Virginia Woolf at Caen Wood

Virginia Woolf records ‘a disgraceful fact’ in her diary for Monday 14th September 1925:

A disgraceful fact – I am writing this at 10 in the morning in bed in the little room looking into the garden, the sun beaming steady, the vine leaves transparent green, and the leaves of the apple tree so brilliant that, as I had my breakfast, I invented a little story about a man who wrote a poem comparing them with diamonds… which led me to think of Marvell on a county life, so to Herrick, & the reflection that much of it was dependent upon the town and gaiety.

On this ‘solitary perfect day’ – indeed, self-isolating – she thinks of Leonard at the Press in London, ‘in the basement, while the vans rumble by, & people’s skirts & trousers appear at the top of the area.’ Always able to transport herself in imagination into another world, she is happy to be in the country at Monks House, but enjoying it so much more for having been in town, and not actually being in town now.

She’s still in bed, at home on her own, because she hasn’t been well, and she’s got to take it easy, as she’s in the midst of writing To the Lighthouse. But she’s recovered enough to start planning what she’ll do when she can get out again – a familiar situation for us at present in lockdown London: ‘the pleasure of inventing Wednesday walks this winter is now uppermost. I’m going to Greenwich, to Caen Woods, to Gunnersbury, all in the dripping autumn weather, with tea at an ABC [cafe] & home to a hot bath.’

The delights of Caen Wood have only just become possible: Ken (formerly Caen) Wood in Highgate was only opened to the public on 18th July, by King George V; after lengthy negotiations the woods and grounds had at last been bought from Lord Mansfield and were now overseen by the London County Council (as was). Virginia Woolf got her first walk there later that year, though she didn’t get to Greenwich until March the following year (more on that walk later in the exhibition).

On Saturday 5th December she and Leonard walked at Hampstead: ‘It was very cold – it had a foggy winter beauty. We went in to Ken Wood (but dogs must be led) & there came to the duelling ground, where great trees stand about, & presumably sheltered the 18th Century swordsmen.’ And they talked about their friends (as you do when walking together), particularly Lytton (Strachey), and Morgan (Forster), ‘as we trod back over the slippery hillocks seeing so little as we talked’ – and Virginia was reminded, as always by ‘this part of Hampstead’ of Katherine (Mansfield) – ‘that faint ghost, with the steady eyes, the mocking lips, &, at the end, the wreath set on her hair’. Her visual impressions come swiftly, mingled with the foggy winter beauty, and each impression links to the past, to other places, other people, in a woven fabric of memory and imagination.

We last visited Kenwood on a clear sunny day in August, when the terrace frontage seemed to float on the greensward, and up close the air around the house shimmered with ladybirds, on some annual emergence or pilgrimage perhaps, which brought to my mind another such ladybird day, long ago, on a Norfolk beach with my sister Lynne, rescuing ladybirds by the score from the waves.