You know what it’s like. The quotidian round had somehow expanded to fill every moment of waking life; squashing those little spaces for daydreaming and musing. Creativity was hibernating. Time for a break.
Luckily, I’d signed up for a May Bank Holiday yoga retreat in Sussex, the Bloomsbury Set’s country headquarters. I stayed at Tilton House, once owned by John Maynard Keynes and his Russian ballerina wife Lydia Lopokova. The glorious Georgian farmhouse is literally next door to Charleston, where the Bloomsbury Queen Bee Vanessa Bell lived with Duncan Grant, various lovers, friends and children.
Tilton House is heaven for writers, and I soon found a cosy sofa with wonderful views through a big arched window (above) where I could sit with my notebook and pen. The house is at the foot of the Sussex Downs, set among bluebell woods and apple trees, all blooming away like mad during my visit. Inside is a haven of simple, stylish decoration, the highlight of which is Maynard’s library (below), where we sat around the fire in the evenings, drinking wine, reading and chatting.
The food was excellent, all the more so for being largely the produce of the neat vegetable garden. Yoga sessions were held in the yurt, which rather incongruously nestled in the bluebell wood, kept toasty warm with a wood-burning stove. One had only to step outside for a choice of bracingly muddy walks.
On the first morning two of us headed over the fields to Berwick Church, where the legacy of Bloomsbury is a set of astonishing murals decorating this ancient, 12th century place of worship. The work was overseen by Duncan Grant, using family and friends for models, and local architecture like the lovely Sussex barns.
The next day’s outing was to Charleston, minutes away down a farm track from Tilton, where the astonishing creativity of the Bloomsburies has been preserved. Rooms are filled with painting and decorative arts, from painted furniture to hand-stencilled walls, ceramics from Quentin Bell, needlepoint cushions and carpets designed by Duncan Grant and made by his mother, Ethel, a hugely talented needlewoman. The exuberance is palpable.
I visited with an artist from the yoga retreat and we gasped in wonder at the lovely big studio, full of light, giving onto the gloriously colourful garden. I particularly liked the big chaise longue, clearly designed for drooping on in the depths of creative despair (or maybe having a restorative snooze).
I stood in front of the big round dining table, and tried to imagine the conversations that must have been held around its painted surface. Clive Bell, Leonard and Virginia Woolf (whose Monk’s Cottage was a couple of miles away), Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry and others were frequent guests. In a video played in the pottery, Quentin Bell described how the house was alive with ‘gales of laughter’. Wouldn’t you love to have been sitting under that table, listening?
At the end of the visit, I stopped to view the small exhibition of contemporary paintings. Looking more closely, I realised they were by Angelica Garnett, the daughter of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. A small notice gave a poignant note – Angelica died two days before our visit, on May 4, aged 91. A last thread linking us to the Bloomsbury Group had snapped.
But what of my creative block? Well, three days of not worrying about work, household chores or, indeed, anything at all, quickly bore fruit. I’ve always found yoga a helpful companion activity to writing, especially with Clare Calvert, my long-time yoga teacher and friend, who lead this retreat.
Sitting in the yurt for meditation early one morning, listening to the sound of rain drumming on the canvas, a phrase arrived in my head. Quickly, images followed; ideas, themes. I think it might be a short story. But even if it isn’t, it’s the first idea for a story I’ve had for months. All I had to do was clear the space for it. Now, if only I could live at Tilton permanently…
PS – If I needed another incentive to revisit, there’s the deeply temping Charleston Festival being held at the end of this month.
Images: I’m cursing myself for not taking my camera. Thanks to Shaun and Polly for sending me photos of Tilton House (on a sunnier day).