside. They have a marvellous selection of the latest fiction, as well as plenty of tempting second hand books and ephemera at reasonable prices: well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Further up and behind the main street lies the impressive village church, known as the Cathedral of the Downs due to its large size and gorgeous views across the undulating countryside. Alongside the church sits Alfriston Clergy House, a medieval thatched weaver’s cottage that is famed for being the very first property acquired by the National Trust. The whole village feels like a place where time has simply stopped; it is difficult to find villages like this nowadays, that still have thriving shops and have retained their original buildings and historic character. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to live.

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Once I had my fill of exploring Alfriston, I went on to Charleston, which took my breath away once again as I drove up the narrow lane surrounded by the soft humps of the Downs and found the gorgeous Georgian house at the end of it, reflected in its own pond and wreathed in flowers. Walking around the beautiful rooms, filled with the furniture, paintings and spirits of the fascinating and phenomenally talented crowd of people who once lived and stayed here, I felt goosebumps rise on my skin as I imagined the conversations that must have taken place at the dining table, and the sparks of inspiration that must have flown on the air. Once again I was struck by what a magical, lively and fun place this must have been, alive with talk and laughter and passion. The studio is a particularly extraordinary space, and it was even more beautiful than I remembered, perhaps because the garden was in full bloom, and formed a stunning backdrop against the glass doors.

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It was too cold to properly explore the garden last time I came, so I took great pleasure in seeing the colourful flowers and the fantastic array of mosaic and statue art that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant left behind. It is amazing that their hand painted tiles and artfully placed mosaic paving has survived, and it makes the garden into just as much a canvas for their creativity as the interior rooms. I could just imagine Virginia on her deckchair, or Angelica running around, or Vanessa pottering amidst her flower beds. The greatest joy of Charleston is in the feeling that they have all just got up and gone for a walk and will soon be returning; this is no museum, but a chance to see life as they lived it, and the house still vibrates with their energy at every turn. I loved every second.

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13 comments

  1. Sounds like a wonderful outing! I was fortunate enough to take a holiday tour of Great Britain last summer, but had little chance to visit literary spots. Though, we did visit Cornwall, so the book group selection of My Cousin Rachel is a pleasant coincidence!

  2. I have done a lot of “literary touring” in the UK, and if I were forced to list a favorite author’s house/site/shrine – well, I couldn’t, but Charleston might be it. Even for the somewhat jaded traveler it had a ravishing magical overpowering effect on me. What resonated with me about your post this time was the throwaway line about not being able to imagine a better place to live than Alfriston – I almost had to restrain myself from getting out of my chair and starting the process!

    1. Oh Diana, wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in Alfriston?! I think Charleston is magical and very special indeed, though for me it might have to be Jane Austen’s house that most captured my heart when I visited.

  3. This all sounds lovely. But I have a practical question for you : do you know if you can reach Charleston by public transport? Or do you need a car? I don’t drive, which seems to be a real problem when visiting sites (or trying to) in the country side.

    1. Elke, public transportation to both Charleston and Monks House is a bit of a challenge and expense. I am very glad I did it, as it gave me one of the most beautiful and memorable days of my life, but it took some planning. Basically, I took the train from London to Lewes (that part was easy). The website had said there was a bus that went from Lewes to Charleston, but when I got to Lewes and asked at the station, I got a vague reply that a bus went “now and then.” There are, however, plenty of taxis at Lewes station, and I arranged for a taxi to take me to Charleston, and from the house arranged for another to take me to Monks House. In the middle of the day two lovely ladies drove me on a short visit to Berwick Church (well worth seeing) and at the end of the day a kind lady who worked at Monks House drove me back to Lewes station! The taxis cost quite a bit, but it was well worth it. It’s a good idea to plan it all out ahead of time, as much as you can. By the way, I have often rented cars in Britain and am quite comfortable driving there, but I did not want to rent a car from London for just that one day (and have to drive in London? No thanks), and I found it very difficult to figure out how to rent a car in Lewes. So actually, taking the taxis was the best solution, for me anyway. Here is my blog post about it:

      http://lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com/2009/07/in-which-i-visit-virginia-and-vanessa.html

      Another way to go would be to join a tour or go to one of the literary days that are held at Charleston, when transportation might be easier. Check out their website, and that of Monks House.

      1. Diana and Rachel, thank you both so much for this information. Joining a tour sounds like fun, I will look into that.

    2. Diana is right – train to Lewes, then taxi from there, or if visiting in the summer, it is walkable to Charleston in about an hour or so from Lewes station – there are mapped routes available online. Buses in the countryside are never very reliable so I wouldn’t bank on there being one!

  4. Your country seems to have a gift to make historic homes seem still inhabited. When visiting some places, I had the same feeling as you: that the people formely living there just went out to get the paper or pick some flowers. There is no museum-like feeling. You get an impression of the whole atmosphere and life in former times, and those visits are much more memorable.

    1. Yes – it is rather a gift, I think – helped by the fact that many of the houses don’t cordon things off, so you can properly walk around and enjoy the space rather than being confined to peering in through doorways.

    1. Oh, my dear BookerTalk! It was six thousand miles for me! Your comment really reinforces to me the abundance of riches and wonders there are in the British Isles. So many fantastic places to see, you are spoilt for choice. I looked at your blog and I see that you do make that 6,000 mile journey too, in reverse – you have been to my neck of the woods, and one of my very favorite places in the world, Tioga Pass! So many places…so little time, eh?

  5. I know this is rather late in the calendar for commenting on this entry, but I’ve only JUST NOW discovered your blog! I love it! But when you mentioned “Alfriston” and then I saw your link to “MUCH ADO BOOKS” – I had to comment. I live across the pond, in Salem, Massachusetts. I grew up and lived in Marblehead, Mass… and MUCH ADO BOOKS was my local antiquarian book shop when they lived over here in Marblehead. Cate and Nash… if they are still the owners… I loved them both! When they up and moved across the pond to Alfriston, near Charleston, I was the greenest of green with envy, as my husb. and I have visited the UK 8 times and are dyed-in-the-wool Anglophiles… I love that Cate’s shop has done so well there. It was the best used book shop ever when they were here…

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