It has been a lifelong ambition of mine to see the great gardens of England, and Sissinghurst Castle was top of the list. The home of Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, together they created one of the most beautiful and famous gardens in England.
The Nicolsons purchased Sissinghurst in the 1930s as a derelict property. Strongly influenced by the gardens created by Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Lutyens, their labour of love utilized their distinct talents; Harold laid out the overall structure, including the hardscape and insisted on following the plan, while Vita looked to the selection of the plant material with which to furnish the series of “rooms” that comprise the garden. They were operating on a tight budget and frequently clashed over the best use of resources on the multi-year project. Their financial constraints lead them to open Sissinghurst to paying visitors in 1938 — the “shillingses” as Vita called them as they were each charged a shilling for a tour of the garden.
Vita’s childhood home was Knole, Sevenoaks, one of the largest houses in England. Being a woman, Vita was unable to inherit the house, and it passed to a male cousin, causing much bitterness throughout her life. (On a side note, we also visited Knole, and frankly, found it to be a dark and dreary house. Of great antiquity, no question, but not at all comfortable or inviting. It dates from the late 15th century, so has that somewhat creepy Tudor/Elizabethan vibe of dark wood, heavy fabrics and little light – more on that in another blog).
Sissinghurst was a substitute for Knole, and is on a much more modest scale. The main house is a long, narrow structure with relatively few rooms. I could see why it appealed to Vita, as the rooms here are also quite dark, with a similar “feel” to Knole.
Vita was a gardening writer and poet, and the room at the top of the Elizabethan Tower was her eyrie. It is a cozy and comfortable place, where I can imagine her gazing over the gardens below, lost in thought.
Sissinghurst is now in the hands of the National Trust and I was beyond thrilled to discover that we could rent the Priest’s House on the grounds of the property. We were lucky enough to get a week in June when the garden was exploding with colour. Imagine how thrilling it was to wander through the garden each morning and evening when all the crowds had departed. I was in seventh heaven, snapping pictures, taking notes and drawing inspiration for my gardens back home.
The Priest’s House abuts Vita’s White Garden, which is spilling over with unusual species of white plants. The Black and White poppies were new to me and I was able to find some in the US to plant in our perennial garden in the Cape.
The cottage garden has a warmer colour theme of yellows and reds, and the herb garden occupies another garden room.
Everywhere you look, there is another view to capture your attention.
These guys greeted us when we returned home from our adventures each day.
One evening we arrived back to discover this balloon had landed in one of the fields and its owners were trying to get permission to come onto the property to retrieve it. They appealed to us, but reluctantly, we told them we didn’t own the place. It certainly felt like home after a week and we were sad to depart. We will return one spring to see the garden in another season. Can’t wait!