Sissinghurst Castle was once a mid-16th century mansion set high on a ridge above the Vale of Kent. It was one of the first buildings in England to be constructed of brick. By the time Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson (both writers) bought it in 1930 Sissinghurst was a ramshackle ruin of a place.
Today Sissinghurst is probably the most admired 20th century garden in England. The first time I visited the place I finally understood why so many who had been before me used the word “romance” to describe this garden. I often wondered exactly what “romance” in a garden really meant (other than the obvious activity that might go on behind the shrubbery). I haven’t ever been able to find a writer who defined the description exactly. But the first time I wandered through that garden I think I finally got it. Sissinghurst evoked all kinds of emotions…different feelings in different areas. And isn’t that what romance is? Romance to my mind is about feelings and reflecting and being happy. Sissinghurst has that effect on me… and apparently on the tens of thousands who visit this dreamy garden every year.
The Designer and the Plantswoman
Harold laid out the architectural framework of the garden. He understood the importance of line and balance and used the straight lines of buildings, old pink brick walls and high clipped hedges to make alluring backdrops for a series of “garden rooms”.
It was Vita who took on the plants and created exciting changes of mood by planting each space with a different colour theme or mood.
Though she adored exuberant displays of colour, she still appreciated the allure of more subdued tones and gave them a place in the garden
The gardens are still exciting today. A stroll through the garden is a series of discoveries. As you move from one enclosure to another, you are treated to a new vista.
The Cottage Garden is my favourite “room” and still retains its original hot colour scheme of sunset hues. Harold’s favourite chair even still sits outside the cottage door (now that’s nostalgic).
The garden next to the Priest’s House was replanted in 1950 as a white garden. It evokes a sophisticated yet casual ambiance. At the time it was planted it caused quite a stir. Here all the blooms of old roses, clematis, and other blossoms that change with the seasons are white and much of the foliage in the garden is grey.
Roses are said to inspire romance, and Sissinghurst’s rose garden, planted with old-fashioned species roses oozes an unforgettable heady, come hither scent.
If you have the energy to climb up the Elizabethan tower’s spiral staircase (78-steps) that leads to the cluttered room where Vita wrote, you are treated to a view of the woods and lakes that is one of the loveliest vistas in the south of England.
Together Vita and Harold made a garden that has become the source of wonder and inspiration for gardeners everywhere. Vita Sackville-West died in 1962 and bequeathed the property to the National Trust which now maintains the garden. Though the original design remains unaltered, the garden is always changing and developing, with new plants and interesting colour combinations to engage first time and repeat visitors.
If a visit to Sissinghurst is on your wish list, check out www.gardeningtours.com. Sissinghurst is on Donna Dawson’s itinerary on her tour to England this May (including the Chelsea flower show and many other great English gardens). She may have some spots left.