Decisions, decisions! Having settled on ticking off one of the Kent properties on this particular Friday in June, I spent all week wavering between Sissinghurst and Scotney Castle. I plumped for Sissinghurst on the basis that the rhododendrons at Scotney would probably be over (although after making the decision I appear to have seen nothing but beautifully flowering rhododendrons ever since!), but then the weather threw things into doubt again as there were warnings of severe thunderstorms and localised flooding in the South East and visiting a garden in these conditions may not be the best of ideas. As it was, it turned out to be a pretty good idea after all!
Sissinghurst is not the biggest of gardens so negotiating its smaller garden ‘rooms’ is likely to be slightly challenging on busy days. And I think ‘busy’ may be its default setting. While we were having our morning coffee, there was a queue of people waiting at the gates for the 11 o’clock opening and by the time we left there were at least five coaches in the car park, which probably explains the seemingly never-ending stream of WI members and Dutch tourists we had to contend with. Fortunately, we did not have to contend with any rain as the deeply rumbling thunderclouds that passed nearby at midday missed us by a few miles; nature simply laid on its own drum roll for some of the garden’s sights.
As with many National Trust properties, Sissinghurst has a long and varied history but uses one specific part of its story as the focus for its activities. In this case, it is the garden created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson – who bought Sissinghurst in 1930 – that is at the heart of the property’s visitor experience. However, the interested historian would probably be fascinated to learn about some of the other incarnations of Sissinghurst, from the Saxon pig farm, to the medieval moated manor house (visited several times by Edward I), the Tudor home of a politician (who welcomed Queen Mary in 1557), the grand courtyard house (visited by Queen Elizabeth I in 1573), the prison for French sailors during the Seven Years’ War and then the crumbling pile that gradually deteriorated as later owners dedicated their attention to the farm and let the ‘castle’ (as it became known during its prison years) to slip into decline.
Sissinghurst’s dilapidated buildings had been on the market for two years when the Nicolsons finally saw some potential in them. The couple paid £12,375 for the property and are reported to have spent more than this simply making it habitable. However, it is the garden that became a real labour of love for the pair and it is the garden that people come here to see.
The Sissinghurst guidebook gives very good insight into each of the areas, or ‘rooms’, of the garden and the ideas behind their creation. It also emphasises what a good combination Vita and Harold were in that she was all for cramming in as much as possible, while Harold seemed to prefer things a little more ordered and neat and is responsible for the more geometric layouts in parts of the garden. Together, the pair came up with a diverse garden, which seems to have something for everyone: herbaceous borders, a White Garden, a Rose Garden, a Cottage Garden, an Azalea Bank, a herb garden, a Nuttery and a wilder area of orchard and meadow. My personal favourite would probably be the Cottage Garden, with its mass of different plants, including some giant poppies and a wide range of irises, many of which were still putting on a good display. Having seen a picture in the guidebook, though, I think we may actually have been a couple of weeks too late and that the Cottage Garden would have looked even better in May. One wall of the South Cottage faces onto this garden and the rose that is climbing up this wall was the first thing that the Nicolsons planted at Sissinghurst.
Another highlight for me was the Purple Border in the top courtyard, while a lovely little oddity that I spotted on the way round was the camomile bench in the herb garden, helpfully adorned with a little sign saying ‘Please Do Not Sit Here’, just in case you find the camomile ‘cushion’ particularly inviting.
A short walk away from the rest of the garden is the Kitchen Garden, which is still a fairly recent project, having been started in 2008. It feels as though I have seen an awful lot of kitchen gardens since starting this challenge but this one was a little different, occupying a field rather than a walled area, and clearly geared specifically towards the needs of the property’s restaurant. And this leads me on to my lunch! As it was such a hot day, I plumped for the Sissinghurst Garden Salad offered in the Granary Restaurant and I wasn’t disappointed. It was a lovely boiled egg and new potato salad with the perfect amount of mustard dressing. I am not sure how many of the ingredients came from the kitchen garden but I had seen the lettuce, radishes and broad beans in the ground just a few minutes before so I would say at least half of my plate was Sissinghurst-grown. I am not usually a big one for taking pictures of my dinner but I will make an exception in this instance as I really did enjoy this salad!
Although the tranquillity and beauty of the garden are the main focus for the Sissinghurst visitor, gardening enthusiasts can listen in to daily 3-minute talks outlining what the gardeners are up to at this particular time, while talks about Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson are also frequently given. For once, I decided to skip this as it was a bit too hot to be standing still in the sun for any length of time. Further information about the work of Vita and Harold is also on display in some of the turret rooms as you climb the Tower to take in the views, and you can also look into Vita’s workroom on your way up. Meanwhile, the Library is the only room of the main house that is open to visitors, but it seems to complement the gardens very well as another place in which to sit, relax and soak up the peace and quiet (as long as there aren’t too many WI ladies or Dutch tourists in the immediate vicinity!
Highlights: Cottage Garden; the Tower; the Sissinghurst salad
Refreshments: Pot of tea and a flapjack; Sissinghurst Garden Salad with bread and a homemade lemonade
Purchase(s): Guidebook; birthday cards
Companion(s): Mum and Dad
NT Connections: Knole (both owned by members of the Sackville-West family); Monks House (Vita had a brief affair with Virginia Woolf and was the inspiration for Woolf’s ‘Orlando’); Smallhythe Place (Vita Sackville-West was friends with Edy Craig, Ellen Terry’s daughter, and they visited each other’s houses and Vita and her husband performed on the stage at the Barn Theatre at Smallhythe)