Sunday, 19 June 2011

Olivia Laing's 'To The River': Woolf, Asham, Ravilious

River Ouse, Mount Caburn in background
Have just finished reading Olivia Laing's account of a midsummer ramble from the source of the River Ouse to the sea, a book I would thoroughly recommend to all thoughtful or imaginative walkers. Everywhere we go in this densely populated old country many others have been before, and traces of their existence remain in often unexpected places.

History is not the preserve of academics and experts. History is all around us and inside us, and Laing demonstrates ably and entertainingly how the knowledge of history that she carries inside her enriches her life and experience. She doesn't seem quite so sure of the present, perhaps because its ugliness has not been filtered or refined by the passage of time, but as a conjuror of ghosts - from Gideon Mantell (discoverer of the iguanodon) and Simon de Montfort (13th century rebel) to Virginia and Leonard Woolf - she rivals WG Sebald, whose 'Rings of Saturn' (1999) displays a similar fascination for the dead.

Eric Ravilious, Cement Works No.2, 1934
I have spent time in and around Lewes, researching 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs' and collecting material for subsequent talks, and had the strange, slightly voyeuristic pleasure of walking with the author (in my imagination) through Woolf country. I walked one midsummer day from Beddingham Hill across the river to Rodmell and back, and shared Laing's experience of being caught in the open by a torrential shower; I spent half an hour under a farm trailer that had been left, conveniently, out in the fields.

People sometimes ask me whether there was any connection between the Bloomsbury contingent based at Charleston Farmhouse and Rodmell and the artists - notably Eric Ravilious - and writers who gathered at Furlongs, the cottage where Peggy Angus lived and entertained. The answer seems to be 'no'*, but one can easily imagine Virginia Woolf, the inveterate walker of the Downs, and Ravilious, the seeker of interesting scenes and subjects, passing on a hilltop path - she heading for Charleston, he making for his favourite location, the Asham Cement Works...

(*During the war Peggy became friends with Quentin Bell and shared with him her experience and ideas about art teaching)

The mining and processing of chalk had begun at Asham in the 1920s, close to the house where the Woolfs had lived when they were first married and during World War One, and where Virginia wrote 'The Voyage Out'. This house had been built in a downland valley by a lawyer from Lewes in the 19th century, and was discovered by the couple in 1912. As Leonard described in his autobiography:

Asham House
When I was staying in her Firle villa, we walked over the downs one day to the Ouse Valley, and in one of those lovely folds or hollows in the downs, we came upon an extraordinarily romantic-looking house. It was upon the Lewes-Seaford road but a great field, full of sheep, lay between it and the road. It was due west, and from its windows and terrace in front of the house you looked across the great field and the Ouse valley to the line of downs in the west of the river…

Asham was a strange house. The country people on the farm were convinced that it was haunted, that there was treasure buried in the cellar, and no one would spend the night in it. It is true that at night one often heard extraordinary noises both in the cellars and in the attic. It sounded as if two people were walking from room, opening and shutting doors, sighing, whispering…I have never known a house which had such a strong character, personality of its own – romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely...

Asham Cement Works
The Woolfs were happy at Asham but, when their landlord refused to renew their lease, moved across the river to Monks House, Rodmell. From the windows of the summerhouse where Virginia like to write you could see the exposed chalk of the cement works, which expanded around the abandoned house during the 1930s. When Ravilious visited Peggy Angus in 1934, he walked over Beddingham Hill and saw the chalkpit and the works below him.

Approaching closer, he was excited by the strangeness of chalk-whitened buildings, dolly engines and a landscape dusted with fine white powder; with Peggy Angus as his guide he went back at night, when work continued by the light of arc lamps and flares.

The pair went to see Mr Wilson, the manager of the works, who was surprised but pleased to meet artists who could see beauty in an industrial operation that others tended to regard as a blot on the landscape. Given free run of the place, they returned together in all weathers to sketch and paint the chalk pits and works, the chimneys, sheds and railway lines. (from 'Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs')

The extent of the works was considerable, and Olivia Laing recalls in her book that:

Before the cement works closed there used to be an aerial ropeway, dismantled now, that ran down the hill to the water's edge, linking the quarry to a concrete wharf where barges delivered coal and collected cement. It was here that Virginia's body was found, on 18 April 1941, three weeks after she'd walked into the river...

River Ouse, with landfill site, capped in chalk
Six months later Ravilious too was lost when his plane disappeared off the coast of Iceland, and for decades thereafter his reputation languished. By 2003, when the Imperial War Museum held the landmark retrospective that fired public interest in his work, the cement works had closed and the chalk quarry was being filled with rubbish from nearby towns. Now it is full, and has been capped with chalk and, while local binmen search for other places to dump their trash, the hillside has begun its return to the wild.


  1. Hallo James,

    I usually silently love your blog and all the wealth of pictures. But felt compelled to tag on a comment today to say an especial thank you for this - having just recently put up a Woolfian post myself at
    As you see, featuring Monk's House.

    After at last seeing a different shot of Asham House to the somewhat too-far-away-to-tell usual one I feel a new collage coming on... hope you don't mind.

    Thanks again. Love all your details and asides.

  2. Thanks Amanda - love the Monks House collage. What I particularly like about the Asham story is the sense of seeing the processes of history compressed into 150 years or so. The human influence seems at first beautiful, then catastrophic, and in the end it is fleeting. Looking forward to seeing the Asham collage!

  3. That's very interesting - and cheering. The transience of apparent immutability.
    Asham House (does it still exist?) has always struck me as ghostly possibly owing to my only having seen that somewhat out-of-focus monochrome snap that appears in Woolfian literature. Glad to be reminded of the "real" haunted aspect. I now see my way in to the Asham picture...


  4. murraybrickell31 January, 2014

    Hello James
    I hope you are still around this area of the river Ouse as I see your blogs go back to 2011. I just love seeing these pictures of Asham as I have many childhood memories of climbing around their buildings and of course seeing my friends in Asham House in the 1960's.I have one or two photos taken just before it was flattened ( wicked ) Wish you well, Murray

  5. Laura Sirdevan02 September, 2015

    Hello Murray, I have become fascinated by Asham, and would love to see the photos that you took before the house was demolished - what a tragedy.