I’ve been a National Trust volunteer room guide at Monks House for exactly 4 years now and without a doubt it’s the best pastime I ever had. I would say job but as a volunteer the pay isn’t that good but that’s not why you do it.
On my fist visit to Monks house I soon discovered that it wasn’t easy to locate and the National Trust directions wording even used to say ‘Do Not Use Sat Nav’
Back then I knew little about Virginia and Leonard Woolf who’s house it was but I was assured that I would be “drawn in” by the story of them and the Dozen or so art, literature and economics experts of the Bloomsbury group
I was soon settled in by the very friendly and supportive staff and volunteers and very soon lapping up the opportunity to present such a magnificent place to fascinated visitors assisted by the fantastic room folders that detail every item and give answers to common FAQ’s like Why is it called Monks House? I will save that for another time.
It’s great to feel needed and as with many National trust properties; we are often short of people even with a very resolute campaign to get volunteers they are always difficult to find. And there are frequent please for help.
Some days seem quiet with a trice of visitors and some days manic with unannounced coach loads arriving.
One of the hardest jobs on busy days is protecting the unique and priceless artefacts and it’s not just the public, on a recent filming by Angela Ripon she was all over the furniture and asking about Virginia Woolf’s own pencil.
Visitor numbers have been up every year since I have been a guide (nothing to do with me I am sure) which is amazing as the Bloomsbury Group were at their peak a hundred years ago. It’s only a small house, officially a hidden gem, but numbers can be over 300 or more on some days.
Monks house in an unusual National trust property in that it s a true living museum. No tea shop and just a small outdoor toilet. It was simply the small country retreat of Leonard and Virginia Woolf as they left it.
Some ask the question – Is this all there is? and I would love to show them more in the way of galleries and sumptuous furnishing but it was exactly what it says on the tin. A quiet country authors retreat, perfect for inspiration.
So many visitors love the ambience which gives the impression that they have been transported back to the 1930’s and are just awaiting the return of the inhabitants.
There are no annoying signs or labels just the willing room guides to bring the exciting story to life using the amazingly fact filled room information books detailing even the smallest object.
ANother of the great things for me is that I am photographer so Monks house surrounds me with amazing opportunites to photograph a unique environment.
I find there are several categories of visitors.
The Trusters (as I label them)
These have their membership and will resolutely visit every property in reach. These also include the Euro Truters who come over from Europe for their holidays and are perhaps doing the entire south coast from Dover to Cornwall in their mobile homes. Perhaps before Brexit plunges Britain back into the dark ages.
Many are deeply interested but some rush through just to get a tick in the Monks house box leaving us guides feeling cheated that we cannot bore them with intimate details of inside leg measurements and poems about weekend guests.
Then there are those visitors who have no idea where they are like the accidentals walkers who stray in from the nearby South Downs way. These often throw down the challenge to guide like “tell me everything about this room” and who’s pencil is this? It’s great to see these uninitiated people warm to the unexpected charms and history of Monks House.
Then there are the unique Bloomsbury groupers who may be visiting nearby Charleston Farmhouse and Berwick Church all in a day. These include the private tours about artists and authors and also regular foreign art and literature tours. They include the students who are studying Virginia Woolf from all over the world and are deeply inspired by the location.
There are also local people who remember the old days, collecting Leonard Woolfs Washing and his prize winning marrows at the horticultural society. They often say. “I’ve been a member and lived up the road for forty years but never bothered popping in. I am so glad I did.’
Finally there are the true Woolfie Pilgrims who may have been meticulously planning that very moment for 5 years or more from their San Francisco base or dreaming of it for 40 years since they were a literature student in Italy.
There are often strong emotional moments like this and passions run high just to be where many amazing words and stories were written between 1919 and Virginia Woolf’s untimely death in 1941. Many make the pilgrimage annually and to many it is a pinnacle and major bucket list moment.
From a guides perspective there are also so many interesting facets to the story of Monks House, like history of the seventeenth century house and it’s former milling and agricultural occupants in the beautiful but ancient downland spring line village of Rodmell. Not so different in size now than it was nearly 1000 years ago in the Domesday Book.
Then there are the personal lives and wild relationships of the Bloomsbury group so wonderfully interwoven with their art and literature beliefs and politics.
Outside the house there is Leonard’s delight of a garden where you can relax picnic like they did and play bowls like they did; or just stare across the valley as they did.
There are wonderful garden tours and if you are lucky by the gardener’s daughter now in her 80’s who clearly and amusingly remembers the antics or one of actor Larry’s readings to bring VW to life in her own house.
One of the most fun and unusual moments to share with the other guides is the end of day Sweepstake. We gather round with our guestimates of visitor numbers to hear who has come closest to the actual total,
Interestingly some days that seem quiet have had huge numbers racing through and some days that seem busy had had just a handful of very engaging interesting visitors.
It’s true I have been drawn in and now immersed in Monks House. Now along with my room guiding I even do talks and write about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group.
I know volunteering may not pay hard cash but it really is the best job I ever had especially when the rewards are so immeasurable when you see the tear of joy in a visitor’s eye.