Don visited Sissinghurst Castle Garden, at Cranbrook in Kent. This garden belonged to a very interesting couple: poet, novelist and gardener Vita Sackville-West, and her husband, diplomat Harold Nicolson. Both took same sex lovers – Vita was involved with Virginia Woolf, and it is said she was the model for Orlando, Virginia’s novel. However, their marriage survived and it was the unique combination of Harold, the classicist and Vita, the romantic, that made Sissinghurst unique. The garden is separated into a series of ten intimate and seasonal gardens linked by vistas, the most famous of which are the White Garden and the Rose Garden.
Planting and Design
Harold laid out the axes and grids and the basic design of the garden. He loved geometrical patterns and the symmetrical arrangements of steps, paths, pots and statuary. His aim was ‘a combination of expectation and surprise’ – the expectation that there is more to find and the surprise of finding it. Sissinghurst cannot be seen in its entirety except from the top of the tower. Harold described the garden rooms as ‘a succession of intimacies’.
Vita planted most of the flowers and finessed the colour scheme. Her taste was romantic, and she enjoyed a certain wild abandon in her garden. If plants strayed across the paths she let them stay – it was up to the visitors to tread carefully.
Harold knew almost every flower by name, but he always gave Vita the credit for the garden. Vita insisted that she never would have succeeded without his skill as a designer, and she would have wanted the garden remembered as their joint achievement.
Sissinghurst has one of the finest collections of old roses in the world. Vita preferred old-fashioned roses that do not have a second flowering, so she extended the season using other flowers – iris for the start of the season, clematis in August and autumn-flowering plants to sustain interest until October.
Harold’s rondel is a disk of mown grass surrounded by yew hedges, with gaps in each quadrant leading to formal beds edged in box.
This was Harold’s creation, which he called ‘My Life’s Work’ or “MLW”. It is a beautiful avenue of pleached lime trees (Tilia sp.) with statues at each end and Tuscan pots at intervals. The idea behind the walk was that it should resemble the background of Sandro Botticelli’s famous painting ‘Primavera’ (c1478). Vita thought that it was too formal ‘Like Platform 5 at Charing Cross’.
South Cottage Garden
This is the most personal of their gardens and the one that best exemplifies their different tastes. It has a hot colour scheme of yellows, reds and oranges against a backdrop of four dark yews.
This is the most famous of the separate gardens. Originally a conventional rose garden, Vita converted it into a garden composed almost entirely of white flowers and pale grey foliage.
Ownership of Sissinghurst was transferred to the National Trust after Vita’s death in 1962. For more details visit the website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/places/sissinghurst