Kent is known as the ‘garden of England’, and nestled in a secluded corner of this ancient county is one of the country’s most beautiful gardens. While Sissinghurst Castle Garden is not actually a castle, an Elizabethan twin-turreted tower that stands like a sentinel over the surrounding landscape makes it look like one. Dating back to 1573, this enigmatic tower caught the imagination of the English poet and writer Vita Sackville-West, when she visited more than 350 years later.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
“I fell in love; love at first sight,” wrote Sackville-West. “It was Sleeping Beauty’s castle; but a castle running away into sordidness and squalor; a garden crying out for rescue.” This was April 1930 and, soon after, she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, bought the dilapidated Sissinghurst farm buildings and land. For the remaining thirty years of her life, Sackville-West worked to rescue and restore the buildings and garden.
Sissinghurst is located in the historic landscape of the Kent Weald. The word ‘weald’ comes from the Old English for ‘forest’, and much of the area is still thicklywooded today. Sissinghurst itself was originally a Saxon pig farm and its long human history appealed to Sackville-West, who was born at nearby Knole, a country house and formerarchbishop’s palace situated within a thousand-acre park. She wrote her epic 1926 poem The Land about the area’s rural landscape, traditions and history.
Widely read and travelled, Sackville-West and Nicolson planted a series of colour-coordinated outdoor garden rooms, blending English, Classical Greek and Mediterranean styles with Asian, Islamic and other cultures. Sissinghurst was the third large garden they had planned together, and they used all their experience to make it truly magical. Sackville-West combined a relaxed, intuitive planting with her husband’s more formal design. The result is that the plants all appear perfectly at home in Sissinghurst, nothing looks forced or artificial.
Sissinghurst is world-famous for its ornamental summer roses. Sackville-West transformed the former kitchen garden into a rose garden, filling it with some two hundred species of her favourite roses. For her, the romance of the roses lay in their glorious colours, scent and long history. She wrote that they were like pieces of embroidery, woven together like a tapestry into every corner of Sissinghurst. Through the years, some species of rose died or got lost, but fortunately have now been restored and are the summer highlight for many visitors.
ROOM WITH A VIEW
Sackville-West used a room high in the tower at Sissinghurst as her study and writing retreat. Previously, the tower had been used as a prison for French naval officers in the 1760s and a lookout post during World War Two. Today, thousands of visitors climb the spiral wooden staircase every year to enjoy the panorama across the gardens, oak woods and farmland of the estate. Although only ninety kilometres from London, Sissinghurst feels as if it belongs to another time and place.