Monday, July 20, 2009

In Which I Visit Virginia and Vanessa - and Buy a Dress at 40,000 Feet

Charleston, Vanessa Bell's house

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
I'm so wreckingly exhausted but this was one of the most wonderful days of my trip. I was alone, other Doves having doved or chickened out, understandably as it *was* a formidable undertaking - and not inexepensive - but the rewards were oh, so overwhelmingly worth it! I actually didn't mind being alone, I enjoyed every minute down to the ground and felt able to consult only what *I* wanted to do, and how fast I wanted to move, which worked.

I took the tube to Victoria and arrived in time to get a cappuccino and newspaper for the train. The rail journey was pleasant, an hour, on a comfortably empty train with lovely views of the green, green English countryside flashing by. The train arrived at Lewes on time at 10:20, and I confidently looked around for the expected 10:30 bus that would take me to Charleston, according to the bus schedule posted online. But it didn't come, and quoth the station master: "Why, that bus doesn't go on any regular schedule, it just runs once in awhile!" Great. Fortunately there's a taxi booking office and plenty of taxis at Lewes station, and I booked one to take me to Charleston, another to take me from Charleston to Monk's House, and a third to take me from Monk's House back to Lewes. The first taxi was fine. Drove through the pretty South Downs countryside to Charleston in less than ten minutes, cost L10. It was about 11 AM and the shop, ticket office and tearoom didn't open till 11:30, so I went for a walk on the downs. Beautiful, a sunny but windy day, so walking on this track past the farm, into rippling fields of tall grass, toward some beautiful soft hills and past flowery hedgerows, was quite exhilarating.

At 11:30 I went to the shop to buy my ticket. Another American woman told me she and her English friend were first in line, so I mildly assented, and she explained that it seems that only ten people are allowed in to each tour of the house, which takes an hour, and if we didn't get in the first tour, there'd be a wait. Later I saw that people who arrived at 1 PM couldn't get in until 4. But we did get in at noon. And I have to say this system worked very well indeed. Ten was just the right amount of people to be in the lovely, well-proportioned, low-ceilinged farmhouse rooms; more would have been too many, you wouldn't have been able to comfortably see all the paintings, the decorative art on the wood paneling, furniture and walls. The house is really breathtaking - I couldn't begin to specifically describe it, but its decorations and pictures are sufficiently covered online. I will, however, show you a small painting of a cat by Duncan Grant, that especially charmed me.

Opussyquinusque by Duncan Grant

The rooms have faintingly lovely views over the beautiful square walled garden and a picturesque pond - all fringed with the most vivid, stunning English flowers in high colorful summer season glory. Both Vanessa's bedroom and Virginia's at Monk's House have the feature of big windows onto their exquisite gardens, so they could lie in bed looking at them, and doors that opened into the gardens so they could step out in a moment. Most enviable beds.

While at Charleston, I got to chatting with the American lady and her English friend, who turned out to be interested in textiles, and when I fumed that I could see no way of getting to Berwick church, 3 miles away, that the Bloomsbury people decorated (and which is another must-see), they very kindly offered to drive me! So we went together; it was a ten minute drive, but would have taken hours to walk across the fields, for I'd certainly have got lost. The church was lovely too - there's a whole massive wall of multi-colored hollyhocks, and the church and green graveyard have views of the downs through the trees. After we'd seen the church, and bought some cards, they drove me back to Charleston.

Berwick Church

Another look around there, and my taxi promptly showed up at 2:30. It's a winding drive round to Monk's House, 7 miles away, and at the taxi station they'd told me it should cost L14 or L15 - but it cost TWENTY-FIVE POUNDS!!! The meter was running properly, too, but that's what it cost. I was shocked, and not sure I'd have enough cash left to take the third taxi of the day, so when I arrived at Monk's House I fumed to the lady at the desk, who was shocked and embarrassed and said if I could wait till 5:30, she'd drive me to the train station at Lewes! Well, that was too good an offer to refuse, and would, of course, save me what I'd lost, and not leave me with too little cash. It's rather a nice touch that the entire day, taxis, train fare, cards and things I bought, came to exactly what my fee was for the talk I'd given the night before!

Monk's House, home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf

So I spent three full hours at Monk's House. It's National Trust, while Charleston is privately owned, and clearly isn't as well run - it's a very small house with cramped rooms, and while they're intensely interesting as belonging to Virginia and Leonard Woolf, they were CRAMMED with people, a tour came through. So after a brief look (her bedroom is particularly poignant), and walk round the stunningly flowery garden, I decided to go walk down to the river and see where It happened. So I walked. And I walked. And no sign of any river! Fortunately I ran into an elderly English couple doing a walking tour, and they showed me on their topo map that the Ouse was more than a mile from the House. Poor V. must really have wanted to die, going all that way in her determination. The couple walked with me, on this path through the downs, and I did see the river. Then walked back to the house, and glory be, all the people had gone! So I had another longer look round, and then walked all over the 3 acres of pasture and kitchen garden and saw Virginia's outdoor writing studio and the picturesque church. There was a cottage that was doing an exhibition of a local lady's flower paintings, but they also were doing TEA, and I had the loveliest tea in their garden, a home baked, delicately fresh chocolate cake and tea. There were just three other elderly women in the garden, and one had taught the children of the nice woman who was to give me the lift. We chatted, and I played with Oliver, the garden cat. Then it was time to accept my ride back to Lewes - but walking through the garden, I fell and banged my knee. Nothing serious, just a bark, but it's swollen and stiff now and I'm hobbling. It does seem that the Final Pound has been administered to my limbs, and that it is getting to be time for me to hobble home to California where I don't walk, only cruise around in my SUV!

The Ouse, where Virginia Woolf drowned herself

I fell asleep on the train (what a surprise), got off at Holborn looking for my next stop, which was to meet people from the Girls' Own list in a pub, but I couldn't find it and was so tired. So I simply walked up to the British Museum, as I knew a Greek restaurant that had been highly recommended was in the next street. It's Konaki on Coptic Street, and it was just perfect. I had a quiet table where I could sit by myself and read the new Diana Mosley compendium, and I had a nice starter of the most delicious hummous/chickpeas dish with pita, followed by lamb kebabs, delicate macaroni-rice, and salad, plus a truly excellent dish of chocolate ice cream. All for L12. That was the set inexpensive dinner, there were lots of choices - and a huge menu of a la carte choices. Afterwards I hobbled back to the hotel and had a pleasant visit in the lounge with Arnie, who's at the hotel next door. Now I'm tucked up in my hotel bed, and ready to go home tomorrow. What a trip it has been! I don't know that ever in my life have my spirits simultaneously been so high and my body so battered!

George Hotel, Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury


A bit more to the trip! After my English breakfast at the George, I took my now incredibly heavy and book-laden bags and took a cab to the Baker Street station, for it would be a direct train ride from there to Piffle friend Gillian's (The College Cat) house. She welcomed me so hospitably, showed me her lovely big house crammed with books and its wide green garden, and introduced me to her two elderly black cats, Ozymandias and Cleopatra. Lesley (Cross-eyed Lens) arrived and we had lunch; Ozy, said to be declining, woke to life and exhibited remarkable zest in seeking out delicate pieces of smoked salmon. I gave Gillian and Lesley books of mine and Peter's, and Lesley gave me a lovely new biography of Margery Allingham.

Ozymandias and Cleopatra

It is now time to show the books I acquired on the trip. Here they are:

Oxford Diary, 2010, from the Bodleian
Penny Plain by O. Douglas (Ann Buchan, 1940), a girls' book acquired at The Haunted Bookshop for L3
Claudine's House - Colette, early essays, bought at Blackwells
A Year in Nature Notes by Derwent May, a gift from Roz
A Houseful of Girls by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, 1901 (from the Haunted Bookshop, L5)
The Journal of Katherine Mansfield from the Persephone shop
On the Writer's Trail, 20 Great Literary Journeys by Christina Hardyment, a gift from Barbara
The Friendship, Wordsworth and Coleridge, by Adam Sisman. From Judd Books, London. (L3.95)
The Pursuit of Laughter, Diana Mosley, bought at Blackwells
Clothes-pegs by Susan Scarlett (pseud. for Noel Streatfeild), The Haunted Bookshop
The Adventures of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones, gift from Lesley
Jane Austen's The History of England & Cassandra's Portraits edited by Annette Upfal and Christine Alexander whom I met at Chawton House conference
The Blue Hour, a Portrait of Jean Rhys by Lilian Pizzichini, gift from Elaine
The Illustrated Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White (gorgeous edition bought at Selborne)
An Lasair, Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (for Peter)

Lesley, with incredible kindness, then drove me to Heathrow. Smooth ten-hour flight on Air New Zealand, which provided scones, cream and jam. Otherwise boring trip, but I was diverted by buying a dress at 40,000 feet. No, it wasn't in a catalogue and it wasn't some variant of the Mile High Club. My seatmate was one of the prettiest girls I've ever seen, and she told me she was a fashion designer, Laura Dawson, flying from her home in London to Los Angeles for the "reunion" of a reality show she'd been on - it was a fashion show spinoff from Project Runway. She showed me some of her dresses on her computer, and stood up so I could see the one she was wearing - and it was so lovely, *I* wanted it! Of course she is slim and the perfect model, but she assured me she could run one up that would fit me and she thought dark plum would be my color (it is). So when I got home we emailed and I ordered the dress, which is returnable in case it isn't right. Here it is. What do you think?

In Pifflechat

scall0way: so were the kitties happy to see you home Denny?
Birchalls: oh the welcome was overwhelming!
Birchalls: I had been longing to see the kitties, but even though I had their pictures with me, I'd quite forgotten how BEAUTIFUL they are
Birchalls: when I came in the door, there was Catullus, looking almost impossibly pretty, such a lovely fluffball. I said to Peter, "Goodness, I'd forgotten we have cats that lovely!"
Birchalls: Then I sat down at my computer, and instantly Pindar jumped on my lap, and kissed me, and purred!
Birchalls: Martial, who has depths and neuroses, but loves me the most, hid behind the monitor and peeked at me while Pindar was on my lap
Birchalls: but when Pindy finally jumped down, Martial jumped up, and rubbed her little snout on my stomach then lay down with a sigh of content. Goodness, it was nice. And of course it was wonderful seeing Peter and Paul, too...

"Oh, so you're back again, are you?"


Ellen said...

How interesting. It was sad no one would go with you -- in the sense that they weren't interested enough. I'd have loved to go to Monk House. A bit creepy in a way to stand where Woolf drowned herself, but then why not?

You were very brave and stalwart and earned every book and experience you managed.


Barbara said...

Well, lack of interest did not prevent me making the trip with Diana, Ellen. Rather, lack of time. Unfortunately, a day out in Sussex from Leeds would entail at the minimum 3 days and 2 nights away from home and work and almost all my holiday entitlement was spoken for when Diana made her announcement to go. But now that I know it is possible and have seen the lovely pictures - I mean to do it sometime! Barbara

Ellen said...

I had no one specifically in mind, was speaking generally. After all Diana came thousands of miles and went well out of her way to fulfill her imaginative and heart-felt needs.

The world of the past, the imagination of history (what the French call "sites de memoire" only seem to be there awaiting us for when we are ready for them.


Late Blooming Mom said...

Oh, to be in England in the spring. Okay, summer. You lucky lady.
Gorgeous photos.