Monday, 29 August 2011

Up in the air at Sissinghurst - former home of Vita Sackville-West

Climb the tower at Sissinghurst Castle to get birds eye views of the garden
Sissinghurst Castle, former home of Vita Sackville West, is one of the most visited gardens in England. But, in more than two years of garden visiting all over the world, I've never given it a full review before because whenever I've tried to visit, the property is so crowded, it's hard to appreciate the gardens and virtually impossible to take photographs without catching a large crimpolene "behind" in the viewfinder! In a moment of madness, I decided to get there as the gates opened today on a Bank Holiday Monday!

Vita Sackville West - poet, novelist and gardener - moved here with her husband Harold Nicholson in 1930 and together they created a home that is now a museum, and a garden that has became one of the most famous in the country, but to understand why, you need to see the grounds from the top of the Elizabethan Tower (right).      

Once you see the garden from above you realise it's a series of rooms around a moated Tudor manor. And although every "room" is unique, it's difficult to grasp the layout from the ground, because each area sits behind high hedges and you find yourself wandering from one to another, reliant on a map. But be warned, you climb the tower at your peril and there's no crowd control on the steep and narrow stairs! But once at the top, all becomes clear because you have a panoramic view of the gardens below.
The Tudor manor house seen from above, with all the outbuildings behind
It's the architecture that's dictated the garden at Sissinghurst. There's a manor house dating back to Tudor times (above), with a walled lawn garden; a Tower which forms the focal point of the estate; and a series of gardens laid out around the two main buildings, moated on two sides and carefully orchestrated to provide a garden symphony that has become famous throughout the world.
The cottage garden is always in bloom throughout the summer months
Vita, who was born of noble parentage at nearby Knole in Kent, became well known after WWII for her gardening column in the leading UK Sunday paper, 'The Observer',  and it's said that she "did more to change the face of English gardening than any other writing since (William) Robinson's 'English Flower Garden'. But one wonders how much influence she exerted for her other persona, as a leading light in the Bloomsbury Set, and her well-publicised affairs with both Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf.
The Rose Garden from above
But however Vita made her way to fame, the garden at Sissinghurst is both unique and unusual when you consider that she started work on it more than 80 years ago! There's much debate as to whether she and Harold were the first to create an entirely white garden, but there's little doubt that this is one of the features that attracts visitors from all over the world, and in June it's magnificent! But you'll also love the Rose Garden, the Cottage Garden, the much-loved Moat Walk and the Nuttery.
The White Garden from above, adjacent to the Priest's House
The National Trust has been running Sissinghurst since 1967. Vita died in 1962 and left the property to her son Nigel, although her husband - Harold - remained in residence. But the family soon realised it was impossible to pay the inheritance taxes due on the property, so they approached the Trust to take it on, which took five years of negotiation. Today few would dispute the value of Sissinghurst to the nation, but it was a daunting prospect for the Trust when they took it on, because their expertise was in houses, not gardens!
The White Garden in bloom in June - the centre piece was designed by Vita and Nigel's son, Harold
Sissinghurst is just one of several properties owned by the National Trust which has Bloomsbury Set connections. Virginia Woolf's country cottage - Monk's House, near Lewes - is also open to the public, although the gardens here are on a much smaller scale. But today it is one of their flagship properties and attracts more than 250,000 visitors a year!
It has to be said that Sissinghurst is an impressive garden, but credit should go to the head gardeners here, who have worked tirelessly for the last 45 years to create a living postcard of how the other half lived! This, like Hidcote Manor is a showcase garden, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year because its reputation has spread worldwide. Vita did much to publicise her own plot when she was alive, through her gardening columns, but the National Trust knows the value of this property and works hard to keep it looking pristine throughout the year!


  1. Thanks for the aerial view of the grounds, which I have not seen before. The division of the garden rooms to imitate the old castle grounds is immediately clear from the air.

  2. Dear Charlotte, Knowing how much you hate crowds, I can't believe you visited Sissinghurst, and on Bank Holiday Monday! But I'm so glad you did. Thank you for climbing the tower (I couldn't do it) and showing us a clear layout of the gardens. Beautiful! P. x

  3. Lovely photos Charlotte, I haven't made it to Sissinghurst this year so this has made up for it!

  4. I love Sissinghurst. Such a beautiful garden, and despite being so famous, they still dare to update/change their planting schemes, making visits new and special every time. I have never ventured into the tower though, did n't know one could either, so than you for the tip!

  5. What fabulous views. Your efforts in getting these marvellous shots is much appreciated. This is one garden that I would love to see in person, but your photos are the next best thing.

  6. Great photos! My dream is to see this garden in person one day.

  7. Thanks for your lovely pictures. I was there in May and unfortuntalliy The White Garden didn´t bloom then. I was surprised that it wasn´t so crowded, and it was great to climb the tower to get the wonderful view.

  8. Thanks for bringing back happy memories of many years ago. Lovely to see Rosa "Mulligani" in the white garden, we now have one climbing up our dead oak, amazing rose.

  9. My husband & I visited Sissinghurst in late September 2010 - - what a treat! And we took the footpath through the fields and woods from the village to reach it - so very interesting. There were no crowds, the fall colors were wonderful and we did climb the tower - alone - to see the gardens from on high. Could not have been a lovelier time to view - oh, I know to see it in early summer in all its finery is the best time but we enjoyed the mood of Fall then and having it basically to ourselves. A must to see for anyone who gardens - professional or amateur!