Turning the Page: A Literary Pilgrimage through East Sussex

Beyond the bookish Bloomsbury set, East Sussex inspires a modem cohort of artists and entrepreneurs.

“I almost felt my mind glow like hot iron – so complete & holy was the old habitual beauty of England... It feeds me, rests me, satisfies me, as nothing else does.”

Virginia Woolf

This article first appeared in Vol 32: Homegrown.

Our lives of late have been circumscribed. Unlike Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group of writers, artists and intellectuals - who writer Dorothy Parker quipped "lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles" - our bubbles are not of our own choosing; they represent not freedom, but the opposite.

When lockdown began, I stayed in London rather than fleeing to my parents' coastal sanctuary in East Sussex. While I don't regret a summer spent rediscovering the small bounds of my existence, my imagination was habitually haunted by the humpbacked outline of the South Downs, the shadows of clouds gliding like spectres over their flanks.

Just an hour and a half by train from London, this corner of the countryside has lured countless writers and artists in search of retreat and revitalisation. For Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard, living part-time at Monk's House in Rodmell from 1919, it provided a balm for the "violent jolt of the capital". For Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell and a rotating cast of "Bloomsberries", nearby Charleston farmhouse became a place to forge experimental ideas and relationships, unseen and ungoverned by convention.

Thirty years later, Farleys House became the family home of the photojournalist Lee Miller and her husband, surrealist painter Roland Penrose, in the aftermath of the Second World War; more recently the author Olivia Laing wrote about walking in Woolf's footsteps along the banks of the River Ouse, following the breakdown of her own relationship. Today, a new generation of artists, winemakers, chefs, writers, gallerists and entrepreneurs have similarly abandoned the thrall of the cities to embark upon an alternative lifestyle in Sussex's bucolic villages and once-faded seaside towns. As we cross the threshold between an old and new world order, it feels appropriate to seek solace in the same landscape that inspired these artists of the past, as well as delving into the modern scene of the creatives who now call it home.

Down a rutted lane overrun with jaywalking pheasants lies Tilton House, the former residence of the economist John Maynard Keynes and his ballerina bride, Lydia Lopokova. A long-standing, if controversial, member of the Bloomsbury set - his biographer Robert Skidelsky describes him as "the rich, generous, worldly, slightly wicked uncle to the Charleston family", who appalled their refined intellectualism by marrying the high-spirited Lydia - Maynard took the house in 1926 after summering at neighbouring Charleston. Vanessa Bell was aghast, and immediately began to look for a new house in Norfolk to get away from the woman of whom her husband Clive Bell said: "her spiritual home is Woolworths." However, the Keyneses persisted and spent many holidays sunbathing naked in the orchard and, in Maynard's case, penning great works including The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Today, this rambling farmhouse is home to another couple, Polly Moore and Shaun Treloar, "DFLs" (in local parlance, "down from Londons") who decamped to escape the burnout of busy media careers 82 years to the day after the Keyneses moved in. Determined to carve out a space where city-dwellers could find the same respite, Polly and Shaun converted Tilton into a retreat offering wellbeing, outdoor and yoga weekends, as well as the occasional Bloomsbury literary edition.

Thanks to pandemic protocol, Liz and I get this jewel of a house entirely to ourselves. I wander past a fountain with tiles hand-painted by Duncan Grant to Maynard's library, where I curl into the sofa and read how he insisted that "there's no better air for work than here". In the mornings, I watch the mist burn off the hills before chasing an obstinate rooster out of the kitchen. I tramp the two-hour circular from Tilton, past fields of sunflowers, to Berwick's church, inside which Vanessa, her bisexual lover Duncan and her son Quentin painted decorative murals. On return, I ascend the ancient Firle Beacon and gaze across the patchwork Downs. ''Too much for one pair of eyes,'' Virginia wrote in 1937, ''enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look.''

Although Sussex lacks the gnarled drama of the Scottish Highlands or the epic proportions of the Lake District, the landscape here carries you. You don't need special kit, expertise or a map to follow the curvaceous Downs or well-worn footways. Such gentle exploration unlocks a meditative state in which to unspool your thoughts - I've walked here following break-ups, breakdowns and moments of pause. In the strange dissolution of our everyday, it's perhaps unsurprising that I'm compelled to revisit.

One evening, we drive to Monk's House, from which Woolf would embark on the two-hour trek to Charleston, making up sentences en route. "How I should notice everything - the phrase for it coming the moment after & fitting like a glove," she wrote in her diary in 1921. Almost a century later, as I amble along the slate-grey thread of the River Ouse in which she drowned, the power of perambulation helps me make sense of my own story - not yet a novel, perhaps, but equally hard to pin down. Later, holed up in Tilton's attic bedroom, I wonder who's slept here before me. Polly says that the house hosts speakers during Charleston's annual literary festival and reading weekends - Diana Athill, David Nicholls, Simon Schama and Naomi Alderman have all recited stories in the library.

Continuing in Woolf's footsteps, the next day I set out for Charleston, the next-door country refuge, holiday home and eventually permanent residence of the Bells and Grant. This was the place where Bloomsbury stalwarts gathered to spar and set out new standards for living. Woolf wrote: "We were full of experiments and reforms… everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different; everything was on trial." At a time when we're once again questioning the validity of old systems, I feel a tremor of recognition in her words.

Incidentally, Charleston is also one of my favourite places in the world, and somewhere I've returned year after year to fill up on the creativity that beats from its walls. Aside from the intellectual experiments that took place here, perhaps the most ambitious was its decoration. Its murals and patterns, quirky colander lampshades, crisscrossed furnishings and boldly painted fireplaces are a monument to Bell and Grant's artistic expression and unconventional love. The interior is also inspiration for local set designer Tess Newall, who I meet in the paint-splashed studio.

Much of Tess's work is irrevocably linked to Charleston - she collaborated with furniture retailer Ceraudo on a set of hand-painted dining chairs inspired by the house, gives lampshade-painting workshops here and was the on-set art director for the 2018 film Vita & Virginia. As we nerd out on the privilege of having this remarkable slice of history to ourselves, I ask why she thinks the house remains so relevant. "There has been a marked shift in the value society places on how things are made and how long they should last," Tess replies. "The Bloomsbury Group were often repurposing objects. Surrounding yourself with things that have been made personal through an artistic flourish makes you cherish them."

In the area's burgeoning wine and beer-making community, it's a sense of place that governs. Over a punk-rock soundtrack, Mark Tranter of Burning Sky brewery reels off previous releases flavoured with local elderflower, gooseberries and greengages. "Some brands taste the same anywhere, but that's not what we're about," he says. At Rathfinny Estate, a vineyard and winery outside Alfriston, it's a similar story. They want to make the county synonymous with sparkling wine made distinctive by the chalky terroir - a flavour we discover during lunch among the vines.

On Tess's recommendation, we drive via the High and Over viewpoint to Cuckmere Haven, where we hike a path hemmed in by blackberries until we burst out onto the expanse of the Seven Sisters and clamber down a set of iron steps to Hope Cove and the twinkling grey sea. Under photographer (and experienced wild swimmer) Liz's direction I float on my back in the shiveringly cold waves, basking in the pure light that has held painters in thrall here for centuries and experiencing the delicious freedom of being simultaneously submerged and weightless for the first time in months.

Dried off, I follow the flicker of the coastline to Eastbourne, the seaside town that for decades has been dismissed as a coach stop for the blue-rinse brigade. In fact, it's one of the only towns in Sussex where the demographic is getting younger and is undergoing something of a creative renaissance, thanks in no small part to the Towner Gallery. "We want to become a catalyst for change," explains director Joe Hill, "bringing new people here from outside but also galvanising local artists." Nowhere is this community-minded stance clearer than in the gallery's Art Store, a collection of 5,000 works in the building's beating heart. As Hill pulls out racks hung with pieces by local painter Eric Ravilious and sketches by the Charleston set, he explains how local schools and dementia groups are brought in for tours, and pre-Covid it was open to the public to book. This approach is clearly bearing fruit; the gallery had record visitors last year.

When considering the future of art and creativity in this part of Sussex, it's impossible to disregard Hastings. Edgier than Eastbourne, it has that weird seaside glamour - clapboard fish-and-chip shops, a bleeping arcade, a ferris wheel and crazy-golf course - and despite the inequality and poverty that persist here, it's a place that knows how to have a good time. Above all, it's a space in which to pursue your vision - something that painter Annie Mackin and her partner Fraser Carr Miles epitomise from their ramshackle unit within the Britannia Enterprise Centre.

Having moved from London four years ago, the couple run an independent book bindery, darkroom and artist's studio, as well as hosting workshops and participating in community projects, such as the annual Coastal Currents festival. "It's hard to get ahead in London," Annie tells me. "Here, there's a lot of possibility." With several of my friends in the process of leaving the capital in the wake of lockdown-induced epiphanies, I can understand this seductive thrall of possibility. Aside from the inspiration that comes from working in close proximity to a fertile music scene and pagan rituals - "Hastings doesn't need an excuse to dress up and drink," Fraser laughs - its low rents and supportive landlords have provided the space for businesses to experiment and evolve.

Another local artist playing with the charged potential of the spaces we inhabit is Becky Beasley, who has converted an entire terraced house in the backstreets of St Leonards into a studio, dark room, archive and artist's residency. "The constant reality for artists is 'how do you pay for where you live, and also have creative time?'" Becky explains. Thanks to creative regeneration in the area increasing the value of her home, she was able to buy this additional multifunctional space, which also includes "an empty room with no other purpose - it's like a miracle."

Becky's next project, The Seaweed Shop, will take place in this empty room. Although it will remain a private space, people will be invited in to have conversations around difficult subjects, with the resulting transcripts published. "The world is ready to have conversations about things like kindness and care, negative space, emptied-out streets, and the visible and invisible," Becky says. The space also gives her "total power at a moment when institutions are in dire straits - I don't have to answer to anybody." The idea reminds me of Woolf's still-true assertion a century earlier that "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction", as well as the way that domestic space was used as a literal canvas for ideas at Charleston.

My final conversation is with Walter and Zoniel, a multimedia artist couple who have just finished uninstalling a huge public artwork in and around Brighton. We meet at the tip of the Rock-a-Nore fisheries, where the land peters out and we're surrounded by infinite horizon. Another set of DFLs, they explain that "being here helps you realise you can connect to people in a way that's non-commercial. There's layer upon layer of open-mindedness: everybody is creative in their own way." When I ask whether they miss the city, Walter replies: "We build worlds in our work and our lives, and that's what we're doing here - it's just world-building".

As I watch them scramble over the rocks and the sea blazes purple and blue, I think that it's this scope to build new worlds that calls people here. It's cliché to say that it's the quality of the light alone that lures artists to the coast, and too obvious to state its proximity to London and cheap rents. Instead, for both the Bloomsberries painting the walls of their refuge from society all those years ago and for the modern artists raising families and ideals away from the mainstream, it's the potential to reclaim space slightly outside of patriarchal, capitalist structures that allows its inhabitants to breathe. So, looking out at that hazy horizon, I breathe.

The Lowdown

Wellbeing, outdoor and Bloomsbury retreats at Tilton House start from £375 for a weekend. A self-catering midweek stay in the annexe, which sleeps up to five and includes a writing shed in a private garden, costs £250 per night for a minimum of three nights.

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