‘A tired swimmer in the waves of time
I throw my hands up: let the surface close:
Sink down through centuries to another clime,
And buried find the castle and the rose.’
– from Sissinghurst, a poem by Vita Sackville-West.
On 4th April 1930, writer, gardener and famed sapphist, Vita Sackville-West made her first visit to Sissinghurst Castle in Kent where she and her husband Harold Nicolson were to make their world-renowned garden. She later wrote: ‘I fell in love; love at first sight. I saw what might be made of it. It was Sleeping Beauty’s Castle; but a castle running away into sordidness and squalor; a garden crying out for rescue’. It was in ruins. Having been occupied as a poorhouse until 1855 the buildings were scarcely habitable and the previous owner, a farmer, had used the castle grounds as a rubbish tip. Vita picked her way through old bedsteads, matted wire and rusty iron. She walked through the farm labourers’ cabbage-patches and past ramshackle chicken runs where her rose garden was to be. Birds dived in and out of the tower windows, their droppings covering the floor of her future study. They bought it within three weeks and for five years they had no mains water or electricity. It was here that the romance began.
Like Alice in Wonderland falling down, down into the rabbit-hole, following the long drive to Sissinghurst has the sensation of delving headlong into a fairy tale world. It is a sparkling ideal, a ‘movie-set’ of a garden. The two peaked turrets of the iconic Elizabethan tower are glimpsed first, rising like a shimmering mirage above soft Kentish farmland. Tumbling roses and lichen cling to the peachy brick castle walls that enclose Vita’s garden. At its heart lies an orchard and glade spangled with wild orchids and white narcissi in spring, and completed with dovecotes, beehives and an idyllic octagonal summerhouse. It is surrounded by two arms of a medieval moat. Deep, still waters reflect overhanging ancient oaks which hug the banks with muscular, twisted roots. Sissinghurst is a dreamy place that casts a spell.
Of course fantasy pervaded every aspect of Vita’s life. At her palatial childhood home, Knole (said to be the largest house in Britain), she lived the life of a little princess romping alone through the long Elizabethan corridors and playing with chests of ancestral treasures. History was tangible, personal, and the line between fantasy and life blurred. Her early writings were romantic Renaissance style tales featuring long-dead members of the Sackville family and in late adolescence she longed ‘to live alone in a tower with her books’. It was a fantasy to be realised at Sissinghurst. Climb the well-worn wooden staircase up the tower to Vita’s study, with its high stone walls and mullioned windows veiled from the garden. Threadbare Persian rugs litter the floor and a large tapestry hangs above her desk. Here she would sit even in the depths of winter when she would pile coats over her knees and perhaps turn on the single bar electric fire at her feet with one of her Alsatians for company. She wrote around twenty books from this room, including: All Passion Spent, Perpita (a biography of her grandmother), and her long poem The Garden, as well as her weekly Observer gardening column. The novels and poems were sentimental, naïve and often autobiographical. Challenge was a romantic novel in which she cast her lesbian lover, Violet Trefusis, as the character ‘Eve’ and herself as ‘Julian’. Fact was once again stranger than fiction and performing their alter-egos Vita would promenade around Mayfair dressed in male clothes accompanied by ‘girlfriend’ Violet. Sadly Vita knew she was not a ‘great’ writer and said of her novels: ‘I dislike them all’. But though perhaps not an artist in skill she was without doubt an haute bohème in lifestyle. Vita’s Sissinghurst is the archetypal British bohemia and, to what no doubt would be her disappointment, the garden’s legacy has cast her books in the shade.
To truly appreciate the garden, ascend higher to the roof of the tower. Looking down from here a map of Harold’s geometric design unfolds beneath you. According to Vita he was an ‘architect manqué’ revelling in ‘square-ruled paper… stakes and string’. The six acres are divided into ten garden “rooms” which take their shape from the existing buildings and walls of the ruined castle. They are intimate, enclosed spaces comprising rectangular beds delineated by tightly clipped box hedges, and each is linked by tempting vistas and long axial corridors. In the style of Lutyens and Jekyll, from this classical structure emerges Vita’s abundant cottage garden planting. Quite literally she added colour to the place and taking a leaf from William Robinson’s book favoured naturalised planting. Roses grow through the fruit trees in the orchard, herbs creep into the paths and self-seeding wild bluebells make their home in the borders (Vita believed they had as much a right to be there as anything else).
There is the oft-drawn analogy that the garden encapsulates Vita and Harold’s marriage, that of Harold providing the structure in which the ‘wild’ Vita could prosper. Mild and loving Harold, the rock from which gypsy-blooded (2) Vita would fly, gallivanting off on erotic escapades with wanderlust for ‘new places, for movement, for places where no one will want me to order lunch or pay housebooks’. However it is just as true that the garden represents Vita’s own dual character. The reserved part of her enjoyed her quiet life at Sissinghurst as ‘Mrs Nicolson’, a conventional wife and mother. The other screamed for adventure. Both roles were played to their extreme. In any case the garden’s mixture of formal structure and rich planting creates tension and drama. Exiting the dark, claustrophobic channel of the Yew Walk into the dancing pinks and magentas of the Rose Garden has something of a performance about it. Each garden “room”, its planting glimpsed through an archway or a gap in a hedge, and then savoured, builds expectation and reveals a different scene like acts in a play. At every turn visiting members of the public ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’.
It is perhaps reflective of Vita’s unconventional family life that the house is actually a series of buildings dispersed around the garden. The boys, Ben and Nigel, slept in the Priest’s House where the kitchen and family dining room also were, and Vita and Harold took the South Cottage. Through bitter winters, driving rain and starless nights they would take the garden paths to eat, sleep and study. The garden’s courts and corridors were reminiscent of those at Knole (3) where Vita and her mother toured admiring guests around its seven courts and ‘show rooms’— three great state bedrooms. Sissinghurst is, as Vita’s grandson Adam Nicolson suggests, ‘defined by the absence of Knole’ which Vita was unable to inherit due to her gender. In the face of harsh reality the ruined castle offered Vita a retreat into her old aristocratic world which was fast becoming an anachronism in the thirties and forties. By a happy coincidence Sir John Baker who established the court at Sissinghurst in the fifteenth century was linked by marriage to the Sackvilles, so Sissinghurst was an ancestral seat of sorts. This pleased Vita who has frequently been caricatured as a snob. Using the Sackville word for a servant, and by extension anyone thought common or vulgar, aged fourteen Vita asked of her classmates, ‘the little Gerard Leghs are not bedint, are they?’ Still, perhaps it is unfair to judge a woman by her childhood misdemeanours. It was Vita who welcomed the public into the garden in the late 1930s and would keenly discuss it with visitors who shared her love of flowers, often digging plants out of the borders for them to take home.
Although she had help, Vita was a hands-on gardener. Nothing was ever ‘below’ her. In the summertime she would garden all day and write half the night. It was her custom to don the swashbuckling attire of a billowing shirt and breeches tucked into high boots (with secateurs wedged into the top), set off with pearls and dangling earrings. She was a masterful plantswoman and it would be difficult to over exaggerate Sissinghurst’s horticultural reputation.
Take the Cottage Garden, outside the South Cottage. It was the first garden to be planted and the first rose to be planted grows above the front door, an elegant white ‘Madame Alfred Carrière’. Vita favoured old fashioned rose varieties, noting later: ‘I planted them recklessly and have never regretted it’. Four yews stand in the middle of a tapestry of yellow, red and orange planting. Vita was influenced by Gertrude Jekyll’s sensitivity to colour but chose stricter, monochromatic schemes. In spring the garden glimmers with wallflowers, irises, daylilies (Hemerocallis) and Helianthemums and by midsummer reaches its fiery peak. The sunny yellow daisy heads of Argyranthemum (marguerite), orange firework Leonotis leonurus (lion’s tail), and red dahlias and cannas burn in a haze. These are only some of the many high maintenance tender perennials. The sheer glut of plants is overwhelming. Vita called it the ‘cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny’ method and the effect on the visiting plant lover is like that of a child in a sweet shop.
Skip across the long afternoon shadow cast by the tower to the north side of the grounds and the infamous White Garden. There are just as many plants as in the Cottage Garden but the feeling is different; serene, heavenly. Vita described it as the ‘grey, green and white garden’ and the secret to its genius is that the predominant colour is actually subtly different hues of green, not white. There are hostas, silvery Artemesia (wormwood) and a weeping pear, all which bear splashes of white flowers such as regale lilies, delphiniums, foxgloves and the feathery tails of Eremerus (foxtail lily). In early July the arbour at the centre of the parterre is a billowing cloud of Rosa mulligannii and at this time of the year the family would lunch under the nearby loggia, ‘Erechtheum’. Overlooking it is a statue, The Vestal Virgin, finger placed delicately to her lips, one of the garden’s many classical statues.
Over the wall is Delos heaving with luxuriant rhododendrons and camellias. Then there is the Rose Garden drenched in scent, Harold’s Lime Walk awash with a carpet of spring flowers in April, the Herb Garden’s hundred varieties of herbs, the Nuttery, the Moat Walk, the Thyme Lawn… it’s all too, too much. Shot spinning from a whirligig of plants and gardens you spill with a sigh of relief into the cool, long grass of the orchard. Mown paths lead you gently past fruit trees to a view of the undulating hills of the Weald of Kent beyond.
At Sissinghurst Vita created a garden that matched up to her life. It is beyond imagination, excessive and profusely romantic. Just as her life was lived in pursuit of an artistic fantasy, the garden is fantasy made real. It is what can be achieved through blue blood and money. A tumbledown castle but filled with family heirlooms and appointed with a butler. A bucolic cottage garden but requiring a workforce beyond the contemplation of any cottage-dweller. Vita and Sissinghurst embody that typically British combination of wealth, eccentricity and destitution that make up the bohemian lifestyle.
(2) Vita’s maternal grandmother, Josefa Durán, better known as Perpita, was a beautiful and world famous Spanish dancer.
(3) Lived in by the Sackvilles for 400 years, Knole, near Sevenoaks in Kent, is set in a medieval deer park and the fifteenth century house itself covers more than 6 acres. Allegedly it has 52 staircases and 365 rooms. Vita described it in her novel The Edwardians as not so much a house as ‘a medieval village with its square turrets and its grey walls, its hundred chimneys sending blue threads up into the air’.