Subscribe      List an Event or Business      Invite a Writer      Write for WN      Writers      Other Locations      HubGarden      Recipes

Charleston - Home of the Bloomsbury Group

Home > London > Afternoon Tea | Gardening | Girls' Day Out | Historic Houses
by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt (subscribe)
Freelance writer exploring Melbourne and beyond. If you enjoy the following article click on the Like button, Facebook it to your friends or subscribe to my articles. I'll update you with lots of fun and often free adventures in your home town.
Published October 27th 2016
They painted in circles and loved in triangles

Any fan of art, literature or 20th century cultural history will relish their visit to Charleston Farmhouse, the country home of the famous Bloomsbury group.

This was where the artist Vanessa Bell lived with her menagerie that included her children, her dear friend and one-time lover Duncan Grant, her sometimes husband, the art critic Clive Bell, and a series of guests who set out to change the modern world.

Amongst them was her sister, the novelist Virginia Woolf, who lived in nearby Monk's House, John Maynard Keynes who wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace in an upstairs bedroom, Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey (for a wonderful portrait of this absolute character watch the film Carrington) T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster.



It was a hotbed for creativity as well as a hotbed in the more notorious sense of the word. They were changing everything from art, economics, literature to acceptable unions between lovers. The calling cards for this group included tolerance, reason, freedom of speech, non-violence, equality, friendship. As writer Dorothy Parker observed they "lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles."



Vanessa Bell's painted circles are everywhere in Charleston. In fact, every available interior surface is painted with post-impressionist decorations, including fireplace surrounds, window frames and beams. There are images of tumbling flowers, thatched patterns and full-bosomed goddesses reigning over fireplaces. It is quite remarkable.

It is stuffed full of portraits of and by the group. So, it is almost as if they are there in the same room with you.



This is not a palatial home by British standards, but a humble old farmhouse that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant rented from 1916, to enable the men in the group to work on a nearby farm and avoid active military service.

They came, they stayed, they decorated.

There is a myriad of low-ceilinged rooms. To my mind, the most interesting are Vanessa Bell's bedroom where she died aged 81. Rather than a grisly thought, one sees that her last days were spent in some kind of comfort. From her bed, she could look through the French windows over her remarkable garden and on her walls were portraits of all those she had loved and who had loved her, including her sister Vanessa, her lover Duncan Grant and her daughter Angelica.

charleston house bloomsbury group
The only place one could get an interior shot was in the toilets!


The other room of note is Duncan Grant's studio where he painted right up until his death in 1978 when he was 93. It is a magnificent light-filled room. His tubes of paint are where he left them and the whisky bottle on a tray as if he was still around for his afternoon nip.

Some tourists just visit Charleston for the gardens and one can see why. In front of the house is a vast pond filled with water lilies with leaves as large as stepping stones. The walled garden is a mass of flowers perhaps most likely inspired by Claude Monet's dramatic garden at Giverny.


There are vivid colours in this tumble of hollyhocks, purple cosmos, zinnia, tiger lilies, bright orange nasturtiums all in a profusion of gay abandon.

I visited in August and most of the flowers towered above me, including the nodding heads of the lanky sunflowers.



The Downside

I cannot show anything of the Charleston's magical interiors as photography is strictly and oddly forbidden. Visit the National Portrait Gallery in London and you are welcome to pull our your camera. Visit any of the wonderful National Trust properties, such as even nearby Monk's House or the wonderful Sissinghurst and interior photography, albeit without a flash, is also highly encouraged.



This is because such organisation have realised that photos of their interiors emblazoned across Instagram, Facebook and all the other channels open to visitors these days encourages further tourists to visit.

The Charleston Trust is a charity that does not receive any public funding, but the pressure to get tourists to donate seems somewhat excessive.



There is a short film before you even go in and that, I believe, asks for donations at least 17 times. Perhaps if they showed the after you had seen the beauty that is Charleston, visitors might feel less battered from requests and happier to give.

Tours run every fifteen minutes during peak season. Unlike National Trust properties, the guides here are on a tight schedule and not always welcoming of tourists' questions.



The other issue is getting there. If you have a hire car that is fine, but many tourists, especially those who come from places that drive on the other side of the road, don't.

As an international tourist, I came by bus and the closest town to catch this bus was Lewes, which is where most tourists make their way from.

From there, it is a circuitous, although not unpleasant country bus route which drops you on the busy road outside the property.



Then there is a reasonably long walk to Charleston along a narrow lane, which has steep ditches on either side and cattle grids which tourists have to traverse. As there are often two cars trying to pass each other on these lanes, it is a precarious walk.

The property is worth all this effort but one feels that more could be done to help those visitors (of which there must be thousands each year) who come via public transport. One can accept the irregular bus service to a country area, but the lack of any kind of shelter to wait for one's bus afterwards does dampen the lustre of one's visit, especially when it is raining. Which it sometimes is known to do in England.

The main road, where one must wait for the bus, is incredibly busy and with no bus shelter one feels in peril from the hurtling traffic.



I rather think Charleston's donations box would a little bit fuller if the collection was for a bus shelter for those tourists who are determined to make the trek to see this inspiring property.

Getting there: If you are not able to drive to Charleston, the Compass Travel bus service 125 runs from Lewes on Wednesdays to Saturdays. You can get this service from either the Lewes Bus Station and Station Street in Lewes. You can then ask the driver to let you know where along the A27 to disembark for Charleston. It is then a 20 minute walk up a single track lane to get to the there.


Help us improve  Click here if you liked this article  36
Share: email  facebook  twitter
Why? Stunning interiors which I can't show you here
When: Charleston (House and Garden) is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays from Wednesday 23rd March to Sunday 30th October. Please see Charleston's website for opening times.
Phone: 01323 811626
Where: Charleston Firle Lewes East Sussex BN8 6LL
Cost: 12.00 with one pound off for concessions.
Your Comment
Fantastic review of your visit, showing both the wonder of the place and the downside. Well done!
by earl. (score: 0|5) 297 days ago
Articles from other cities
Top Events
Popular Articles
Categories
Lists
Questions