Caroline Sylger Jones reviews a Bloomsbury Retreat run by The Department of Wellbeing at Tilton House in Sussex, the only Bloomsbury house where you can stay overnight, and finds an inspirational mix of things to feed both body and mind.
I’m sitting cross legged on a reclaimed sofa in economist Maynard Keynes’ light-flooded library, reading aloud from love letters between him and his Russian ballerina lover Lydia Lopokova. ‘My further utterings contain no words but a widespread kissing on your attractive eyes,’ wrote Lydia, signing off: ‘Your lively vitamin’. I and my fellow guests are rapt by her eccentric use of English and the clear demonstration of love between the pair. They married and moved in 1926 to Tilton House, which is where we are now, a gorgeous Georgian farmhouse in the South Downs National Park.
It’s our first evening on The Department Of Wellbeing’s inaugural Bloomsbury Retreat, which runs three times a year, and I’m looking out at the dusky lawns on which Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe star Lydia used to dance by moonlight. We’re here to soak up three days of big-skied walks, lively chats and emotive visits to Bloomsbury haunts – all to give us a real, lived experience of the set of writers and artists who hailed from the London quarter and lived on their own terms beyond sex, scandal and the museum. ‘Tilton is the only Bloomsbury house where you can stay and we’re keen to bring back Lydia and Maynard to the set’s core,’ explains Polly Moore, who has leased Tilton for the last 10 years and runs retreats here.
Next morning writer Holly Dawson, our retreat leader, arrives adorned with a marvellous Bloomsbury-esque dress complete with neck scarf and the most beautifully applied, brightest red lipstick I’ve ever seen. After a comforting breakfast of fruit, granola, toast and boiled eggs, we stroll 10 minutes along a track for a private tour of Charleston. Home of artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, it’s a glorious cave of colour and artwork that makes me want to go home and paint all my furniture. Vanessa, and her sister Virginia Woolf, who lived nearby in Rodmell with her husband Leonard, would have been regular visitors to Tilton, and though the couple’s union was at first an irritant to them (they thought Lydia ‘canary brained’), Holly reveals there was much more affection between the women than history suggests.
‘My fellow guests are an engaged and interesting mix of working mothers, retirees, a woodcut artist and a theatre director. A warm camaraderie develops between us, and we swap impressions each evening over tasty vegetarian suppers’
Later that day we stroll to Firle Beacon, a high point on the Downs to which Maynard and Lydia took daily walks and from where both their ashes were scattered. Maynard would come here to think between writing his best works including the bible of macroeconomics, The General Theory, and Lydia to blow the cobwebs away after a night of entertaining the likes of Picasso, TS Eliot, Sickert and Royal Ballet founder Ninette de Valois.
Just as Tilton was the couple’s escape from London, it’s our escape from life for these few days. My fellow guests are an engaged and interesting mix of working mothers, retirees, a woodcut artist and a theatre director. A warm camaraderie develops between us, and we swap impressions each evening over tasty vegetarian suppers adapted from Jans Ondaatje Rolls’s The Bloomsbury Cookbook – a Bean Bourgiuigon in place of a Boeuf a la mode, for example, followed with a Tilton version of Freedom Pie with figs and plums and accompanied by fragrant glasses of Stopham Estate wines from the local vineyard.
I sleep in a former servant’s room in the attic, now painted in Farrow and Ball French Gray and graced with a mustard-coloured French antique sofa and a wide bed with cushions designed by Duncan Grant. I share an outdoor cedar wood sauna with the theatre director one evening, rain beating down on the roof as we chat through ideas, and one lunchtime I am pummelled by the expert hands of local therapist Yana in a black wooden garden hut overlooking pretty flowers.
Our final day takes us an hour along the old Coach Road to Berwick Church where, despite being atheists, Duncan and Vanessa painted a set of unusually colourful murals just after the death of Vanessa’s son in the Spanish civil war. Later we visit Virginia’s home, Monk’s House, which as an English graduate typically captivated by the writer’s story, I find delightful. After working on her novels each morning, I discover, she would take to her bath to read her sentences aloud as she soaked. Inspired to return to my own prose once home, it’s something I try myself that very night.
A version of this article was originally published in The Telegraph. Top photo by James Clarke.