1. Virginia Woolf arrives at Asheham, on the Sussex Downs, immobilised by nervous exhaustion and creative block.
  1. Feeling jittery about her writing career, Sylvia Townsend Warner spots a modest workman’s cottage for sale on the Dorset coast.
  1. Rosamond Lehmann settles in a Berkshire village, seeking a lovers’ retreat, a refuge from war, and a means of becoming ‘a writer again’.

Harriet Baker’s new book, Rural Hours, tells the story of three very different women, each of whom moved to the country and was forever changed by it.

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On a hot day in July 1922, Sylvia Townsend Warner visited the cheap section of Whiteley’s Department Store in Bayswater, where she bought a Bartholomew map of Essex. She was drawn, she wrote, to ‘the blue creeks, the wide expanses of green for marsh, the extraordinary Essex place names’. A few days later, map in hand and wearing a thin cotton dress, she took a train from Fenchurch Street to Shoeburyness, then a bus to Great Wakering, before continuing towards the River Roach on foot. Her map was soon redundant as she stepped off the dusty elm-lined roads, picking her way between winding, occasionally impassable creeks. Before her, the marsh glowed with luminous, earthy colours, spreading flatly into the distance beneath a veil of mist. Underfoot, it smelled tangy and salty after the night’s rain.

Looking out over the marsh, Sylvia was caught between land and sea. A sail glided past; time stilled. ‘I stood there for a long time, watching the slow pushing water’ and ‘letting my mind drift with the tidal water’, she wrote. Later, during a thunderstorm, she sought shelter in a cattle shed where she was greeted by a group of farm labourers. One of the men took her home to his wife, who undressed her, dried her clothes, and gave her tea. Sylvia returned to London the following day, wearing a pair of rough woollen knickers belonging to the couple’s daughter. But her transformation was complete. Passionately, she declared the marsh ‘my new landscape’.

The next time Sylvia went to Essex, she stayed for a month, renting a room in a farmer’s cottage in St Lawrence, about two hours’ walk from Southminster. She returned to London only occasionally – for a bath, a book, clean linen. She spent her days alone, walking over the marsh in ‘solemn rapture’, or finding sheltered recesses in which to sit and read. With a notebook in her lap, she discovered it was possible to write poetry. Nestled in the tall grass behind banks of shingle and listening to the grasshoppers, she experienced the ‘mysterious sensation of being where I wanted to be and as I wanted to be, socketted in the universe, and passionately quiescent’.

Socketted. A space, a hollow into which something naturally fits. A feeling of rightness, and connection. An odd sensation, in an unexpected location, for a young woman living above a furriers on a clattering street in Bayswater. But Sylvia’s life was about to change course. Though she was working as a musicologist and was in a relationship with an older, married man, she would soon begin her first novel, and would leave London for Dorset, where she would meet the woman who would become the great love of her life.

Many years later, Sylvia reflected on her month in rural Essex as one of the most significant, the most life-altering, of her experiences: the instant from which everything followed. ‘Isn’t it strange’ she wrote to Rosamond Lehmann in 1975, as both writers looked back on their lives, ‘that the important, memorable things in one’s life came by accident, came on an impulse?’

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s trip to the country was one of several she took in the 1920s. Leaving London with little more than a map, she made a habit of travelling to Essex, Suffolk or Oxfordshire. Her behaviour was typical for an emancipated young woman between the wars. And yet Sylvia was more adventurous than most: lightfooted, independent-minded, she made no bones about travelling alone and spending a week or more in an unfamiliar place, among strangers. The people she met intrigued her. Leaning over gate posts, or sitting up late in her hosts’ cottages, she could talk nineteen to the dozen. And yet it was the feeling of enchantment which stole over her when she was alone that interested her most. As in Essex, when, on the marsh, she snuffed sea lavender, bitter southernwood and samphire; expanded her vision across the saltings to the sea. The landscape’s strangeness, its flatness and smells, were disorientating and sensual. It set something off inside her: the small, ticking clock of her life’s adventures; the flickering, impatient movements of the needle on her private compass.

For Sylvia, Essex turned out to be a fulcrum moment, though the life that took shape afterwards was only ever half intended. It began to materialize in 1930, when she bought a cottage in a small Dorset village, which she intended to be a retreat from London, and a place in which to write. But her heart snagged on the cottage, and the woman she had invited to lodge there, and from that point onwards, she went back to London infrequently, and then hardly at all. Instead, she embraced the creative and radical potential of rural life. What was unfamiliar would become homely. The chalk downs and her new lover were her new coordinates, her resting places; even if, in the end, she wouldn’t settle for long at all.

For the women in this book, country lives emerged unexpectedly, by accident or impulse. Intervals of convalescence and weekend trips evolved into whole summers, the balance between London and the country tipping one way and then the other. Setting their watches to country time – to the seasons, harvests, the cycles of village news and gossip – they bought rubber boots, thick corduroy coats. Venturing out, they discovered new landscapes, places that might contour the mood of a day, or shape an afternoon’s writing – an expanse of downland, a sheltered footbath. Country living – choosing to embrace the daily routines of rural life – changed your perspective, these women discovered; it changed the quality of your attention to the world. It allowed for new experiments in form, and in feeling.

In the summer of 1917, Virginia Woolf was at Asheham, in the last phase of her recovery from a long period of illness. She was living cautiously, her days moving according to a quiet rhythm of reading, walking, being. She was finding unexpected happiness in domestic life. Shopping for food at the Monday market in Lewes, or in Newhaven or Brighton, washing bedlinen, storing apples in the loft. There were small household dramas. A puncture to her husband, Leonard’s, bicycle, the coal mysteriously missing from the cellar. Though she felt far from London, her Sussex summer was still coloured by war. There were food shortages, airships manoeuvring in the sky, and German prisoners working at the farm. From the tops of the Downs, the gunfire sounded ‘like the beating of giant carpets’. And yet, despite the war, Virginia was excited by country life. On her long, solitary walks, she picked mushrooms and counted butterflies, or she stood and watched the fields as the harvest was brought in. She was paying close attention to her surroundings. Emerging from illness, she was discovering a new way of seeing. Finally, after a two years’ silence following the publication of her difficult first novel, she started writing a diary.

For Sylvia, thirteen years later, the pleasures of rural domesticity were greater, because they were experienced outside of conventional sexual norms. At her cottage, she and her lover, Valentine, went about doing home improvements, installing modest, creaturely comforts: a cold tap, a new hearth, woodwork painted pink. She continued educating herself in country matters. From her doorstep, she observed the material conditions of village life, from the labourers working overtime to the lack of sanitation in tithed houses. During this quiet, domestic period before she committed formally to communism, Sylvia’s politics was mostly felt, but in time she began to branch out from novel writing into essays and articles on rural affairs. Planting vegetables, skinning rabbits, and collecting rainwater for bathing, it was a hard and simple life, except for the luxury of Valentine. As they gardened, the women were day-trippers putting down roots. ‘A good deal of couch grass remained,’ Sylvia wrote. ‘So did we.’

Pre-order Rural Hours: Country Lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann by Harriet Baker here

Photography by Sophie Davidson.

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3 comments

Hopefully I’ll be able to get this via the library. Sounds interesting

Karen 15 days ago

Beautiful writing! Almost like poetry. Looking forward to the book , and want to show this piece to friends .

Roz 20 days ago

This book sounds so interesting; I am intrigued by the ideas running through it. From Battersea to the freedoms engendered by a rural life it sounds as though, altho everything changes, everything remains the same ( as has been said before, initially in French!).

Liz 21 days ago