At home in the Woolfs' lair

Does living in the house of a literary idol appeal to you? The National Trust may have the answer. Robert Verkaik reports
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THE ADVERTISEMENT in the Brighton Evening Argus said it all. "National Trust seeks tenant for East Sussex four-bedroom cottage, home of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Rent approximately pounds 800 a month with a 50 per cent rebate. Must be willing to open to the public two afternoons a week." In the first two days a1one, there were 50 calls.

Monk's House in Rodmell, just outside Lewes, the Woolfs' lair from 1919 until Leonard died in 1969, is perfectly positioned on a gentle escarpment that rolls off the South Downs into the flood plains of the River Ouse. It is also one of the most popular examples of the National Trust's "custodial tenancy" policy, which gives members of the public the opportunity to rent some of the country's most treasured buildings.

Such tenancies are rare, but when they do come up they capture the public's imagination. Many of the enquiries for Monk's House were of a dreamy, "what if" nature. But just as many were from people willing to change their whole lives for a chance to be a part of the Bloomsbury heritage - to invite their friends to the house where the Woolfs regularly entertained the likes of TS Eliot, Lytton Strachey, Bertrand Russell and Maynard Keynes.

The Monk's House "winners" were Valerie Beck, her husband, Jimmy, a barrister, and their 14-year-old son. They were on the verge of buying a much grander house when the estate agent told them about Monk's House.

"It took us just half an hour to decide," Mrs Beck says. "I was thrilled and frightened to death when we found out we had got it. It's only in the last month that I've really stopped being scared of the responsibility. A lot of the other applicants [nearly 300] fell by the wayside when they found out how many niggly little things they would be required to do."

As well as the no-smoking rule, not being able to hang washing outside the house or take on any more pets, and the indignity of asking the trust's permission to go on holiday, there's a piece of paper kept in a watertight envelope outside the house. On it are listed the most valuable paintings and furniture.

"If there's a fire," Mrs Beck says, "we know exactly what to do. The trust isn't saying risk your life by going back into the house. But the list is a guide to what they would like us to rescue if we have the time."

In April, 5,000 members of the public will come traipsing through the Becks' home. They have decided to employ a gardener and cleaner to maintain the property. The trust pays for all structural repairs but the tenant is responsible for general maintenance. At Monk's House the task is made less onerous because of the need to retain its original ramshackle atmosphere. Even so, Mrs Beck has re-covered her suites so that they match the sitting- room decor.

But there's no short cut to being expert on the life and times of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Many of the visitors will be envious Bloomsbury aficionados only too willing to display their own credentials for the tenancy.

Mrs Beck admits she hasn't read any of Virginia Woolf's novels. She's just started To the Lighthouse, which Virginia wrote at Monk's House, but is finding it a "bit difficult". Much more useful, she says, are the biographies. "A couple of days ago I read her suicide note to Leonard. But it wasn't 'poor me'; it was more she couldn't go on inflicting herself on him."

On 28 March 1941, gripped by of one her "madnesses", Virginia Woolf walked out of the house and down to the River Ouse, where she wedged a huge stone into her pocket and threw herself in.

"One of the first questions I asked the trust was were there any ghosts? They said no."

But the public can be much more of a disturbance than any apparition. Out-of-season visitors are often found rambling through the gardens or peering through the windows. And Woolf fans can be obsessive. Last year, on the anniversary of her suicide, a man kept a silent 24-hour vigil outside the house. "Those type of fans I'm not too happy about," Mrs Beck says.

For all these reasons the trust takes rigorous steps to satisfy itself that the tenant will be up to the job. An impressive knowledge of Virginia Woolf would not be enough on its own. "You have to have people who are friendly and good at interpreting history to the public," says Celia Mead of the National Trust Wessex region.

And to get the right tenant the trust is even prepared to drop the rent, "If someone does know a lot about the subject, and has all the other requirements, then the rent can be reduced proportionately," she adds.

In the past the trust has had its fingers burnt. Some years back, tenants were rushed into Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset. But almost as soon as they were in they were boarding up the windows and refusing to show people around. "It wouldn't happen now," Ms Mead says, "the trust is much more switched on."

Nearby in Dorchester, Hardy's second home, Max Gate, the seven-bedroom house he specially designed for himself and his first wife Emma in 1883, has been tenanted for more than 50 years. The current occupants, Andrew and Marilyn Leah, were chosen three years ago to open it to the public for the first time.

"It was my wife who made me," says Mr Leah, "She had always wanted to look around the house and when she saw an advert in the Bournemouth Echo she thought it was a sure-fire way to get to see it."

Mr Leah had just been made redundant. "We thought we'd take it on and try and make a business out of it." He stays at home and concentrates on running the house while his wife works as a principal lecturer at a local college. They pay pounds 11,000 a year rent but keep the pounds 2 each visitor pays to visit the house on the three afternoons a week it is open between April and October. Mr Leah also gives seminars to university students, which he hosts in Hardy's study, charging pounds 4.50 per student. "It all helps to make ends meet," he says.

But while 18,000 visitors a year pay pounds 2.50 to step inside Hardy's cottage, interest in Max Gate has been disappointing. Last year there were only 1,l27 visitors. It's hard to fathom why because Hardy wrote Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Jude the Obscure, The Woodlanders and all his poetry at Max Gate (1883-1928). Bertrand Russell, T E Lawrence, Robert Louis Steven- son and Rebecca West all spent time there.

The Leahs even sleep in the very bedroom where the surgeon cut out Hardy's heart so that his body could be buried in Westminster Abbey and his heart next to his Emma.

Derek Woolf, 70, is a retired architect who rents Samuel Taylor Coleridge's cottage in Nether Stowey, Somerset. He's already lived here longer than Coleridge, who stayed just three years, long enough to write "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan" before heading for the Lake District in 1800.

Mr Woolf has been interested in Coleridge since he was an architecture student. "Then at a poetry group meeting nearly six years ago I heard someone talking about how you could rent Coleridge's cottage. I wrote to the National Trust and luckily the custodian was leaving." In many ways Mr Woolf is the ideal National Trust tenant. Recently retired and full of energy, with no toddlers or pets, he even writes poetry and publishes a poetry magazine.

But after six years Mr Woolf has no illusions about his pounds 3,000 a year tenancy. "I'm open four afternoons a week between April and October and get about 2,500 visitors. That's about 500 hours' work a year." Most of the initial excitement has worn off. He's long since vacated Coleridge's bedroom so that when friends come to stay they can say they've slept there.

By and large, Mr Woolf finds the National Trust a good landlord. As long as he doesn't interfere with the atmosphere by, for example, putting a telly in the Coleridge rooms, he is left alone to run it as he likes. It's the public who are more of a worry, he says.

Fortunately, most of the antiques in the house have nothing to do with Coleridge. "Dur-ing one busy weekend," Mr Woolf says, "someone stole a pair of pince-nez, but they only cost pounds 20 to replace. The daft thing is that Coleridge, as far as I know, didn't even wear glasses." !