Bunhill: Woolf house under threat

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The Independent Online
WHO'S afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Sir Peter Walters, apparently. The former BP boss, as well as chairing Midland Bank, chairs Blue Circle Industries, and as such, he wants to demolish the Bloomsbury novelist's Grade II listed country retreat, Asham House, to expand a rubbish dump at Beddingham, East Sussex.

John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, is due to rule at any moment, once he has been briefed by English Heritage.

The house, built in 1820, has particularly prized gothick pointy windows and is steeped in blue-stocking history. Woolf, who was resident from 1912 to 1919, is said to have written Night and Day while living there. It also inspired her short story The Haunted House.

Husband Leonard, meanwhile, was penning influential political treatises that were to shape the League of Nations. Visitors included EM Forster, Katharine Mansfield, Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell and other Bloomsbury groupees, not to mention Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, who apparently sketched out plans to build an 'erotic Stonehenge' in the grounds.

Maire McQueeney, an American literary tour guide living in Brighton, is campaigning to save Asham. She says some people still believe the house is simply to be shifted elsewhere rather than be demolished: 'People are surprised to learn there is any threat to Asham at all. And of course, it could be gone in a matter of weeks.'

Each year, 240,000 tons of household and industrial rubbish from Brighton, Lewes and Eastbourne is dumped in the former chalk quarry and cement works next to the house. But space is running out. If Asham is axed, there will be capacity until 2003; if not, the dump will be full within 12 months, says Ian Barber, marketing manager at Blue Circle.

Woolf spent the last years of her unhappy life bemoaning the desecration of her beloved Sussex by that same cement works. Either Blue Circle is feeling monumentally guilty, or the landfill is extremely profitable: it is offering pounds 626,000 in grants to other Woolf-related properties in Sussex if it gets its way.

(Photograph omitted)