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A Saunter Through the Gardens at Sissinghurst


An Article for Garden History by Jennifer Ward

More than any other garden in England, the grounds surrounding Sissinghurst Castle attract the most widespread acclaim among gardeners. People come in droves every summer to amble through the displays of natural and groomed beauty, nurtured in the middle of the last century by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. But the gardens have a long history before being acquired by this quirky couple, a past that testifies to how landscape evolves along with history itself.


Sissinghurst is a site of continual renewal and regeneration. Nestled serenely in the Weald of Kent, its known history can be traced back to medieval times when it was home to two Norman families, the de Saxenhursts and the de Berhams, for about three hundred years. The stone manor was the first building on the property, and two legs of its original moat still remain. In the 16th century a new manor house was built by Sir John Baker and his son Richard—related by marriage to the Sackvilles of Knowle (see Vita Sackville-West’s biography). This castle survived the Civil War, and Sir John remained in possession of his ancestral home until his death in 1653. Since he had no sons, his widow remained in charge of Sissinghurst until her death in 1693. Because she spent very little time there, the property began to fall to ruin. By 1752, the estate had been severely neglected; it was described as "a park in ruins and a house in ten times greater ruins." Between 1756 to 1753 Sissinghurst was used for the lamentable purpose of a prison during the Seven Years' War. It was during this period that the manor house became known as Sissinghurst Castle, because it was used as a stronghold to contain French prisoners of war. (Sissinghurst in Saxon means "clearing in the woods.") Both the prisoners and the property were maltreated, and there was not much life to be found there.

Loved Again

Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson were well-known in England at the turn of the century, both for their individual professional achievements and their unconventional marriage. The couple came upon the ruins at Sissinghurst, then “seven acres of muddy wilderness,” when their Knole property became endangered by development. Vita fell in love with the property immediately, and managed to convince her husband and sons that it was worth the investment of time and money. Twelve thousand, three hundred and seventy-five pounds and eight years later, they had transformed Sissinghurst into an Edenic vision of floral abundance. In the early days, being the unconventional family that they were, they did not live in the farmhouse but camped out in the ruins, having rented out the home itself. It was common to see a butler carrying trays of food among the various "quarters," a truly Robinson-Crusoe-esque garden fortress! Vita claimed the tower for herself, and the family "slept at the top of the tower on two camp beds. . . [and] read by candles," as Vita herself wrote. They eventually moved into the South cottage, and two years later moved fully into the castle.


The garden is actually a series of ten separate and unique gardens, as if characters in a play. There is the Entry Courtyard, the Rose Garden, the Tower Lawn, and the Orchard, and further along the White Garden, Cottage Garden, Herb Garden, Moat and Lime Walks. Walls and hedges separate the gardens, bringing peace and seclusion to the experience. The idea of dividing up a garden into rooms was nothing new; it was in fact characteristic of Renaissance gardens and revived by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens in their gardens. Vita herself placed much importance on the connection between garden and gardener, design and designer:

"It was not until 1933 that any serious planting could be undertaken, but this was perhaps as well, because during these three impatient years we had time to become familiar with the 'feel' of the place - a very important advantage which the professional garden-designer, abruptly called in, is seldom able to enjoy."

With all the work that the Nicolsons put into the gardens, it surely strengthened them as a family and increased their sense of ownership and stewardship of the land. Their gardens still bear the stamp of true commitment to a project—from the grunt work of cleaning up the junk left from its workhouse days, to the ingenuity of creating a lake, to the artistry of designing and planting the flowers themselves.

The War and Beyond

In her epic poem The Garden which was written during World War II and published in 1946, Vita wrote: "Strange were those summers; summers filled with war. I think that the flowers were lovelier for the danger." Sissinghurst Castle is located south of London, and lay directly in the expected path of German invasion. Instead of losing interest in their garden however, it became an important symbol for a future of peace. Vita suggested the idea of a white garden to Harold on December 13, 1939, and they spent the next five years dreaming of how to make their gardens even more beautiful.

They waited for the war to end as one waits for spring. In 1939 Vita feel in love a newly-introduced pink magnolia tree, that required careful cultivation. Vita wrote that "a hundred years hence someone will come across it growing among the ruins of the tower...and will say that someone once cared for this place." The eminent danger they faced was calmed by planting, as Vita said, "Let us plant and be merry, for by next autumn we may all be ruined." In February of 1940, Vita estimated that during the past year she had bought between 11,000 and 12,000 Dutch flower bulbs.

Fortunately, Sissinghurst Castle survived the war unharmed, but the gardens did go through some significant changes. Many of the perennial flowers were replaced with vegetables, as flowers were seen as an unnecessary luxury in a country struggling for food. Some of the perennials later had to be brought in from other parts of the world.

A Garden for All

Sissinghurst was first opened to the public in 1938, the entrance fee a mere shilling (£0.05) at the time. Visitors were nicknamed the 'shillingses,' though not in a derogatory sense. Vita wrote in the New Statesman in 1939:

"These mild gentlemen and women who invade one's garden after putting their silver token into the bowl ... are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute. Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener's courtesy, in a world where courtesy is giving place to rougher things"

The National Trust took over the gardens in 1967, as per Vita’s wishes. She undoubtedly saw profound importance in what she and Harold had created, and wanted to share it with as many people as possible, while protecting its beauty. Vita knew that gardens were not ordinary places, and that natural beauty had the power to inspire, to influence, and to heal. Today it costs £7.50 to enter the garden—still a very reasonable price to witness the history, care, and preservation lying beyond the gates.


Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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