Sissinghurst is probably one of the most famous gardens in England and forever linked with the prolific writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. How did it all begin?
Sissinghurst in Kent started out life as a Saxon pig farm – Saxonhurst. Hurst means woodland in Saxon. During Tudor times a fine manor house and moat were built, but little of that survives, just the tower. The ‘castle’ supposedly came about because during the Seven Years war (1756-1763) French prisoners of war were kept in the house in appalling conditions. They called it erroneously, ‘le Chateaux’, and the name stuck as castle.
Vita Sackville-West and Harold brought the house in the early 1930s when it was pretty run down. The surrounding land was mostly used for growing vegetables for the workers who lived in the buildings. There were also orchards and hops gardens. During WWII the Women’s Land Army milked cows for the war effort and Vita was part of the WLA.
Vita grew up at Knole house in Kent, but didn’t inherit the property as she was a woman – her cousin did instead. This not surprisingly upset her. She married Harold in 1913 and they had what would be called an open marriage, and it proved very successful, if unorthodox. Both of them had affairs with same-sex partners; Vita with fellow author Virginia Woolf.
The garden opened in late 1930s for visitors who left a shilling in an old tobacco tin at the entrance. Vita called these visitors the ‘shillingses’. During the war she became reclusive, spending her time writing novels and gardening books in the tower. She won the RHS’s Veitch medal for oustanding contribution to science and horticulture and regularly wrote gardening columns for the Observer newspaper. After Vita’s death in 1962, Harold passed the house and gardens onto the National Trust who have been managing it since 1967.
The Sissinghurst estate covers 450 acres but only five are used for the gardens. Harold designed a series of garden rooms and Vita planted. Gardens rooms date back to the Roman Times. They provide a style of enclosed gardens at ends of paths and were seen as a continuation of the house into the outdoors. The reinvention of this into the English house and garden shifted designers away from the Italian style of elaborate bedding and formality heavily used in Victorian Times. Edwin Lutyens, friend of Gertrude Jekyll was a frequent visitor to Sissinghurst and his influence is dotted about the gardens. However, Vita wasn’t a fan of Gertrude’s herbaceous borders. The garden characterised the end of the Art and Craft Movement which had fallen out of favour by the end of the 1930s.
Each garden room has a different characteristic whether its a colour or theme. The use of the old Tudor walls left over from the manor house are utilised, as are vertical and horizontal paths, which was Harold’s preference, while Vita liked to cram as much plant life into the spaces as possible. This partnership of contrasting styles mirrored their marriage – it worked really well.
Rose garden – Vita wanted a ‘tumble’ of honeysuckle and vines, and old fashioned roses that only flower once a year, so June was the best time for viewing the garden. Harold preferred geometry and created a circular shape hedge called a Rondel. Originally a cabbage patch, the clay subsoil is favourable for rose growing.
The White Garden – white roses, white gladioli, irises, dahlias and Japanese anemones. A highly orchestrated garden: Vita calculated its appearance week by week, the varied heights and the times of each flowering. Probably the most famous aspect of the whole garden. If there were any weddings in the family, they took place on the second Saturday in July when the bride and groom could stand under a canopy of flowers with a central rose bursting into predictable flower.
South Cottage Garden – a red and gold themed display and the couple’s most personal garden. The formality reflected Harold, the abundance of monochrome, Vita. Harold would gather flowers from it for his London flat.
Nuttery – created from Kentish Cobnuts, a bit like hazel nuts.
The Herb Garden is a small garden surrounded by yews and has over a hundred varieties of herb and is considered one of the most complete herbariums in England. Vita’s sense of smell meant she could close her eyes and identify every herb if she smelt the leaf of it. Lutyens designed the stone basin that stands on a platform of upended tiles.
The Lime Walk is a Spring garden with an abundance of bulbs and lined with Tuscan pots.
The Moat walk leading to the nuttery is decorated with bright yellow azaleas.
The moat itself still exists on two sides of the garden and on the corner edge is the octagonal gazebo, designed in 1968, the year of Harold’s death and his dedicated to his memory by his sons.
Of course there is more to the garden than what I’ve described. Too much for one simple post.