Sissinghurst: The Shock of the Old

The very word Sissinghurst conjures up the glories of the English garden.  It must be the most  photographed and written about garden in the country and it’s certainly the most popular of the National Trust’s gardens.  In fact it’s been talked about   almost since the day Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville West bought the remains of the Tudor castle  and began their transformation. As John Sales, the former head of Gardens for the National Trust noted “no garden had greater influence in the second half of the twentieth century.”

Visitors, called “shillingses” by Vita, after the price of admission, have poured in from those earliest days and have adored it. Every known adjective extolling beauty of design, form and colour has been used to describe it.    It must be, to coin a phrase, the quintessential example of all that is best about English planting and design.  As a consequence I’ve avoided writing about it, as I do most famous sites, since I never think I’ll have anything insightful or interesting to add to the countless other rehashes of its history or descriptions of its planting.   But to tell the truth – and prepare to be shocked – its also because I don’t think I ever liked it that much.

 

The photos are mine from June 2020 unless otherwise stated

Of course the buildings are stunning. Who could not love that tower and the surviving long red-brick range but, to be honest, I thought the gardens over-rated and not worth that much fuss.  Before I get shot down in flames and trolled on Twitter let me add a few caveats.

Because I spend my summers in France  I’ve only ever visited once before in the very early summer, all the other occasions have been in the “off-season” months. Even then the gardens have been crowded.

My summer visit was horrible- there were so many people that I couldn’t see anything properly, apart from the plants immediately next to me, the narrow path under my feet and the backs of other people in front in the queue to get through an archway or round a corner.  It was such a grim experience I gave up and fled to the cafe in the barn outside while my friends continued to trudge round carried along by the tide of humanity.

So I wasn’t immediately  that enamoured when my partner announced that as a birthday treat he managed to get tickets for 3 gardens that were re-opening as the lockdown was being lifted.  They were Anglesey Abbey [which I love and have I’ve written about on here] and Hyde Hall  [which I’m planning to write about shortly] and  Sissinghurst.    Mmmmm. Why not Scotney I thought [ which is probably my favourite of all NT gardens].  Fully booked was the response.  Oh well second best it is then.  Of course I was grateful he’d done it since like many of us I’ve been stuck at home since mid-March  and  3 outings in one week was almost too exciting!

Today I want to get my revised thoughts about Sissinghurst off my chest and do a mea culpa.

From the minute we arrived I realised it was going to be a completely different experience.  The weather was marvellous, the car park virtually empty, and we had a picnic in the orchard with only a couple of other people within sight, let alone earshot. And even walking through the  well hedged car park to get to the gardens themselves was an eye-opener.

The lawns on the approach have been turned into a  shimmering meadow, full of ox-eye daisies in early June but with plenty of other wild flowers once one started to look. And while it wasn’t silent it was noise of birds rather than screaming children or grumbling adults that filled the ears.

Better still Sissinghurst was almost deserted.  From the minute we joined the queue – of just 2 people chatting to the National Trust member of staff –  at the entrance,  I felt like Harold must have done coming home. A real sense of possession and place which is impossible  to capture when the garden is busy. To stand in the gateway and look through to Vita’s tower and not see or hear another soul was extraordinary.

And the surprise continued.  Turning through the narrow archway into the rose garden we were hit by the almost  overwhelming perfume of thousands upon thousands of blooms. We’d arrived at the height of the flowering season for Vita’s prized 19thc varieties, and for the first time I appreciated how magical roses could be en masse. I’m not a great fan of “pure” rose gardens, especially those that are just  bright blobs of colour on the end of prickle-covered sticks.  At Sissinghurst it suddenly made sense.

Not that it’s a pure rose garden. Vita had too much sense for that but in any case the demands of the visiting public require underplanting and interplanting so there’s always something to see. But you can see from the photos [I hope] the sheer scale of the enterprise and guess at the scale of the success…

 

 

and the lack of people!

 

 

Even The famous white garden was all ours for at least 10 minutes and when 2 other people entered I almost felt jealous and proprietorial and wanted to shout PRIVATE KEEP OUT .

That’s not normally my sentiment in a garden – honest – least of all my own. I love to see visitors enjoying it when we have open days. But somehow it seemed a natural sentiment, and I’d guess its one I’ll never be privileged to have again.

 

Elsewhere in the garden evidence of the virus was clear.   Most of the garden staff, and I’d guess all the volunteers, have been furloughed so there’s only been minimum maintenance work going on.  The Lime Walk was looking particularly neglected… but good for the NT for not closing it off and letting visitors see for themselves how much sheer hard work is needed to keep a garden in constant great shape. Maybe it will make visitors realise the value of well trained and skilful staff.

But Sissinghurst has been written about so many times that you don’t need my ramblings.  [For a good short critique see John Sales, Shades of Green, 2018, see also John’s comments at the end of this post] Instead I want to write about something you may not yet have heard about and which gives Sissinghurst the shock of the new to contend with.

It’s important to remember that the Sissinghurst we see today isn’t Vita and Harold’s garden preserved in horticultural aspic.  Its renown survived Vita and Harold’s deaths and the transfer to the NT  in large part because of the amazing head gardeners they had taken on in 1959. Pam Schwerdt and Sybille Kreutzberger were clearly exceptional plants-people  under their guidance, according to John Sales,  “the garden matured into something richer and more complex, with every part performing to a well-rehearsed schedule, choreographed with remarkable foresight and imagination.”

In the 1970s and 1980s in the early year of National Trust ownership  visitors flocked in increasing numbers but this success was two-edged. The garden was not designed for such numbers and had to adapt and be adapted. Like so many other great “personal” gardens – Hidcote is another which comes instantly to mind –  its character was  slowly transformed.

Of course we all know that gardens change constantly. It would be a dull place that didn’t and Harold and Vita themselves constantly experimented.   But it was good to hear on this visit that the National Trust more recent head gardeners  have been trying to recapture some of the elements that have changed in the last 50 or 60 years, not to recreate a specific design but to try and restore some of the spirit of place which had inevitably deteriorated under the trampling feet and ever-rapacious demands of the paying public.

One of the features that attracted the Nicolsons  to what garden there was on site when they first saw Sissinghurst was the area of hazels that became the Nuttery.  This was kept coppiced, underplanted with bulbs, and where Vita experimented by planting masses of polyanthus. These lasted a while but gradually died out to be succeeded with other ground cover plants.

 The National Trust is now planning to try and reinstate the polyanthus in some areas, as part of a move to recapture the spirit of Vita’s time.  But they are also changing it in other ways. The stone path along the inner edge of the Nuttery is narrow and because the area  used to be densely hedged on the outer  boundary there was pressure on visitors to move swiftly through to avoid congestion.  Now the hedge has been replaced with a fence, the area extended with more hazels and a soft-surface path installed  roughly parallel with the original but on the boundary side. The hope is that it will instantly provide a visual decompression” with views down the slope  of the field to the lake, and perhaps  using  the meadow beyond to provide another area for people to explore when the garden is crowded.

The area where this recapturing of the spirit of Vita and Harold is most obvious – actually blatant  might be a better word  – lies outside the Priest’s House and stretches to the lane that runs from the Castle’s entrance down the side of the moat.  Known as Delos it was inspired by a visit to Greece. In 1932 Harold records in his diary that Vita wanted a holiday: “the Blue Train to Biarritz, or why not Syracuse, or why, if one has got that far, not go to Greece or the Lebanon.” He then adds “we CANNOT AFFORD IT… we work out that our life costs us no less than £240 a month” but that present we have £600.”  So instead of Greece as a consolation they planted the Lime Avenue. By 1935, however, they could  afford it, and went on a cruise of the Mediterranean, which allowed them to visit the Greek island of Delos.

Delos from the sea – hardly the Kentish Weald.

They obviously fell in love with the place and on their return began to design a completely new garden, creating terraces and raised beds to try and imitate  a Greek hillside with its dry rocky landscape.

Luckily they photographed the work as it proceeded.  It incorporated broken columns and fragments of the demolished parts of the castle,    rather like the island of Delos where the ruins of houses have left precisely this kind of little terrace, which were to be ‘smothered there by mats of the wild flowers of Greece’.

They planted a range of trees including an arbutus unedo.

 I’m sure  many of us have been similarly inspired but the price of enthusiasm without underlying knowledge of the conditions required for the plants is failure. And that’s exactly what happened.  Delos never resembled its namesake.  Kent, beautiful and balmy though it is, isn’t exactly Greece, and the plants couldn’t cope with the cold, the wet and the north facing aspect. While  both Harold and Vita were experimenters they were also realist, and they admitted defeat so that  Delos slowly lost its pure Mediterranean character.

Shortly after The National Trust takeover the surviving  stones were removed,  and  the area reverted to a much more natural semi-woodland area which came into its own in the spring filled with ferns, hellebores, geraniums and sheets of scilla and narcissus.   and later an area that included a mulberry was also incorporated into Delos. Stunning and popular but not what was originally planned or hoped for.

Does that matter?  It was an experiment that didn’t work. Forget it? Or do as the National Trust decided  and have another go?  I wondered what had inspired them in 2016 to commissioned Dan Pearson to try and re-interpret Harold and Vita’s original dream of a Mediterranean garden.  In the process I discovered that the garden team in the early 2010s had kept an on-line blog which showed a couple of photos following a big storm in 2014. This caused considerable damage including bringing down the arbutus unedo and damaging others  that Harold and Vita had planted. With some of the key trees gone perhaps the time was ripe to reconsider the whole area.

The next group of images come from the website of Dan Pearson’s Studio

It’s a long term project stretching over 7 years. Pearson and his team got  first-hand information from the Nicolson family about the original garden. and returned to the archives and found Harold and Vita’s intentions.  The Merlin Trust sponsored two young gardeners, Bridget Wheeler and Joshua Sparkes, from the Sissinghurst team  to visit Greece in 2106 to see the landscapes, and write up an account assessing the plants growing there and bring back ideas for incorporating into the new venture.

 

 

 

I can’t imagine what Sissinghurst’ regulars must have thought when they saw Delos being ripped apart.  After Most of the large plants were removed  the topsoil was removed and excavations started to create a new layout. Archaeologists were on hand to monitor the works.  As in Harold and Vita’s original scheme  the new garden is a series of raised beds contained within dry stone walls. But these are filled   with a very free-draining soil mix 50% ragstone gravel, 25% crushed brick and 25% poor quality topsoil.

This nutrient poor mix is what is required for the Greek-inspired planting which began in September 2019.   This was  inspired by Vita’s own descriptions. She wrote about Tulipa clusiana “springing up amongst grey stones, with a few rather stunted shrubs of Mediterranean character to keep her company: some dwarf lavender, and the grey-green cistus making a kind of amphitheatre behind her while some creeping rosemary spreads a green mat at her feet. A few neighbouring clumps of the blue Anemone apennina would associate perfectly, both as to colour and to quality, with the small pale bluish-lilac flowers of the rosemary. A grouping of this kind has the practical advantage that all its members enjoy the same treatment as to soil and aspect, and being regional compatriots, have the air of understanding one another and speaking the same language. Nothing has forced them into an ill-assorted companionship.”  [from Some Flowers, 1937]

Walking in last week was a real shock and an overwhelming impression of grey. Bare rock, huge expanses of gravel and a very open, almost bleak, vista across to the countryside beyond.  Of course a second glance revealed a mass of plants already beginning to spread and show their true colours. It’s a Marmite moment. Visitors either love the boldness or detest the destruction of a loved patch that was undoubtedly much more in keeping with the rest of the garden.

“But Sissinghurst should be green” I heard someone say as they posed for photos with the red brick of the Priest’s house oddly discordant against the gravel.  Comments on the Sissinghurst facebook page echo that division. “Overbuilt and ugly”   in the WRONG place…… crazy idea!”   “We love it and it’s great watching Delos develop. Looking forward to more ‘colourful’ times.”

The Trust’s response was measured: “we’re sorry that this hasn’t appealed to everyone. It’s a work in progress at the moment but we’ll be continuing to add plants during the spring with the full opening later on this year. We hope you’ll take a look when Delos is open and let us know what you think of the finished article.

There’s no doubt it’s shocking, and in its present immature state at odds with the rest of the garden. But I think of my own gravel garden and know that once the plants assert themselves and spread and self-seed the starkness will soften almost overnight, the rock will acquire a patina and the shock of the new will become just a familiar difference.  Would I have done the same thing? I’m honestly not sure. Am I glad the National Trust did it?  I think on balance it was worth the risk

There’s no doubt that Delos in its new form will look wonderful very soon. I’d have no concerns if it had been done almost anywhere else, but with the iconic red brick walls of the castle behind it I suppose my concern is whether it will “fit” in the longer term.   But the National Trust and its gardening team at Sissinghurst deserve credit for trying to recapture the spirit of Harold and Vita’s garden and  keep it changing and developing.  The new Delos has a definite element of surprise which is surely key to great gardens and I think Harold and Vita would be pleased with the result. After all as Vita said:

“The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising and never satisfied. They always look forward to doing something better than they have ever done before.” 

*****************

Comment from John Sales:  “ Thank you for your perceptive post on Sissinghurst, one of many that I have enjoyed over the years. Sissinghurst was developed and planted over three decades by inspired and discriminating amateurs on a comparative “shoestring”, to please themselves, their family and their friends. It was opened to visitors to defray the costs. It was reluctantly accepted by the National Trust. Over six decades it has been repaired, renewed and replanted with meticulous care and imagination (not by me!) in response to its increasing popularity and to make it more resilient to unimagined visitor numbers. In this way it has become inevitably more “professional”. The current scheme is a deliberate further step in this process. The real questions of the scheme are not of quality, which with Dan Pearson is bound to be exemplary, or relevance given the history of the site but scale in relation to the garden as a whole. Would Vita and Harold recognise it as interpreting their intention? Will it increase congestion even further?”

 

 

 

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2 Responses to Sissinghurst: The Shock of the Old

  1. Charles GT-news says:

    I often used to visit when I lived in south London, some time ago, and built up a ‘monthly visit’ scrap book trying to build up an impression of the gardens over a couple of years, so that I could see how the borders and plantings would build and decline during the year. It was a fascinating learning process. It was around this time that I visited with the GHS and the late Nigel Nicholson gave us his take on the gardens, from his viewpoint in his writing hut, raised above one corner of the moat, which looks out over the farmed landscape beyond. Only after finishing his day’s work would he open the door and engage with the gardens and visitors.
    I always try to arrive either first thing in the morning or wait till late afternoon, by which time most visitors have departed. I love Sissinghurst dearly, and of course it is over visited, but… My one hope is that the NT finally manage to get rid of the labels, which do strike a discordant note. In these days of apps perhaps plants can be identified that way. Great to here about Delos, which always seemed a bit lost before, an unfinished conversation.

  2. SpikeJ says:

    Fascinating article – thank you! I last visited in the mid nineties, when, even in mid-summer, the crowds were bearable. It remains my favourite “romantic” garden, even after all these years….

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