Sissinghurst Castle and Garden
The story of a garden, a castle, a marriage and forbidden love
Kent has so much to offer that it’s been hard to decide where to start my exploration. My list is already several pages long! As criteria I have used proximity and literary attraction, of course, and the winner couldn’t be anything but Sissinghurst Castle and Garden, near Cranbrook. To make it a full day out experience, we decided not to drive there (plenty of parking available) but left the car on the High Street in Cranbrook and took the country walk that in about an hour takes you straight to the Castle.
I feel so privileged to have this extraordinary spot at my doorstep. It’s already one of my favourite places to spend lazy afternoons, hide from the maddening crowd, find inspiration and simply breathe in the love and dedication embedded in this place that speaks of the lifetime work of British diplomat Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West, aristocrat, writer, poet, journalist and one of the most influential gardeners of the last century; the golden couple who bought the place in ruins in 1930 and spent the following 30 years transforming it into one of the most famous gardens of England.
In this garden there is more than the lure of pretty architecture and beautiful plants. Literary inspiration, love stories, secrets and an endless poetry transfused everywhere just makes it all more attractive.
The protagonists and their story
I hadn’t researched the place the first time I visited. Sissinghurst village and the surrounding areas were what had captivated me when I first visited the High Weald in search for a new home and I decided to quickly check it out one Sunday afternoon with my daughter and our two dachshunds. We started off visiting the estate that is open to everyone, doggies included and has no entrance fee. It was only when we had a brief look at the shop that I quickly realised where I was. The shop was full of books of Vita and Virginia Woolf and if I knew well who the latter was, it took me a few moments to remember the familiar name of Vita and work out why the shop was almost entirely dedicated to her. That’s what I call my “moments of destiny” and I was hooked, completely. Of all England, how was it possible I had ended up choosing to live in a place I had known and inhabited in books and through the tales of others? It wasn’t the first time and in the past these occurrences had marked turning points in my life. Was this one of them? But this is a story for another day.
Reviving memories long gone, it all came back to me. Vita is mainly famous as a gardener and for her scandalous romantic relationship with Virginia Woolf, that lasted about a decade (1925 to 1935). Their love story was featured in the movie Vita & Virginia directed by Chanya Button and based on the love letters between Sackville-West and Woolf. Their romantic involvement had a very positive influence on their writing careers and American scholar Louise De Salvo remarks that "neither had ever written so much so well, and neither would ever again reach this peak of accomplishment".
Many don’t know that Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is the fictional biography of Vita Sackville-West, her lover and friend who spent the last 32 years of her life at Sissinghurst Castle and in the words of Vita’s son Nigel Nicholson "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature”.
The book is dedicated to Vita and written during the years of their relationship. Orlando, at the novel opening, lives at an imaginary version of Knole, the great house where Vita grew up in Kent, near Sevenoaks. Woolf describes him as gazing from an oak-crowned knoll at the Kentish landscape, the view stretching till the English Channel in a clear day. Vita instead chose the four-storeys brick Tower at Sissinghurst as outlook to the Wealden countryside and the garden and to be her place of election to write and work on her novels and poetry. Her office, where hardly anyone was allowed during her life with the exception of her dogs and very few invited guests, is still intact as she left it when she died in 1962 and retains all the fascination of a secret tower where a romantic soul could dream away and write her evening out after having spent the day working in her garden, her lifetime project and masterpiece. Who wouldn’t want a tower as a study?
“This place, when I first saw it on a spring in 1930, caught instantly at my heart and my imagination. I fell in love at first sight. I saw what might be made of it. It was Sleeping Beauty’s Garden: but a garden crying out for rescue”
Sissinghurst Castle, now property of the National Trust and open to the public all year round is the refurbishment of a great Elizabethan house neglected and left to fall into ruins for nearly 300 years before Harold and Vita rescued it and brought it back to life in 1930, after the property, a working farm by that time, was unsold on the market for two years. Originally a medieval manor house, the structure saw guests in the like of Mary and Elizabeth during the 16thcentury, but was now a ruin in which Vita could infuse her energy to redeem its illustrious past. She, the only daughter of Lord Sackville-West, who would have inherited the title and the family property near Sevenoaks had she been a man, was dismissed simply with an inherited fortune that she poured entirely in the creation and maintenance of Sissinghurst: a house one time owned by her ancestors and set in the middle of its own woods, streams and farmland in the Kentish countryside, a dreamland where she could linger on a nostalgic past of her imagination.
Here, Vita and her husband, both homosexual and repeatedly unfaithful to each other, built a garden of wonders, considered today among the best examples of English garden in the UK, together with a life of friendship, love and respect that their son made public after their death with the publication of their diaries, letters and in 1972 a book, Portrait of a Marriage, then turned into a BBC drama in 1990, where Vita attempts a memoir of her relationships and an account of her sexuality.
Visiting the grounds of the castle where the garden has been laid out is the most extraordinary experience. You move metaphorically from room to room. Each one surprises you for the change of scenery and its distinct personality but they all feel like they’re flowing into each other, different yet part of the same grand design that you can recognise despite its unconventional structure and character. While writing this, I am just thinking how much these words sound like a description of Vita herself.
“Formality is often essential to the plan of a garden but never to the arrangement of its flowers and shrubs” wrote William Robinson, the late Victorian gardening guru and this aesthetic flavour of the time is reflected in the garden contraposition between the geometrical austerity of the frame of the garden and the lushness of the vegetation that it contains. A 30 year project Vita documented on the weekly column “In the garden” she wrote for the Observer, between 1946 to 1957 that contributed in making Sissinghurst one of the most known and visited gardens of the time.
The garden occupies 5 of the 460 acres of the estate. The garden was first opened to the public in 1937 and since then it has attracted crowds of visitors and admirers despite remaining somehow a deeply private place till this day, thanks to its ability to
“enshrine a set of even deeper privacies, gathering inwards in concentric rings. First, the world of the farm and its woods, down and away from the road; then, the way in through the entrance arch into the garden itself; then, the private enclosures of each of the smaller gardens contained within the garden, then, the Tower, the great fix point at the centre of it all, visible from every part; and finally, in imagination anyway, into Vita’s writing room within the Tower, a scarcely visited place in her lifetime, the heart of Sissinghurst and its nest of privacies”
- Adam Nicolson.
What a great place for introspection. Walking through the garden chambers you can embark in a journey within, finding the calm Vita has worked so hard to communicate throughout her garden.
The best view over the stretches of the garden is from the 1560s Elizabethan Tower that stands tall in the middle of what was a 700-acre deer estate. From the top terrace you can appreciate in its complexity the system of enclosures, such as the White Garden, the Rose Garden, the Orchard, the Cottage Garden and the Nuttery and the single colour-themed garden sections that she pioneered.
The gardens contain an internationally respected plant collection, particularly the roses one that is considered by writer Ann Scott-James, author of Sissinghurst: the making of a garden"one of the finest collections in the world".
Vita always thought of the garden as an ongoing project till the end of her life when she was still writing: “How I wish I had another 50 years to look forward to and 10 gardeners and 10 thousand pounds – then we would restore the lakes and make a water garden down there and a lovely approach to it via the calf orchard with avenues of peaches and nectarines, very straight and simple with mown grass walks and bulbs for spring” and she would probably be pleased to know that thanks to the constant interest the garden has had, it is today well-funded and maintained by skilful gardeners and admired by thousands of visitors every year. It is now actually among the Trust's most popular properties, with nearly 200,000 visitors in 2017 and probably more in 2018.
All enclosed gardens are today welcoming the public with the exception of the nursery that is open only a couple of days a week. In addition to the Rose Garden, the Spring Garden, also known as Lime Walk, is one of the areas where Harold influence is more prominent. Vita used to mock him comparing it to platform 5 of Charing Cross, however she loved the garden dearly because it was full of the flowers they had admired during their travels in the Mediterranean, North Africa and Persia and various colourful variety of tulips. As a matter of fact, she was also a travel writer. What is there not to love about her and her story? Coming back to the garden, the Spring Garden is subject to high maintenance planning and replanting and it’s slightly different from what it used to be, yet incredibly beautiful and ever changing throughout the seasons.
The Cottage Garden displays a “sunset” colour scheme where oranges, yellows and reds are dominating the scene. This part of the garden would be Harold’s view from his work room and Vita’s from her bedroom and bathroom. Against the wall of the South Cottage, they planted their first plant even before their offer was accepted: the early-summer-flowering rose Mme Alfred Carriere.
The Moat Walkalong the remains of the Elizabethan wall is blasting with azaleas and white wisteria. The Herb Garden, with the central marble bowl they brought back from Constantinople where they had lived when they had just got married and the bench nestled between the edges, contains about 160 different sorts of herbs. The Orchard was conceived as a traditional zone between garden and countryside, so flowers are planted alongside fruit trees in an unsual layout. The White Gardenwas created only in 1950 as the culmination of their project, a garden to be admired in the twilight and lit by moonlight with its white gladioli, white irises, white pompom dahlias and the white Japanese anemones. This was the part of the garden Vita looked out to from the room where she spent her last days in 1962. A succession of shades of white and green, it is considered the most sophisticated and the most renowned of all of Sissinghurst's garden “rooms”.
Delosis the part of the garden that most has suffered through the years because of its Mediterranean flora emulating the homonymous Greek island. It’s now undergoing work that should bring it back to former glory.
The 460 acres estate is entirely open to the public. You can enjoy beautiful walks in fields dotted with Romney sheep and large oak trees, making you feel like you are right in the middle of Winnie the Pooh’s 100 acre wood. I swear the landscape is just perfect. Dogs are welcome as long as they are kept on their lead and are well behaved around wildlife, lambs and Sussex cows. Wildlife is plentiful. In addition to the usual bunnies, pheasants and foxes we even saw a badger. There are two indicated walks, a shorter one passing both lakes present on the estate and a three mile one going around the entire property. The formal garden though is not accessible for dogs and has an entrance fee.
Some of the buildings that are scattered around and were part of what was an unconventional house knitted together by the garden can be visited too. The libraryor Big Roomin the two storeys gatehouse contains a collection of exotic furniture and 4000 books collected between 1920 and 1960. This was a formal reception room that would be used only if the Nicholson’s were receiving guests.
What is known as the Priest’s housewas used as the quarters for Ben and Nigel, their children and also held the family dining room. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public.
The South Cottagewhere Vita and Nigel had their bedrooms, a shared sitting room and where Nicholson’s writing room was and Vita’s flower room, a place where she would attend sick plants, have just recently opened to visitors and they provide an extraordinary time capsule experience, taking you back in time as you walk through the door.
The piggery is now converted into a gift shop where you can buy most books of Vita and Harold, their biographies and a respectable selection of Garden books in addition to other quality souvenirs. The granaryhosts today the café and restaurant where produce from the estate vegetable garden are served in seasonal menus together with cakes, savoury snacks and other refreshments.
There is also a plant shopwhere you can buy plants from the castle nursery that produces yearly 15000 plants only for the shop. Here you can also buy seeds, tools, accessories and garden pots.
I came home with a very affordable National Trust Family Membership Card, that allows me to go back to the Castle any time I want and visit any of the 200 properties owned by the trust, a number of books and eyes and mind full of beauty. This was my second visit. I cannot wait to go back to see how the garden changes through the seasons, sit by the lake, walk through the woods and meadows with my dogs and immerse myself in the contagious passion, dedication and determination of a visionary gardener and woman who turned her unconventional personality and ideas into a precious gift for all to enjoy.
For more information before you visit: