South Cottage lies in the heart of the garden; where Vita died, Nigel lived and Adam's family now reside. The garden is planted with hot coloured flowers and four pivotal conical shaped yew. Photo - photolibrary.com
One of the world’s most influential and visited gardens, Sissinghurst, is undergoing a change, as Vita Sackville-West’s grandson Adam Nicolson wrestles with the integrity of the garden and its surroundings.
Many people know Sissinghurst: it is the most visited garden in the world. The garden resulted from the remarkable fusion of two talented owners; Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. Their son, Nigel, inherited Sissinghurst when his father died. Substantial death duties and huge costs forced him to hand Sissinghurst to the National Trust, with the proviso that he and his heirs could remain living there. Nigel lived there and was often seen in the gardens, painting or chatting to visitors. I saw him painting in the garden myself, and many of our Ross Garden Tour travellers remember chatting to him in the South Garden.
When Nigel died in 2004, his son, Adam and his wife Sarah Raven and their two children, moved into Sissinghurst. Adam arrived with a vision to reconnect Sissinghurst and its famous gardens to the surrounding landscape that he fondly remembered as a child. He had explored every corner of the estate when he was young. This was the farm that had sustained his family and its tenant workers, who grew wheat, oats, barley, peas, apples and hops. He had kept a diary and listed his daily chores: ploughing, harvesting, hedging and shooting (rabbits).
Spring brings an explosion of ephemeral colour in the way of tulips; colour coded in hot tones in the South Cottage garden. Photo - photolibrary.com
But the farm had been abandoned and Adam felt that Sissinghurst had lost its ‘soul’. No longer could he look beyond the garden to the ploughed fields and
animal enclosures he remembered. The fields were barren and unproductive; there was no unity between garden and farm. Adam had a ‘remembered’ sense
of the extended family around him as a child …“the people of the house, the farm beyond it and beyond that the woods and lanes of Kent, the
onion skins of my world”, he writes in his book, ‘Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History’. Adam wanted to “rekindle the sense of this place as a fully
working and integrated whole”. The garden, he believes, had become too perfect, and isolated from the community around it. Sterile canola fields had
replaced the farms of his childhood; and he wanted to restore soil integrity with mixed farming.
Under the management of the National Trust, Sissinghurst has become a very successful business. It is almost a shrine to Vita herself, and most visitors climb the tower to see her private studio, to which she retired to write. By 1990 there were 100 paid employees managing 200,000 visitors a year. Timed tickets were introduced to limit the number of visitors in the garden at any one time. It was a thriving operation and the Trust management committee was reluctant to change anything.
View of rose garden, Rondelle and lime walk (long hedge in background) taken from Castle. Intersecting 'rooms are created by hedges and the original rose brick wall, a ruin from the original estate. Photo - photolibrary.com
So Adam researched the family documents and prepared a plan, which he duly presented to the Trust. The initially frosty reception to the idea was not promising but finally the Trust has given cautious approval to a limited version of Adam’s plan. He wants to integrate the farm with the garden and in particular the restaurant. His wife, Sarah Raven, is particularly interested in this aspect of the plan, because of her own kitchen garden school at nearby Perch Hill. Sarah worked with a committee of the Trust to update the menus in the Sissinghurst restaurant to showcase fresh, tasty, Sissinghurst-grown organic produce.
It will be interesting to watch this progress and to see if Adam’s dream of reintegrating the farmland beyond this most famous garden can be seen to fruition.
He has developed a catchprase for what he is trying to achieve: the honourable landscape. “Honour”, he writes, “is the only thing that survives death.”
For more read Adam Nicolson’s ‘Sissinghurst – An unfinished History’, or hunt down the BBC TV series of the same name.
Nimble footed visitors must make their way up the tower to see the view. Midsummer's roses in the much-copied White Garden. Photo - photolibrary.com
Michael McCoy, a frequent visitor to Sissinghurst recalls its glory days.
"I well remember my first ever visit to Sissinghurst. It was April 1991 - the year that visitor numbers reached their all-time peak - and a Sunday morning, immediately after opening time. We virtually ran to the Lime Walk, which is at its best in that month, and for a few minutes were the only ones there. The Lime Walk was what Harold Nicolson, it’s creator, called ‘My Life’s Work’. First, he’d designed the layout (as he did for the entire garden) and then began to ‘decorate’ it with spring bulbs, timed to flower in one overwhelming moment. Decades after his death, it was still overwhelming. There were hybrid and species tulips, all manner of daffodils, whole sweeps of fritillarias and carpets of wood anemones.
I went back five times over that spring and summer; always on a Sunday morning to beat the crowds, and on every visit, there was always so much happening that you left convinced that you’d seen the garden at its climax. But it just kept getting better!
The lime walk is a triumph of design where form and function are primary. Photo - photolibrary.com
All this was nearly 30 years after the death of Vita Sackville-West, Harold’s wife, and the initial creative genius behind all the detailed planting in the rest of the garden. In her final years, Vita had appointed two women head gardeners, Sibylle Kreutzberger and Pamela Schwerdt, and they continued there until 1990. They were the real force behind the astonishing planting that held me spellbound for that summer. Increasing visitor numbers had meant that much of Vita’s romantic shagginess had had to be pulled into line, but what it had lost in romance since her passing it had gained in horticultural sophistication and successional planting brilliance.
I returned in 1994, and managed to visit outside of hours on a mid-summer evening. I was standing in the white garden, then heavily in bloom, as the clock in the famous fairytale tower struck nine. Any time I want - even without closing my eyes - I can be back there, in that very moment."
Text: Linda Ross & Michael McCoy