The 1920s gypsies who brought sex to Sussex

Still with me? It gets even more complex if you dig deeper (the complicated love lives of Sackville West and her husband, writer and politician Harold Nicholson, for example, were detailed by their son Nigel Nicolson in his biography Portrait of a Marriage of 1973) but, remarkably, most of these cases seem to have ended relatively amicably.

Perhaps there was something special about the atmosphere of Charleston. Vanessa Bell’s description certainly portends happy times: “The house seems full of young people in very good spirits, laughing a lot at their own jokes. […] lying in the garden, which is only a blaze of flowers, butterflies and apples. Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941 was a dark moment, but the marriages remained largely intact and the lovers remained close. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant remained together in Charleston until their deaths – Bell in 1961, Grant in 1978 – and are buried next to each other in nearby Firle Cemetery.

How to visit Sussex, from art to opera


The farmhouse decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant is one of the most atmospheric artists’ homes. Most of the doors, paneling and other woodwork have been beautifully embellished by the artists and many of the paintings, books, furniture and memorabilia date from the 1920s and 1930s. The garden – designed by Roger Fry – is particularly beautiful. Recently, it has been enriched with new exhibition spaces in the old barns and a busy program of conferences and events. The garden is free to visit during opening hours.

Rathfinny Wine Estate, Alfriston

If you need some refreshment on your visit to East Sussex, Rathfinny Vineyard, in the chalky uplands just above Alfriston and overlooking Cuckmere Haven, has to have one of the best settings of all. English vineyards. It produces several styles of sparkling wine and is exceptionally well-appointed for visitors, whether you want to eat, stay, taste, or just tour the vineyards and cellar (

Monk’s House, Rodmell

This modest cottage in a lane in the village of Rodmell is where Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard vacationed from 1919 and eventually lived permanently. Among the guests at the house, which is now owned by the National Trust, were TS Eliot and EM Forster. It is just an 11-mile drive from where Woolf’s sister Vanessa lived in Charleston. An evocative atmosphere of the 1920s/1930s is retained in both the house and the garden, where its wooden writing pavilion is preserved and it is a short walk through the nearby marshes to the place. where Woolf drowned in the River Ouse. Advance bookings only – opening times are very limited and tickets go on sale every Thursday for entry for the following four weeks (

Towner Eastbourne

One of the leading galleries in the south of England, Towner was established as a modest art museum for Eastbourne in 1920. It has come a long way since then: it will host the Turner Prize in 2023. The permanent collection is strong in modern British works. art and includes works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Eric Ravilious. This summer it is organizing two exhibitions: A Life in Art, showcasing the mid-20th century modern art collection of gallerist Lucy Wertheim, and Reuniting the Twenties Group, which presents early works by artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Victor Pasmore. Both are running until September 25 (

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