English country gardens: Under the spell of Sissinghurst

Photo of Mark Thornton

The former home of the writer Vita Sackville-West is one of the famous — and bewitching — gardens in this green and pleasant land.

England claims to be the most garden-loving country in the world, with more gardens open to the public than anywhere else — 763 according to one estimate. The gardenvisit.com website has a map of them with each represented as a red pointer, though there are so many pointers you can’t see England for gardens.

Slightly more mind-boggling, even for a gardener, is the assertion by the National Open Gardens organisation, which raises money for nursing charities, that there are 3700 open gardens across the whole of the UK.

Londoners have bought into this debate. They say that with 123 show gardens they have a higher proportion of garden-loving residents than any other capital city in the world. But those people who claim to know about these things say London doesn’t have that many great gardens — for those you need to travel into the countryside.

They point to yet another list of gardens which shows the county of Kent as having 37 show gardens, indeed, the whole county is often referred to as the Garden of England. But, more than that, Kent’s list includes one garden that everyone agrees is the best of all — Sissinghurst Castle Garden. More than 200,000 people visit every year, many do so with a sense of near reverence and are bewitched by its romance.

England’s most impressive and famous epoch for gardens was the eighteenth century. It was then that there were enough families with the wealth to invest in and landscape their estates. But we have to look back nearly 1000 years to find the origins of Sissinghurst, which is a derivation of its original name. Long before its gardens were created the property was a Saxon pig farm named Saxonhurst, with “hurst” a Saxon word for an enclosed wood.

In the Middle Ages the property was bought by the wealthy de Berham family who built a big brick manor house with a moat. There followed a series of increasingly wealthy and powerful owners, including Sir John Baker, one of Henry VIII’s Privy Councillors who became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Later he served Queen Elizabeth I, who spent three nights there in 1573.

Fast forward to the mid-18th century when then owner, Sir Horace Mann, leased the property to the Government as a prisoner-of-war camp for French soldiers captured in the Seven Years War. As a prison the condition of the buildings and the reputation of Sissinghurst deteriorated. Prisoners and guards alike hated the squalid conditions and so bad did its reputation become that discipline in other prisons was maintained by threatening to move any unruly inmates there.

Within 15 years most of the house and furniture was destroyed by the Frenchmen for firewood. However, during their early incarceration it was the French who, when writing home to their families (at least they managed to do that) described the big house as the “Chateau de Sissinghurst”. The name stuck and it’s now known as Sissinghurst Castle.

This was a dark period for the property and the house turned to ruin. The local parish converted it into a house for the poor until the Mann Cornwallis family bought it in 1839. They rebuilt and restored the property as best they could but by the end of the century it was again all but derelict.

It was not until 1930 that Sissinghurst’s golden age began. It was bought by poet, author and gardening writer Victoria (better known as Vita) Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson, a diplomat, politician and also an author. It must have been an interesting marriage, for while devoted to one another they were both homosexual. Vita was better known because of her affair with the writer Virginia Woolf, who used Vita as a character in her book Orlando: A Biography.

Had Vita been a man she would have inherited her own family estate Knole Park, also in Kent with an enormous chateau-like 600-year-old house on 4sqm of parkland. Instead her father, Lionel Sackville-West, the Third Lord Sackville, bequeathed it to his brother. Yet Vita took delight in finding out later that she had a strong link to Sissinghurst — its former owner Sir John Baker had married Catherine Sackville in 1520 — and she threw herself into recreating Sissinghurst as a romantic substitute. 

Vita and Harold had to clear away tons of rubble, old machinery and rubbish before restoring and redesigning the gardens and buildings, including the once-vast Elizabethan house and the magnificent turreted central tower, which is now the best place from which to view the whole property.

The buildings housed farm workers who grew vegetables and cereals, though there were also a couple of orchards and hop gardens. The hops were dried in oast houses, or hop kilns, buildings with conical roofs designed to catch the wind for kilning (drying) hops as part of the process of brewing beer. A number of restored oast houses remain on the property, as does a magnificent medieval wooden barn.

To pay for the property and all their changes to it Vita began writing again in 1930 after a six-year break. Harold had by then left the Foreign Office and no longer had a diplomat’s salary to draw upon. They opened Sissinghurst to the public in 1938 partly to share it and partly to help pay for it.

With Woolf’s mentoring Vita had become a better writer and in 1947 she began a weekly column in the quality Sunday newspaper The Observer called “In your Garden”. It became very popular and she continued to enchant readers until the year before her death. The column helped to make Sissinghust one of the most famous and visited gardens in England.

Yet also in 1947, with a deep sense of loss, Vita relinquished her claim to Sissinghurst as part of its transition to the National Trust. However, the couple continued to live there and she became a founding member of the Trust’s Garden Committee.

The Trust is doing its job well. All year round except for deep midwinter the gardens, which were inspired by British designers Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edwin Lutyens, are truly breathtaking. A small army of gardeners tend them, planting flowers and maintaining flowering trees to beautify each season. Annually they plant more than 36,000 bulbs. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, Vita and Harold designed the garden to have a series of “rooms”, each with a different character of colour and/or theme. Separating the rooms are tall hedges (walls), as well as 500-year-old walls of pink brick. Vita designed the “rooms” so that while you marvel at the particular one you are in, through a gap in the hedge (the “door”) you can see a beguiling new one that draws you towards it. A walk in such an enchanting garden becomes a journey of discovery.

The property retains the aura of Vita and Harold who, despite their dalliances, were as devoted to each other as they were to the garden. Every day they were apart, and separations were sometimes lengthy due to Harold’s diplomatic postings abroad, they wrote long, passionate letters to one another. Eventually Harold gave up his job so they could live and garden together in their English paradise even though it led to their financial struggles — such is true love.

It is easy to spend a whole day drifting around the property, lost in its history and beauty. You can see it in the smiles and  gazes of other visitors. The narrator of an eight-part BBC television series on Sissinghurst in 2009 said as much.

Vita died in 1962 aged 70 followed by Harold, aged 81, in 1968. Both died at Sissinghurst. Having completely transformed the estate, when Vita died she was content in the knowledge that she and Harold had created the most famous garden in England.

Late in life Vita wrote: “The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have ever done before.”


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