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.
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
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.”
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.
‘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
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!
‘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
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