Into Virginia Woolf’s garden
Thursday, 03 October 2013

Into Virginia Woolf’s garden

The wonders and secrets of a great literary oasis

Written by Sarah Langton-Lockton
Monk’s House in East Sussex was bought by Leonard and Virginia Woolf as a country retreat in 1919. At the beginning, lacking funds, the Woolfs endured conditions that were primitive to a degree unimaginable today – no electricity or running water, bathroom or lavatory, only an earth closet in the garden, masked by cherry laurels. They‘d been seduced by the garden, Virginia recording, following a first viewing, ‘a profound pleasure at the size & shape & fertility & wildness of the garden’.

Leonard later wrote in his autobiography: ‘The orchard was lovely and the garden was the kind I like, much subdivided into a kind of patchwork quilt of trees, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, fruit, roses and crocus tending to merge into cabbages and currant bushes’. Back from their first weekend there, Virginia wrote of the ‘pure joy’ of working in the garden ‘… weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness’.

Many years later, Caroline Zoob and her husband Jonathan became tenants of the National Trust at Monk’s House, tending the house and garden, which are open to the public, in season, on two afternoons a week. An embroiderer and textile artist, Caroline has now written an unusual and affecting book, Virginia Woolf’s Garden. It is wonderfully illustrated by her embroidered garden plans and watercolour planting schemes, archive photographs and photographs not published before, by Caroline Arber, capturing the garden in all seasons.


A shadow had been cast over the early years of the Woolfs’ marriage by Virginia’s mental illness. Leonard resolved that alternating life in Richmond with periods of quiet country life would be essential for avoiding further breakdowns. Monk’s House was not Virginia’s only garden, but it became the garden of her writing life. It was here, first in a converted shed, then in a wooden writing lodge in a corner of the orchard, that she produced over the next 22 years her major novels. She was, according to Leonard, ‘an untidy liver’, but a disciplined worker, making the journey across the garden to her writing lodge, when well, ‘with the daily regularity of a stockbroker’.

Although she loved the garden and drew inspiration from it for her writing, Virginia did not become a gardener, and confessed as much in a letter: ‘if only I could remember the names of flowers, and what Leonard is proud of this summer, it would be like one of old Miss Jekyll’s letters, minus the common sense’. While vague about plant names and their habits, she was in no doubt of the happiness the garden brought her. Many diary entries testify to this.

In truth, the garden was Leonard’s creation. He made it with skill and passion, laying out the central part of the garden as a series of rooms, divided by paths and flint walls, later pursuing further ‘ambitious schemes’ into the adjacent field. He loved ponds, earlyflowering spring bulbs, trees, cacti and the bright blaze of dahlias. He stayed on at Monk’s House when Virginia committed suicide in 1941 and was still an enthusiastic gardener into his 80s.

The extracts from the letters and diaries of the Woolfs add intimacy to Caroline Zoob’s book. It is the story of a garden, but it is as much the portrait of two remarkable people and of a marriage in which each was the centre of the other’s existence. Virginia wrote in her last letter to Leonard: ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been’. Monk’s House and its garden were essential to that.

Virginia Woolf’s Garden: The Story Of The Garden At Monk’s House, by Caroline Zoob, is published by Jacqui Small, priced £30:

An apple a day
An apple a day…

It’s a wonderful year for apples and there’s nowhere better to celebrate this than at Brogdale Collections, near the beautiful town of Faversham in Kent. Brogdale is the home of the National Fruit Collection. It has over 4,000 varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries, cobnuts, currants and quinces and the largest collection of fruit trees in the world.

The apple collection consists of 2,000 varieties, and 200 of them will be available to taste and to buy at the Brogdale Apple Festival on 19 and 20 October. Visitors can also seek advice from the experts, get apples identified, go on guided walking or tractor tours of the orchards and eat local food. There’ll be a Festival Baker of the Year Competition using apples from the National Fruit Collection, and activities for children including storytelling and rides on the Faversham Miniature Railway.

Brogdale is easy to get to from the M2 or there’s a free shuttle bus from Faversham station. 01795-536250,

Plant of the week

Sibley’s Patio Plum is a new compact plum, a sport of Victoria, that will grow no taller than 1m (39in) after seven years. Perfect for a pot, with fruit size and flavour similar in every way to its parent. £34.95:

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