A new Jolly: Sissinghurst Castle Garden – Vita Sackville-West, Virgina Woolf, and Violet Trefusis come to mind.
Lucky me! I got to enjoy another special treat with a trip to some gorgeous places recently.
I am spoiled I know, but what’s the point of being a big sister if you can’t be indulged by the younger siblings now and again.
I have the BEST siblings going.
A few days away with one of them recently was a wonderful way to re-charge my batteries.
Deep in the countryside with views over a lush valley at one side of the cottage and in the distance, views to the sea on a clear day from the front.
The fields directly behind the cottage host a large herd of very inquisitive cows, who love to pop their heads over the fence when they spy anyone in the garden, and ‘moo’ their greetings whilst their heads turn this way and that, watching what’s going on with the humans.
The garden was full of colour still, shimmering in the heat of the day – we had two glorious days – with the scent of Honeysuckle and Roses drifting on the air early mornings, and late evenings, mingled with the aroma of mown hay, and the sweet smell of the cattle.
The village itself is steeped in history and the buildings are of varying age, but there’s nothing ‘new,’ which I like.
The added bonus is that there are two ancient pubs there; one almost directly opposite, but noise isn’t a problem thankfully.
I spent a while there last year and posted lots of photos of our trips out to Wakehurst Place, Batemans (Rudyard Kipling’s home), Ightham Mote, and Begesbury National Pinetum – just to name a few of the places we visited.
If interested in photos and the history of where we went, go to blog on the menu above, and scroll back a while. There’s lots to see and read about.
My brother-in-law cooked the most amazing meals for me, and my sister and I went out each day visiting local places of interest and beauty.
We got to sample her home-made blackberry liqueur, eat home-grown tomatoes and vegetables, and one evening we lay on sunbeds under the stars at 12 midnight, watching shooting stars and satellites go over, trying to work out which stars we could see twinkling overhead. All enjoyed with a little ‘something,’ to keep us warm.
Another evening we were joined by an old friend of theirs, whom I had met once before, and we sat in the garden eating a fabulous three course meal – courtesy of my brother-in-law – drinking Prosseco, and enjoying a good old natter, trying not to flinch as several bats circled us, and a mouse crept into my sister’s vegetable cage’s on a mission to nibble as much as it could whilst she was otherwise engaged.
Last year she was robbed blind by field mice and rabbits who regarded the garden to be their very own larder, much to my sister’s disgust; hence the vegetable cages. But you know that where there’s a will, there’s a way… still, she had more than enough left to make various jams, gins, vodkas, and liqueurs – the sloes, and blackberries, came from the lanes near-by.
Don’t you just love eating what you grow – or someone else grows – organically too.
We both enjoyed a wonderful day out at Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens,
created and made famous by the poet, author, and gardener,
Vita Sackville-West, and her husband Harold Nicolson, diplomat and author.
When they first came to Sissinghurst Castle in 1930 they didn’t dream they were making something new or pioneering.
‘It was part of ‘our romantic Saxon, Roman, Tudor Kent,’ Howard wrote to his wife once.
In 1932 they set about creating the now world-famous garden at the heart of the estate.
Vita’s long series of articles in the Observer from 1947 until 1961 subtly and even surreptitiously, without actually naming her home and gardens, advertised the garden to the wider world – she longed to put it on show.
She was enthusiastic when the BBC wanted to make a Sissinghurst documentary in the mid 1950s.
Sissinghurst is more than a garden. It is a garden in the ruins of a great Elizabethan house, set in the middle of its own woods, streams, and farmland, with long views on all sides across the fields and meadows of the Kent countryside.
It had once been a pig farm as well as a medieval manor house with a moat.
The family who lived in the small manor house at that time shared their name with the place; the de Saxingherstes.
Nothing remains today of the original house except for part of the moat.
The 16th century prodigy house had been visited by both Mary and Elizabeth, England’s great Renaissance queens, before falling into ruins and being neglected for 300 years.
The Queen herself (Elizabeth 1) was persuaded to visit for three days in August 1573. Richard Baker, to be knighted a few days later, presented his queen with a silver-gilt cup on whose crystal lid a lion held forth in the royal coat of arms.
There was hunting in the park and revels by night. The house was the hero, ‘by day time, on every side so glittering by glass; by nights, by continual brightness of candle, fire, and torch-light, transparent through the light-some windows…’
Many times when Vita wrote of Sissinghurst, the atmosphere she summoned was of that embedded history, a certain rich slowness, even a druggedness, as if evening, when colours are soft and thickened, were its natural and fullest condition:
‘The heavy golden sunshine enriched the old brick with a kind of patina, and made the tower cast a long shadow across the grass, like the finger of a gigantic sundial veering slowly with the sun.
Everything was hushed and drowsy and silent, but for the coo of the white pigeons sitting alone together on the roof…They climbed the seventy-six steps of her tower and stood on the leaden flat, leaning their elbows on the parapet, and looking out in silence over the fields, the woods, the hop gardens, and the lake down in the hollow from which a faint mist was rising…’
By the late 16th century the site had been transformed by the affluent Baker family who built the magnificent Renaissance courtyard house, complete with vaulted gallery, 37 fireplaces and tower at its centre.
The house was leased to the Government during the Seven Years War (1756-1763), and used as a prison camp for 3,000 captured French sailors who largely destroyed the house.
It is from this period Sissinghurst became known as Chateau de Sissingherst or Sissinghurst Castle.
In 1796 the Parish of Cranbrook took out a lease on Sissinghurst Castle Farm , creating a poor house where up to 100 men were offered housing, employment and food.
By the 1800s Sissinghurst was home to the Mann Cornwallis family who repaired the remaining buildings, leaving their legacy on the tower weather vanes marked ‘MC 1839’.
Today Sissinghurst is also a working farm with cattle, sheep and pigs and home to a rare species of wild flowers, insects and birds.
The garden is now looked after by a team of gardeners and volunteers. There are several ‘rooms,’ each very different in their planting scheme, colours and scent.
I thought the ‘room,’ which was all white (every flower was white) was stunning.
The garden was not at its best, summer having taken its toll so my sister told me; she visits often as it is her most favourite of all places, but there was still enough to delight, and the whole place teemed with over-seas visitors and those like me; enjoying a wonderful day out in the 38 degree heat!!
Within the garden are several buildings dating from the original Tudor period.
South cottage and the South side of the house are still occupied by the Nicolson family.
The Priest house to the North of the garden is available through National Trust cottages.
The National Trust now owns Sissinghurst.
For over 50 years the gardens have been tended by 4 women head gardeners.
My sister and I climbed the tower steps, narrow, and winding, and looked in on small rooms as we headed for the roof; one of which was Vita’s work room.
Sadly photography isn’t allowed inside the tower and buildings.
Vita kept her notes and manuscripts in the turret beyond the work room.
It was here in 1962, her son, Nigel, found the locked Gladstone bag which contained the manuscript confession of her love for Violet Trefusis.
After Trefusis’s own death 10 years later, Nicolson published the manuscript as the basis for ‘Portait of a Marriage’, his study of his parents’ lives and sexuality.
It was here in 1931 Vita wrote the poem which she called ‘Sissinghurst.’ It was the best thing, Harold thought, she ever wrote and she dedicated it to Virginia Woolf, who had been her lover.
The poem addresses the core of Sissinghurst; it is a place apart.
Buried in time and sleep,
So drowsy, overgrown,
That here the moss is green upon the stone,
And lichen stains the keep.
For here, where days and years have lost heir number,
I let a plummer down in lieu of date,
And lose myself within a slumber,
I must say I can see exactly where she is coming from with this poem. I found Sissinghurst to be magical and beautiful; where time has stood still. Tranquil, mesmerizing, and arousing.
All the senses are in play as you rove around the gardens and the buildings, with the sounds of birds and bees competing with the symphony played in the moat as the water moves past the apple orchard opposite the woods.
I felt as if I’d gone back in time and any moment a lady in a beautiful gown would appear in one of the sculpted nooks and crannies which you come across as you walk from one vista to another.
It is a magical place and I do hope I get to go again one day. I still had so much more to discover according to my sister.
If you would like to know more about Vita Sackville-West and her beloved Sissinghurst Castle Garden, check out these links.
Sissinghurst Castle, Biddenden Road, Near Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2AB England.
(2 miles north-east of Cranbrook, 1 mile east of Sissinghurst villlge on Biddenden Road, off the A262)
Tel: +44(0)1580 710701
Facebook Sissinghurst Castle – National Trust
The next part of my recent ‘jolly,’ is in the pipeline: Knole House.
(more like a town than a house)
I hope you enjoy this as much as I have compiling and posting it, and that you’ll let me know.
As ever all photographs (c) Jane Risdon 2015 All Rights Reserved.