Sissinghurst Garden – where dreams are made

Sissinghurst Geograph Deri James

Sissinghurst ‘was Sleeping Beauty’s Garden: but a garden crying out for rescue’ (Sarah Raven). This unforgettable garden, with its romantic Elizabethan mood, is full of garden dreams in waiting. This is Kent, the ‘Garden of England’.

Sissinghurst- a waiting dream

When I first visited Sissinghusrt it was a hot June day. My first impressions were of being immersed in another world. With the sun-baked walls clothed in climbing roses and honeysuckle, the air filled with their scent of mid-summer, while a bee swarm hung on one wall adding atmosphere, I immediately caught the heady appeal of this dreamy and romantic garden.

View through an archway into Sissinghurst Garden.

This book by Sarah Raven, who is married to Adam Nicholson, grandson of Vita, reveals a personal and private look at Sissinghurst. Sarah lives in and loves this place, and she reveals an intimate, personal look at the garden. Using frequent quotes from Vita’s own writing, we are given glimpses of the garden in the quiet of early morning light before the visitors arrive. or in the evening, after closing time, as the setting sun casts long shadows through the deserted garden rooms.

Through this book I too, have been ‘living’ in Sissinghurst for the past three weeks – attracted back to this lovely garden after many years. It is proving indeed a place where dreams are made – including mine for my own small garden!

“Sissinghurst caught instantly at my heart and imagination’  Vita

In 1930 Vita fell in love with this place when she first saw it with its layered history and romantic ruins crying out for rescue. But ruins are full of potential. As at Great Dixter with its lovely old Kentish barn house, here at Sissinghurst the garden is wrapped around a romantic Elizabethan building. It has made this a beautiful garden.

In the past Sissinghurst had been a grand Tudor house and deer-hunting estate where Queen Elizabeth1 spent the night in 1573. But it fell into disrepair. It now waited for someone to love and care for it

Sissinghurst garden viewed from the Eizabethan Tower

Every visitor is drawn to the Elizabethan tower dominating the garden (photo below). It gives an ideal view of the landscaping of the garden, as Harold Nicholson first designed it. Vita wrote her garden columns for the Observer newspaper in the writing room in the tower. When I visited I remember there was a large plant of blue Streptocarpus on the table – as if just put there by Vita that morning. But hers was no ‘ivory tower’.  

When one Observer reader accused her of being an armchair gardener, she described how Sissinghurst’s garden consumed her:

“For the last 40 years of my life I have broken my back, my fingernails, and sometimes my heart, in the practical pursuit of my favourite occupation.”

The white garden with Sissinghurst Tower in the background

A Cottage Garden Style

Although Sissinghurst had the feel of a country estate, in reality Vita and her gardener did much of the work themselves. The much copied white garden (photo above) started simply as an idea. It cost a little more than £3 with bits and pieces! Sarah’s book records the hard graft needed to produce such a remarkable garden.

Pink blossom at the old priests cottage at Sissinghurst
The old ‘Priest’s House’ cottage – the rambling rose ‘Flora’ still adorns this tree as in Vita’s day. Photo by Oast House Archive – Geograph

‘Sissinghurst was a glamorous garden, but with slightly unkempt hair ….. but cleverly feeling relaxed, free and easy that fit it so well with the place they found within the crumbling walls of a romantic ruin’.

Sarah Raven
A border full of flowers at Sissinghurst Garden
Photo by Michael Garlick – Geograph

Vita loved lavish planting with plants crowded into the borders, including 600 roses, with a riot of relaxed informality. The many walls she festooned with climbing plants. The first rose Madame Alfred Carriere was planted before the deeds of the property were signed! 

Walk at Sissingust Graham Horn geograph
The Moat Walk in Spring. This is a garden for all seasons. (Photo by Graham Horn – Geograph)

‘To  Vita Sissinghurst always remained the sleeping beauty’s castle and, though she was willing to clear a tangle of 100 slumbering years, she did not want the garden scrubbed clean. it was to be hospitable to wildlings.’  

Anne Scott James

Oast houses at Sissinghurst Castle

The Garden of England

The wind cowls of these hop-drying oast houses at Sissinghurst remind us that this is Kent, the Garden of England’.

This garden is also a practical, working farm, not just a show piece garden, see Vita’s well known poem ‘The Land” about the annual year on a Kentish farm. But that’s another story!

Few visitors can leave this place without having ‘fallen in love’ with this lovely garden. Sissinghurst is a place for frequent visits. In the meanwhile enjoy your own garden dreams, as I shall mine.

Credits Top Photo of Upper Courtyard Terrace by Deri James – Geograph

7 thoughts on “Sissinghurst Garden – where dreams are made

  1. So enjoyable to read one of your posts, Richard. Having written my own book about my gardens, you can imagine how compelled I felt to read about this book. I have promised myself not to buy any more books for a while, but your description of this one could make me break my promise!
    My best to you and your loved ones.

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    1. Good to hear about your books, Cynthia. I wish them every success. I hope to write my next post on my own garden here. Sarah Raven’s book has many quotes by Vita – so it is very much a plant-persons book. There are several other good ones like ‘Sissinghurst -The Dream Garden’ by Tim Richardson. But I won’t tempt you!
      Greetings to you and your family.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I remember being taken to Sissinghurst (my one and only time) by my ex-parents-in-law when my elder daughter was only a few months old, thirty-five years ago. What a heavenly place! My sister also visited there with a friend just a couple of weeks ago! I have got Vita Sackville-West’s ‘In Your Garden’ and ‘In Your Garden Again’ which are selections from her gardening articles in The Observer. I am strongly tempted to buy/read Sarah Raven’s book after your recommendation, Richard. What a lovely post! Best wishes to you and yours.

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    1. I’m glad to hear you have Vita’s books. They still seem full of good ideas for gardeners today.
      I wonder how your sister found Sissinghurst after the lockdown. Hopefully it has lost none of its beauty. Best wishes to you all, Clare

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, Richard. I think it was my sister’s first visit but she enjoyed being there very much. She visited with a friend she hadn’t seen since before the pandemic began.

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