During our recent trip to East Sussex and Kent, we visited three National Trust properties that are linked by family and membership of or association with the Bloomsbury Group (or Set) – check the map:
- Knole, on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent, family home, since the 16th century of the Sackville and Sackville-West families;
- Sissinghurst Castle and Garden (24 miles southeast of Knole), home of poet, novelist and garden designer Vita Sackville-West and husband Harold Nicholson; and
- Monk’s House at Rodmell on the south coast near the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap (see map), the home of writer Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, prominent members of the Bloomsbury Group.
The Bloomsbury Group was a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century.
What was their ethos? Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality.
So what is the particular connection, the ‘ménage’ as I’ve called it, between Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House?
Vita Sackville-West was the daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville. She was born at Knole in 1892. As a woman, Vita could not inherit Knole on her father’s death. Instead, Knole and the Sackville title passed to Lionel’s younger brother Charles. His son Edward (‘Eddy’), Vita’s cousin, became the 5th Baron. Although he was not a core member of the Bloomsbury Group, many of its members and ‘hangers-on’ were frequent visitors to Knole as shown in the guest book on display in the rooms that Eddy occupied in the Gatehouse Tower there.
Vita and her husband purchased derelict Sissinghurst Castle in 1930 and set about creating a garden that has received acclaim worldwide. Sissinghurst had been the home of one of Vita’s ancestors, Cicely Baker, who married Thomas, Ist Earl of Dorset in 1555.
Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf were lovers.
It’s not my intention here to discuss nor describe further the ancestral, social, or sexual links between all involved. I cannot comment either on the literary output of Vita and Virginia as I have not read any of their works, although I know what they wrote and the genre.
Instead, let me just describe some of my impressions of Knole, Sissinghurst, and Monk’s House.
It took less than an hour to drive north on the A21 to Sevenoaks from our holiday cottage near Robertsbridge. Driving along the High Street (A225) at Sevenoaks, it’s hard to believe that just behind the houses lies a 1000 acre parkland, with Knole and its gardens at the center. The park has herds of fallow and Japanese Sika deer, descendants of the deer introduced centuries ago.
Knole is a large house, but the public has access to just a few rooms. But what a feast for the eyes therein. Treasures aplenty! The items on display inside the house: oil paintings by the dozen, rare furniture and many others remain the property of the Sackville-West family that continues to live at Knole, under a 200-year lease from the National Trust. Robert Sackville-West is the 7th Baron.
No photography is permitted inside the main house; but no such restrictions hold in the Stone  and Green Courts , or from the roof of the Gatehouse . Likewise photography is permitted in the Orangery .
Sissinghurst Castle Garden is a delight. But hard to appreciate fully when there are so many visitors. And on the day we visited, it wasn’t as busy as it must surely get!
Designed by Vita and Harold, Sissinghurst must be on every gardener’s bucket list. Like the garden we saw at Greys Court two years ago, Sissinghurst is also a series of rooms open to the sky, and best seen in their entirety perhaps from the top of the double turret tower, Vita’s Tower.
Vita loved her tower, and had a writing room there. There’s no access to the room, but I visitors can look through a grille to see its layout.
Vita and Harold had a turbulent marriage, and both had same-sex affairs. Vita’s affair with Virginia Woolf was perhaps the most notorious. But their marriage survived, and together they worked on creating their garden at Sissinghurst.
Visitors to Monk’s House in the small village of Rodmell new Newhaven make a beeline to Virginia Woolf’s writing room in the garden.
Virginia and husband Leonard shared a 16th century cottage. On the walls are paintings by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell (VB) and the person (TR) who became Leonard’s companion after Virginia’s suicide by drowning in 1941 (aged 59) until his death in 1969, Trekkie Parsons.
The ashes of both Virginia and Leonard were laid at the base of a wall in their small but attractive garden, with its views over the South Downs.
Before our visit to Monk’s House, the name of Virginia Woolf was familiar to me, but I knew very little of her life and associates. It was fascinating, however, to see the environment and work room that gave one of the great writers of the 20th century inspiration to continue, even though she suffered mental health problems all her life. For some of visitors I had the sense that their visit to Monk’s House was almost a pilgrimage.
Leaving Monk’s House to drive back to Robertsbridge, we chose a route that would take us down to the coast at Birling Gap where we hoped to have a good view of the chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters, where the South Downs meet the sea. It was a sparklingly bright afternoon, and we were not disappointed.
From the National Trust car park there was easy access down to the beach, where we could sit and take in the magnificence of that landscape.
Continuing our journey on from Birling Gap, we passed Beachy Head, although we didn’t stop. The short video below shows our departure from the car park at Birling Gap, and the climb on to the cliffs, passing the Belle Tout Lighthouse (now restored as a bed & breakfast establishment), and finally dropping down into Eastbourne, with Pevensey Bay in the distance, where the Normans landed in 1066. From that drop into Eastbourne you can appreciate just how high the chalk cliffs are at Beachy Head, at more than 530 feet (162 m).
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