Sissinghurst Castle Gardens - National Trust Kent
Built on the site of a medieval manor Sissinghurst is instantly recognisable by the sixteenth century tower which adds a fairytale like charm drawing visitors from across the globe .
I recently took a trip back to Sissinghurst which felt like stepping onto the set of a sleeping beauty movie as the garden reawakened . Its slightly unkempt appearance, a change to its usually well manicured style, was a consequence of Covid restrictions limiting the number of volunteers and gardeners allowed onto the site. It was as if the plants were relishing their freedom, growing through previous confines, giving the place a whimsical air of enchantment.
The gardens were created mainly in the 1930's by Vita Sackville West a respected author and part of the famous Bloomsbury Set alongside Harold, her Husband who was a Diplomat. There have been many books written about the couple as well as the gardens . Both were also known to have relationships with partners of the same sex durning their marriage, Vita most famously had a 10 year affair with Virginna Woolf who visited Sissinghurst often .
If laws were different in the 1930's Sissinghurst as we know it would not exist. .The laws of primogeniture dictated that only men could inherit property. Vita had been left distraught after the death of her Father as she could not inherit her beloved family home Knole in Kent where she always felt she belonged. Vita and Harold instead brought Sissinghurst in 1930, then a neglected collection of Tudor buildings with a sprawling farm. The couple worked hard to clear the site and restore buildings starting with Vita's beloved tower.
It appears that Harold designed the garden "rooms" and Vita filled them with flowers .
The garden is always evolving , but still faithfully follows their lines, planting and ideals today .
Since 2008 Sissinghurst has a Vegetable Garden and the farmland on the estate is now a working tenanted farm. These were set up in partnership with Adam Nicolson, the Grandson of Vita and Harold with his wife Sarah Raven who is also a writer, and Gardner. The project was the subject of a BBC Documentary and Adam also wrote a book about this venture and the estate https://www.sevenoaksbookshop.co.uk/shop/sissinghurst-an-unfinished-history-by-adam-nicolson/
Most of produce is used to feed visitors to the cafe, which makes the food miles zero as it is only 100 metres to the restaurant.
The gardeners at Sissinghurst have sought to find and replant the original varitiies, using Vita's notebooks, diaries and catalogues marked with potential rose orders . Her thoughts on roses where recorded in her garden notebook in 1954, these really made chuckle as I read :
“I know also that most of them suffer from the serious drawback of flowering only once during a season, but what incomparable lavishness they give, while they are about it. There is nothing scrimpy or stingy about them. They have a generosity which is as desirable in plants as in people”.
People often ask when is the best time to visit Sissinghurst ?
Many say that that June is best as the roses will be in bloom , but the garden has so much more to offer than just roses and the famous white garden .
Spring was my first time at Sissinghurst, way back in 2008 for a pond dipping experience with my kids. There was a torrential downpour which sent most people scurrying off to the cafe for shelter. We stayed in the garden and were rewarded with a rainbow stretching across the fields framing the open barn . The gardens were clear of visitors and we enjoyed splashing along through the paths , admiring the empty 'rooms'along the way .
My next visit was Summer of 2009 , I was surprised by the increase in the number of people in the gardens compared to the last time I visited. This was after the BBC had aired the documentary on Sissinghurst which had clearly sparked interest and visitor numbers. It was a very hot day and the gardens were in full bloom and screaming for attention from every corner . The narrow paths were full of people making it difficult to enjoy the gardens as views of each 'room' were blocked with people jostling to get the best views or photographs.
We retreated to the cool calm of the Long Library and then to the tower to escape the crowds.
Once we had climbed the 78 steps we were rewarded with the most amazing views of the estate. From this point we could see how the gardens were laid out and far better appreciate the design from this perspective .
I returned next in 2018 over Twixmas. The gardens were closed over Winter, we were here to see the newly opened South Cottage. It was a damp and misty day and just the estate grounds, cafe and South Cottage were open. This time there were very few visitors, just the odd dog walker and tea drinker in the cafe .
The Nicholson family had recently stopping living in the cottage which was the main residence of Vita and Harold. This was the place where Harold would write and plan the garden, and Vita would tend to her plants before taking them to the garden .
The whole of the cottage was included in a guided tour but understandably no photography was permitted . It felt like a great privilege to get a glimpse into this most intimate part of Sissinghurst and to hear more of the story of Vita and Harold's life when they lived there . The atmosphere was homely , it was almost as if they had just left each room as we entered.
"Days I enjoy are days when nothing happens,
When I have no engagements written in my block,
When no one comes to disturb my inward peace,
Vita Sackville West - "Days I enjoy "
I have almost a complete set of seasonal visits now I just need to add Autumn .
The gardens and properties are all maintained by the National Trust by a team of staff and volunteers.
Short breaks at Sissinghurst are availiable
Further interest links -
There are some great books at Sevenoaks Books if you want further reading on or from Vita Sackville West and Sissinghurst
You may like to watch Adam and Rebecca Nicolson "A Life in Flowers" mini documentary on Vimeo
Or stream the 2019 Movie "Vita and Virgina" through Curzon Home Cinema