SPRING AT SISSINGHURST
House hunting in the spring of 1930, the English poet Vita Sackville-West viewed a crumbling castle in the Kentish countryside. Standing in the middle of a cabbage patch she looked up at its romantic, Elizabethan tower, turned to her son Nigel and said;
“I think we shall be happy in this place.”
Already a passionate gardener, Vita saw the enormous potential of the property. Years later, in one of her famous gardening articles she explained;
“I fell in love at first sight. I saw what might be made of it. It was Sleeping Beauty’s Garden: but a garden crying out for rescue.”
Vita’s husband, Sir Harold Nicolson was equally charmed by the property , but worried about the enormous financial commitment. At the end of April he wrote to his wife, weighing the pros and cons of buying Sissinghurst Castle. He began;
“My view is:
That it is most unwise of us to get Sissinghurst. It costs us 12,000 pounds to buy and will cost another 15,000 to put it in order.”
However, he ended with;
“We like it.”
Fired by visions of what might be created from a wasteland of rusting bedsteads, old plough shares and sardine tins, they went ahead.
On another spring day more than eighty years later, my husband Rob and I visited Sissinghurst Castle. As we walked into its magnificent garden we were grateful for the couple’s brave decision.
Resisting the urge to rush off in every direction, I went first to the tower. The entrance is flanked by Rosemary, including a variety known as ‘Sissinghurst Blue’. We climbed to Vita’s writing room, which remains just as she left it when she died in 1962. A photograph of Harold is prominent on her desk. On a small table stood a bowl of wild hyacinths, with sprays of heavenly scented, yellow azalea. There is also a portrait of writer Virgina Woolf…but that is another story!
The view from the top of the tower is magnificent, looking across the garden to the fertile Weald of Kent. At this time of year, green fields contrast with the brilliant gold of flowering canola.
Back at ground level, we walked through to the Tower Lawn, where magnolias were in bloom, under-planted with hellebores.
A yew walk divides the Tower Lawn from the orchard, which is at its loveliest in spring. Under canopies of cherry and apple blossom there were extensive drifts of spring bulbs. Here too were wildflowers; bluebells and buttercups, English daisies and sky-blue speedwell.
On the banks of Sissinghurst’s moat we found marsh marigolds, daffodils and primroses. The Moat Walk is also at its best at this time of year, heady with the fragrance of deciduous azaleas and alive with honeybees. Beyond the azalea bank, snowbells and hellebores have naturalised in the Nuttery.
Clumps of tulips splashed scarlet and gold in the cottage garden among forget-me-nots, columbines and pansies. A border of wallflowers glowed in front of the building known as South Cottage. The early yellow rose, Helen Knight, bloomed on the wall above them.
Elsewhere, japonica, white wisteria and clematis flowered against weathered brickwork. Rough, brick pillars supported sink gardens brimming with polyanthus and aquilegia. Strategically placed below casement windows, the troughs complement the beauty of leadlight.
One of Sissinghurst’s most famous features is the white garden. Until June the central feature, Rosa longicuspis, remains a green canopy over its framework, but in spring the garden has a fragile beauty that catches at the heart. Magnolias bloom over White Triumphator tulips. There were white ranunculus, wallflowers and violas among silver foliage plants and bright green box.
The herb garden is a delight from April right through to October. We fell in love with an unusual stone seat, built by the family’s chauffeur just after the second world war. Aptly nicknamed Edward the Confessor’s chair, it is cushioned with chamomile.
But I have left the best until last. In 1932, an avenue of lime trees was planted, backed by hornbeam hedging. Several years later, Harold created long garden beds between the hedges and the pleached trees. Forsaking year-round colour, he planted for spring alone, designing the beds with extraordinary precision. Notebooks were kept in which the flowering patterns of hundreds of plants were recorded.
The results are spectacular. In what is really one of the most formal areas of Sissinghurst one has the impression of complete spontaneity. By the time the limes are breaking into leaf there is a profusion of spring bulbs; muscari, all kinds of narcissus, tulips, fritillaries, scillas and anemones. Giant pots from Tuscany hold golden tulips, underplanted with lobelia. There are thymes and forget-me-nots, peony roses, primroses and violets. It is a sight to lift the spirit.
Perhaps the most celebrated of Sissinghurst’s plants are its roses, which are not at their peak until June. However, there is much to be said for visiting the property early in the season, before thousands of summer visitors arrive. On a week day in April or May it is still possible to spend a few moments alone in the white garden or in the nuttery, experiencing the intimate beauty so treasured by Vita and Harold. As Harold once wrote to Vita when she was away in France
“Oh God, darling! the beauty of this place in spring! Why did nobody ever tell me about May?”
I have visited beautiful gardens in many countries, but none can rival the romantic associations of Sissinghurst.
Here is a link to another wonderful writer’s garden, in Central Florida.
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