I first discovered Sissinghurst Castle and its wonderful gardens by a very roundabout method. I was fascinated (possibly “overwhelmed” is the better word) by Virginia Woolf, and when I came to Orlando, my imagination was captured by the strange creature she created and that transferred quickly to Vita Sackville-West, whom Virginia Woolf had written the book for and about. Well, once I was onto Vita Sackville-West, discovering the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle was the automatic next step. Vita and her husband, the diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson, had taken the tumbledown ruins of an Elizabeth castle and built a world-famous garden around them.
Although I never really developed a passion for Vita’s writing, I have to say the garden that Harold Nicolson designed and Vita planted is one of my favorite places on earth. It must have been a strange place to live in: what was left of the castle was primarily a long strip of entrance building, a section with two towers set off by itself, miscellaneous brick walls, a moat (or bits of one) and two buildings, one of they called the Priest’s House and the other South Cottage. Vita made her workroom in one of the towers; the kitchen for them all and their two sons’ bedrooms were in the Priest’s House, and she and Harold slept in South Cottage. It must have been chilly on a cold winter morning to have to scamper through shreds of snow and icy brick footpaths from the South Cottage to the Priest’s House for breakfast! I think that one of their sons’ response to his first sight of the place, in complete ruins, was not unreasonable: “Do you mean we have to live here?” In the end, the only room designed as a common room was the library at the end of the entrance range.
But oh, the gardens! Out of the unpromising materials Vita and Harold planned (that was mostly Harold) and planted (that was mostly Vita) one of the most astonishingly beautiful gardens—a series of rooms between the wall fragments, hundreds of roses tumbling over the brick walls and exquisite flowers everywhere you look. Everyone has their own special place. One of my favorites is the South Cottage garden, where Harold liked to sit in the evenings—all the flowers are in sunset colors, planted thickly and lavishly, around the architectural trees he loved in the middle. My husband loves the rose garden, although there are roses everywhere, not just there. They climb up walls, fall over others with a richness of blossoms, and their fragrance scents the air. We both love the White Garden, where all the flowers are shades of white and grey that contrast deliciously with the rich greens of the foliage.
The first picture shows the vista through the sculptured trees to the entrance of the South Cottage (their bedrooms were there, as well as Harold’s writing room), and the other is of me, dreamily clutching my cane—more boring troubles with my spine, etc.—and gazing around at brilliantly red poppies, and rising up over my head, the first rose, a white one, that they planted there. Even before they received the deed!
If you go to England, you must go there. It’s in the Weald of Kent, now administered by the National Trust, and it’s unforgettable.