It’s really hard to put into words the profound effect the whole going-to-Sissinghurst experience had on me. From checking Adam Nicolson’s book about Sissinghurst out of the library three times before I could actually finish it, to visiting Knole and seeing why Vita Sackville-West was so angry about primogeniture, the Sissinghurst magic sucked me in. But I’m ahead of myself.
Adam Nicolson is the grandson of legendary Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Vita and Harold purchased the run-down Elizabethan era property at Sissinghurst (click here to read the history) in the 1930s after losing her beloved family home, Knole, upon the death of her father. The estate went to a male cousin and then to the National Trust. Vita and Harold rebuilt Sissinghurst and created a beautiful garden, one that continues to serve as model and inspiration for gardeners today. It also became a National Trust property when Vita and Harold’s son Nigel signed it over. One of the tenets of the National Trust ownership, however, is that family members may continue to live on the property in perpetuity if they want to. This brings us back to Adam Nicolson.
Adam and his wife Sarah Raven lived at Sissinghurst, taking care of Adam’s father Nigel Nicolson in his later years. The pair was already famous for both writing books and for television appearances; their transformation of their farm in Sussex became the subject of Perch Farm: A New Life (out of print) and The Smell of Summer Grass: Pursuing Happiness – Perch Hill, 1004-2011. It also marked the beginning of Raven’s television career as a gardening show host and author.
Between 2005 and 2009, in partnership with the National Trust, Adam led a project which transformed the 260 acres surrounding the house and garden at Sissinghurst into a productive mixed farm, growing meat, fruit, cereals and vegetables for the National Trust restaurant. It is this experience that is recounted in Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History.
When we visited Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse (I blogged about this yesterday), one of the first questions I asked Sue was whether the transformation of Sissinghurst to a working farm had been accomplished. She was kind of surprised that I would not know the answer to this, because there had been a BBC television series based on Nicolson’s book and I guess that everyone in England knows the answer to my question. She told me that, yes, there had been many changes made, and that Adam, his wife Sarah, and their children were currently in residence at Sissinghurst. I found that at night I could see their flat screen television from our bedroom window at the Farmhouse and became more and more enchanted with the notion that normal human beings (albeit famous and part of Britain’s peerage) were living in the 16th century buildings at Sissinghurst.
And then we actually visited the garden. The first night, I made my husband walk around the public spaces in the early evening, even though the garden was closed. I felt as though I could feel the ghosts of Sissinghurst past gathering around me as I sat in the courtyard outside the Granary restaurant in the dusk. It was spooky, yet comforting, to feel the benign presence of the people who had lived in this centuries-old space. Perhaps surprising, too, since one of the major episodes in Sissinghurst’s life had been to serve as a prison. Still, it felt welcoming and safe.
Then we actually went into the garden.Somehow I never made it up to the top of the tower, the only remaining part of the original medieval castle. I kept thinking that I would go another day, but never got the chance again. I regret it now, but at least it’s an excuse to go back.
As for the garden itself, it was everything I had hoped it would be. I have MANY more photos than these, but I’ll just let some of my pictures tell the remaining story of Sissinghurst Castle and its gardens.
If you’re looking for more about Vita and Harold, I’m going to take you to Knole tomorrow, Vita’s ancestral home. There’s a lot of juicy stories to share about this castle, so come back to visit!
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