Designer Caroline Zoob and her husband, Jonathan, moved into Monk’s House, in Rodmell, East Sussex, as tenants of the National Trust in November 2000, after reading an article in the Evening Standard, headed “How would you like to share your home with seven and a half thousand visitors a year?”
The visitors come, of course, to pay homage to its famous former occupants, writer Virginia Woolf and her novelist, literary critic and publisher husband Leonard.
It was Leonard who bought the house, in 1919, and, after his wife’s death in 1941, he continued to live there until his own death in 1969.
The house is open to the public two afternoons a week, with volunteers helping to escort visitors around the ground-floor sitting room, dining room and the front of the kitchen. These have all been left exactly as they were when the literary couple lived in them, with little seed packets, stamped envelopes and other memorabilia lying around.
'It is a privilege to help the Trust look after such a special place'
But it was the garden rather than the house that first attracted the Zoobs. “The moment I saw the garden, I told Jonathan I’d fallen in love with the place, and fortunately he felt the same,” says Caroline.
They went through the two Trust interviews and an agonising, week-long wait, and were thrilled to be offered a long lease, the terms of which are private but they do pay rent and they do maintain the gardens for visitors, says Caroline.
“Living here is a folie d’amour but it is also a privilege to help the Trust look after such a special place and a pleasure to ensure that both house and garden always look good.”
This is no mean feat, since the garden consists of an acre of mixed fruit orchards, three ponds and large beds, now containing colourful annuals, perennials, shrubs and climbers, framed by flint walls and lopsided red-brick paths. Jonathan, who commutes to work in the City, spends nearly all of his spare time gardening with some part-time help.
'I was inspired by the original Thirties shade of apple green that Virginia Woolf loved so much and used downstairs'
Their upstairs has a sitting room, a bedroom, a bathroom, a study and Caroline’s sewing room, which has a spectacular view over the garden. These rooms are theirs to decorate as they wish, so long as they do nothing structural.
“The entire place desperately needed redecorating,” she says. “Much as I love the painterly look at Charleston, I wanted to keep the upstairs rooms light and airy. My starting point was the greenish-grey paint on the banister rail, from John Oliver, mixed specially for the National Trust. I painted the rooms in a mix of Sanderson’s Morning Dew Light and Winter White, which are both cloudy and Swedish and really good on old, bumpy walls. I was also inspired by the original Thirties shade of apple green that Virginia Woolf loved so much and used downstairs.
“Originally I thought I’d make the sitting room white and neutral but it just felt too cold, so I introduced colour through using a mix of vintage textiles and decorative antiques such as old green and blue glass bottles, flower paintings we pick up at local antique markets and paintings by my sister-in-law, Jessica Zoob. I put plain seagrass on the floors except where we could paint the floorboards,” she says.
The move to Monk’s House also coincided with a major career change for Caroline, 49, who at the time was living in London and had just qualified as a solicitor, having worked in the City for 10 years.
“I’d started sewing and embroidering, making things for friends’ children, trying to make samplers that looked like heirlooms. People liked them so much I started getting commissions and I realised I’d got hooked by the embroidery and design bug,” she says.
So instead of following her head and accepting the lucrative legal job she had been offered, Caroline, encouraged by her husband, followed her heart and set up her own mail-order business making embroidered pieces. This soon expanded into a wider range of decorative homewares and she has recently launched a new range of fine bone-china tableware.
She is also about to launch her first collection of textiles, including a pretty, washed-out floral design on vintage-looking ivory linen. “Living at Monk’s House in such a beautiful space has really inspired me in so many ways. Even Virginia described the garden as a ‘patchwork quilt’,” she says. Not only do the flowers and all the gardening inspire my designs, it’s also that I have the time and the peace I need to think creatively.”
Monks House and Garden is open, from April 2009, on Wednesday and Saturday, 2pm to 5.30pm. For more information, visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
Where to get the look
* Bone china, textiles, decorative homewares designed by Caroline Zoob (01782 826052; www.carolinezoob.com)
* Spectrum Range including Morning Dew, Morning Dew Light, Winter White all from Sanderson (www.sanderson-uk.com)
* Furniture and decorative antiques from Julian at SJ Bennett Antiques (07879 406843; firstname.lastname@example.org)
* Paintings by Jessica Zoob (07966 572204; www.jessicazoob.com)
* Vintage Textiles from Henrietta Purbrick (01747 838300)
Pictures by Tim France