PD Smith

A writer’s house

22 February 2008 | photography, Writers in Sussex | 29 comments

Do the houses once lived in by famous writers tell us anything about their work? After the Great War, Virginia Woolf and her husband paid £700 for Monk's House in the Sussex village of Rodmell. It's a simple, weather-boarded cottage beside a country lane.

Rodmell

Behind it was a garden and an orchard of overgrown pear and apple trees, with views over the flats of the Ouse valley. When they bought it, Monk's House had no bath, no toilet, no hot water and just brick floors. Its previous owner had gone mad and starved himself to death. Virginia wrote: "We went to Rodmell, and the gale blew at us all day; off arctic fields; so we spent our time attending to the fire." One morning they had to get up at 4 am to chase mice out of their bed. Today, most people would be put off by such conditions. But not Virginia; she loved the cottage and her "soft grey walks" in the surrounding countryside.

Over twenty years ago (how time flies), my father and I researched the literary history of Sussex, where we lived. The attraction for writers was easy to see. The county is ideally situated between London and the south coast of England. The landscape varies from the low Weald, with its patchwork of fields and woods, to the sculptural Downs, the undulating chalk hills that demand to be walked. In the course of two years we visited the former homes of fifty or so writers. They ranged from William Blake's picturesque flint cottage in Felpham, to Rudyard Kipling's impressive stone manor house, Bateman's, at Burwash.

Bateman's

Out of this research came a book, Writers in Sussex (1985), written by my father and illustrated with my black and white photographs. The playwright Christopher Fry, who lived in Sussex, kindly agreed to write the foreword. Indeed, it turned out he had been friends with one of the Sussex writers whose home we had visited: poet Andrew Young.

It was clear from talking to Christopher Fry and from his foreword that he was delighted to discover a literary dimension to some of his favourite landscapes. In 1936 he and his wife had lived in an old millhouse at Coleman's Hatch. They knew that AA Milne and his family were nearby at Cotchford Farm. What they didn't know was that twenty-three years earlier WB Yeats and Ezra Pound had lived quite near to them: "Every time we had driven to Forest Row we had passed the end of the lane which would have led us to Stone Cottage."

Stone Cottage

It certainly adds something to our appreciation of a landscape to find out that those same walks and views were also loved by a writer or artist whose work you know well. But can we learn anything new about a writer's work from seeing where they lived? Of course, fiction and poetry create their own textual reality that does not depend on an external, empirical reality. But while visiting these houses and landscapes I found it intriguing to speculate about the ways geography and place may have informed literature.

For instance, it is fascinating to walk through the beautiful countryside near Mervyn Peake's two Sussex homes and to see the crenellated walls of Arundel Castle looming on the horizon. Did this view influence his idea of Gormenghast castle while writing Titus Groan in the valley of the River Arun?

Wepham

The link between Tennyson's poetry and the view from his home on Black Down is undeniable. His study faced south over the Weald, a beautiful view described in these haunting lines:

"You came, and looked and loved the view
Long-known and loved by me,
Green Sussex fading into blue
With one gray glimpse of sea."

Some houses we visited seemed to be architectural extensions of the writer's character, in the same way as certain sea creatures build themselves protective shells from found materials. Hilaire Belloc's home - King's Land at Shipley - was originally a tithe barn built by monks. When we saw it early one sunny morning it looked as if it had evolved out of the Sussex landscape that Belloc loved so dearly. In the garden, I remember photographing an old brick wall which was encrusted with yellow and green lichens. At that time, the house was still owned by his family.

King's Land

The location of other houses was often deeply suggestive of a writer's work. John Cowper Powys' Warre House (renamed by its modern literary owner Frith House) nestled against the side of an ancient earthwork in the village of Burpham. A beautiful old house, it was surrounded by high walls and trees, and was about as isolated as it is possible to get in Sussex. But not, apparently, isolated enough for Powys. He found the children playing on the earthwork outside his study window distracting and so he erected a large board labelled "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted". The villagers promptly threw it into the ditch and treated a second board in the same summary fashion. Anecdotes like this bring both house and writer alive in a very human way.

Warre

Certain terrains appealed to many different writers and we found several living within a stone's throw of each other. Powys, Peake and the novelist and bee-keeper Tickner Edwardes all lived near Burpham, in the shadow of Arundel Castle. Others lived in Sussex from necessity. Novelist and naturalist WH Hudson moved briefly to Worthing to care for his invalid wife. He disliked the sedate seaside town with a passion. "I hate the place and have never met anyone in it who has been of use to me. It is talk, talk, but never a gleam of an original or fresh remark or view of anything that does not come out of a book or newspaper." In another age, Harold Pinter would also live in Worthing.

Belloc and Tennyson fell in love with both the county and their homes, and stayed until their last breaths. A minority of writers, such as Conan Doyle, seemed utterly unaffected by the beauty of the landscape, or at least never remarked on it in their work.

Ashdown Forest

These houses and the landscapes around them are part of the geography in which many creative works of art are rooted. After all, literary texts, like all cultural artefacts, belong to a time and a place. As I look through these photos today, I feel they do offer hints and echoes of the writings created there. At the very least they prompt me to re-read some of the works themselves which, of course, is what these Sussex writers would have wanted.

You can look at my photographs here and you can also read the original copy of Christopher Fry's foreword, hammered out on his ancient typewriter, here [PDF].

29 comments so far:

  1. Mary McMyne | 22 February 2008

    Lovely blog, and book concept... I love the bit about the crotchety isolationist writers and the previous owner of Woolf's house going mad! Thanks for reposting the photographs!

  2. PD Smith | 22 February 2008

    Glad you liked it Mary. I guess there's a bit of an isolationist in all of us...

  3. Gary William Murning | 22 February 2008

    Wonderful article and photos, Peter.

    One morning they had to get up at 4 am to chase mice out of their bed.

    Used to happen to me all the time... back in my drinking days ;)

  4. PD Smith | 22 February 2008

    Cheers Gary - and I thought you were such a sober guy...

  5. Terry Finley | 22 February 2008

    So, writers are as human (or inhuman)
    as the rest of us, quarks and all.

  6. Paul Halpern | 22 February 2008

    Stunning photography, especially effective in black and white! I enjoyed reading the forward by Fry, particularly his comment that since we don't have a Wellsian time machine we need to rely on our memories. It's great that your family saved the typewritten original. I hope that the beauty of Sussex continues to be preserved, and glad that you've captured it in your photos.

  7. PD Smith | 23 February 2008

    Terry: yes, that's very true...

    Thanks, Paul. Glad you spotted the allusion to Wells. I liked that too!

  8. Arielle in NoVA | 25 February 2008

    Gorgeous photography; lovely idea & details. Thanks!

  9. PD Smith | 25 February 2008

    Thanks Arielle!

  10. Jon Turney | 25 February 2008

    Very evocative photos Peter. The trick doesn't quite work for science, but I always find it fascinating to visit Downe House. Thomas Huxley's retirement villa not quite as inspiring...

  11. PD Smith | 25 February 2008

    Thanks Jon! Yes, Downe House is well worth a visit and the landscape around is beautiful. Huxley's villa certainly doesn't compare but I can't help wondering whether his alpine saxifrages survive...!

  12. Mike Cane | 26 February 2008

    http://books.guardian.co.uk/writersrooms

  13. sylfidka | 27 February 2008

    Yes, one really needs "A Room of One's Own", not only in the in the figurative, but also in the literal sense - thank you for showing the "rooms" of so many inportant and creative people - now i have to visit Sussex!

  14. PD Smith | 27 February 2008

    cheers Mike - I'm a fan of the Guardian series on writers' rooms!

    Glad you liked it, Sylfidka. It's a beautiful county; well worth a visit.

  15. Hiše pisateljev « Izbris - svet med platnicami | 01 March 2008

    [...] A writer’s house [...]

  16. PD Smith | 01 March 2008

    Thanks for linking!

  17. ricardo moraes | 04 March 2008

    A good post , a beautiful blog. Here in Brazil , in a lazy afternoon, I realized that a house is not a book, but when we like one, we always think where the writer lived...Congratulations

  18. PD Smith | 04 March 2008

    Thanks Ricardo - great to hear from you. A lazy afternoon in Brazil sounds good to me!

  19. Charmainesw | 24 March 2008

    well done, dude

  20. PD Smith | 24 March 2008

    Cheers!

  21. Mark Thwaite | 10 April 2008

    What a lovely photo-essay. Nice one Peter.

    Now, if only someone would do the same for the writers of Liverpool and Manchester...

  22. PD Smith | 10 April 2008

    Thanks Mark! Good point though...

  23. Melody Bannister-Barch | 31 August 2008

    Lovely photos. References to Arundel bring back wonderful memories of reading English authors, and of my three visits to England where my father was born, in Lancashire. Look forward to reading all your links.

  24. PD Smith | 01 September 2008

    Thanks Melody. Glad you liked it!

  25. Jax | 17 June 2009

    I just stumbled across this while doing a bit of surfing in preparation for my holiday in Sussex in July - in which a visit to Monk's house will feature. Maybe I'll even buy your 'Writers in Sussex' book! I've always had a guilty fascination for novelists' lives and homes (guilty because I grew up when English lessons were all about the death of the author). Thanks for your words and photos which have whetted my appetite.

  26. PD Smith | 17 June 2009

    Many thanks for that - glad it was helpful: enjoy your holiday!

  27. S Kingston | 14 June 2010

    I very much like the piece about writers in Sussex having once lived there (and visited Batemans and Monks House). The photographs are superb and it is good to link the writers with the places in which they lived - and for Sussex to be running as a link between them all. thanks.

  28. Graham Chainey | 31 December 2012

    I've just read the book (given me fro Christmas) with very keen admiration and enjoyment and wanted to know more about this Bernard Smith who wrote so well and with such insight into all these writers, and of whom I had not previously heard. I cannot recommend the book too highly. One of the most engrossing works of local history I've read (and I've read hundreds). I got a more vivid impression of Keats, for instance, in BS's three pages than from Robert Gittings's 600-page biography. The excellent photos look even better here (uncropped). Maybe it's time to update and reissue the book?

  29. PD Smith | 31 December 2012

    Many thanks for that comment, Graham - my dad would have been really pleased to hear how much you enjoyed the book. He loved writing it as well as driving round to find all the houses and places associated with the writers. It was great fun photographing the places too.

    He would have loved the opportunity to update the book - but sadly he is no longer with us. There is a brief obituary here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2006/jan/19/obituaries.readersobituaries

    Thanks again for your kind words - it means a lot...

    Happy New Year!

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