After our bluebell mission in King’s Wood on Saturday, our plan was to drive to Sissinghurst, to visit the Castle. This is one of my happy places, a National Trust-held estate where we visited frequently as children, whether to eat ice creams in the tea room, or to roam the grounds with weekend house guests.
Sissinghurst was formerly the home of Vita Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson. Their relationship was portrayed by their son Nigel Nicolson in the book Portrait of a Marriage, and he was hardly short of material. Both were members of the Bloomsbury Set, both took same sex lovers. Sir Harold was a diplomat, author, diarist and politician, and Vita was a poet, novelist, and biographer, a friend of Virginia Woolf, and the lover of Violet Trefusis.
But it is for Sissinghurst’s Gardens that they remain most well-known, and today their legacy is considered to be one of the most influential gardens of the 20th century.
Together they created the gardens, which surround the 16th century tower, and what remained of the house when they arrived. Harold was responsible for the layout, which resembles a series of rooms, allowing glimpses of other gardens through arches, gaps, and vistas. Vita was responsible for the planting, the filling in of the gaps.
In 1953 Vita described their ethos thus, “We did however agree entirely on what was to be the main principle of the garden:…there should be strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality in planting.”
As we climbed the Tower, the glory of the garden design became apparent through the leaded lights.
The thing for which Sissinghurst is most loved, is most renowned (beyond the scandalous lives of its previous inhabitants), is Vita’s White Garden, seen below from the Tower. She took Gertrude Jekyll’s philosophy of using colour as a theme in planting schemes, and made one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.
Thanks to our eternal winter, the bones of the garden are still showing, (above)
and there’s little to predict the sea of white and green that the garden will become later on in the year, bar a mass of Solomon’s Seal, a resplendent flowering magnolia, and the ravishing in-bloom Camellia – Mademoiselle Chanel *would* have approved.
(Below) This is the Orchard.
(Below) The main house (not open to the public, bar the library at the far right). The oast houses (traditionally used for hops in the production of beer) at the back right now house the garden shop, gift shop, tea rooms and workshops.
It’s an interesting time of year to visit Sissinghurst: the new season planting is only just underway, and there is nothing of the herbaceous lushness and billowing floral loveliness you will see in Midsummer, but for anyone who loves gardens it is fascinating to see what lies underneath. It’s also much quieter at this time of year – mid May – in summer it is heaving with coach parties, and there are often hideous queues for everything from the car park upon entrance to the loos.
Some of Vita’s glass collection inside the Tower. (You can peer through a grille at her study, although photography is banned.)
There are two places to get a cup of tea at Sissinghurst: The Coffee Shop and The Granary Restaurant. (The surrounding estate provides meat, fruit, cereals and vegetables for the restaurant.)
We ate in The Granary, choosing coffee & walnut cake, and me, as per, ordering scones, clotted cream and raspberry jam.
Although I am very sad that Sissinghurst’s herd of Jersey cows from my childhood, which produced delectable cream for the old tearoom have disappeared, we can report that they sell the most epic-ly good home made cake, and possible contenders for best ever scones, of a lightness most extraordinary. We tried to prise the recipe from a waitress, but apparently the cook keeps it close to her heart.
After we had finished stuffing our collective face with cake, we went to collect Madam from the car. One of the joys of Sissinghurst is that you can walk your dog around the estate, so long as you keep your four-legged friends out of the Gardens and the house.
We walked down the side of the formal gardens and the orchard, and round the back of the moat and the Herb Garden.
Spot the sausage:
It’s lambing season so, if your dog is at all frisky at the sight of sheeps, then it’s probably best to give the short lake walk a miss, and take the longer route around. I gathered P Bad into my arms, and we glided past the grazing lambs.