How fortunate that my first visit to Sissinghurst this year should coincide with the warmest day of the spring so far. As the car bowled through the Weald of Kent the roads were fringed with sulphur-yellow catkins and golden daffodils, sparking beneath a clear blue sky. The greys and browns of winter had started to diffuse, obscured here and there by fleeting blizzards of blackthorn and cool showers of willow. It was an uplifting drive that gave me the opportunity to get back in tune with the countryside after a week in the city. It also served as a reminder of how lovely the Garden of England is, especially in spring.
This Saturday the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle reopened to the public after their winter rest. In ‘Gardeners’ Cuttings’, a monthly information sheet printed for the benefit of visitors, Gardener Peter Fifield described the excitement and anxiety experienced by the Sissinghurst team as the garden is woken from its sleep. A new philosophy is guiding the development of Sissinghurst, a move to gently restore the romantic ebullience that Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson once cherished in their famous garden.
Over the years Sissinghurst has bowed to the demands of an increasing number of visitors, each expecting to witness perfection at every glance. The result has been an understandable deviation from some of the methods and planting schemes that might originally have been employed when Sissinghurst was a private garden. Vita and Harold accepted that each area of the garden would have its ‘moment’, before quietly fading into the background again. Now gardens, just like humans, are expected to be ‘always on’. A management regime designed to please those making a pilgrimage to Sissinghurst from March to October is being loosened, just a little, to allow some of the garden’s natural exuberance to shine through. I can’t wait to experience the result.
Vita and Harold embraced and celebrated Sissinghurst’s bucolic setting, blending their garden seamlessly into the enveloping Wealden landscape. Immediately in front of the house, much of the grass has been sprayed off in order to create the kind of pictorial meadows that the Bakers, who built the castle, might have enjoyed in the 16th Century. Plantings of Malus ‘Dartmouth’ and Malus floribunda have been made, and the lawns in the front courtyard have been reseeded with a wildflower mix including primroses, self heal and daisies.
Much work has also been done in the orchard, where sycthing is once again practiced as a means of encouraging biodiversity. Paths are mown here at the beginning of the season, after which the rest of the sward is allowed to grow, before being scythed off in the summer. Here and in the Nuttery, pools and lakes of lilac Crocus tommasinianus have been allowed to form, as if they were drops of water rising from the sodden ground.
Once inside the garden, standards are typically high. Even this early in spring there is plenty to see. Vita liked to observe flowers up close, planting her most delicate bulbs and flowers in stone troughs raised on bricks against the house. Narcissus ‘Spoirot’ was in its prime near the door into Vita’s library, which continues to inspire my own efforts to create an atmospheric room filled with books. (N. ‘Spoirot’ is a hybrid between Narcissus bulbocodium subsp. bulbocodium var. conspicuus and N. cantabricus subsp. cantabricus var. foliosus raised at the Glenbrook Bulb Farm in Tasmania by Rod Barwick. ‘Spoirot’ is one of his Little Detective Series named after Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot.)
At my feet were beauties such as Iris unguicularis ‘Walter Butt’ and Primula ‘Cowichan Amethyst Group’, displaying flowers in that extraordinary shade of purple-shot-royal-blue and magenta that only primulas can produce.
Another trough was filled with a cool combination of Euphorbia myrsinites and Pushkinia scilloides var. libatonica, a pairing I’d very much like to replicate at home. The pushkinia grows well for me in our heavy London soil, but I doubt the euphorbia would enjoy the same conditions.
Whilst the stems were bare of flowers, I was reminded by a label that I must plant Rosa ‘Mermaid’ on the wall of our new house. It’s a rose that I’ve admired on every visit to Sissinghurst since I was a student. I’m excited that I might finally have a place for it; somewhere where I can enjoy those deliciously louch flowers that so remind me of a lady’s floppy sun hat.
I am terrified of heights, an affliction mercilessly exploited by Him Indoors. This means I rarely put myself in positions where I have to climb a tower, walk over a bridge or go near a cliff edge. Spurred on by an unusual bout of confidence and the absence of Him Indoors goading me, I plucked up the courage to climb the worn oak stairs of the tower and get a little bit closer to heaven. I’m so glad I found the courage. Gazing nervously over the parapet, out across the Cottage and Rose Gardens, one can really appreciate the structure that makes this garden so exceptional. The plants may be allowed to relax a little this summer, but at this moment the yew is so sharply clipped that it might be mistaken for a wall rather than a hedge.
Looking in the other direction I cast an eye over the range of farm buildings that support the estate and beyond to the vegetable garden. Although the oasts and barns have mostly been adapted to modern use, they are still working buildings, providing visitors with sustenance and shopping opportunities. Nowhere else in the world but Kent would this view be so commonplace …. and isn’t it wonderful?
Taking a break to soak up the spring sunshine and replenish my vitamin D, I made this short recording of the birdsong that provided the backing track to my day out. The Sissinghurst estate is managed with nature conservation in mind, and the result can be heard as well as seen.
Naturally, the Lime Walk and Nuttery are the big attractions at Sissinghurst in spring. Neither disappointed. The Nuttery was flooded with tiny Crocus tommasinianus, with evidence of a sea of anemones ready to innundate the space left behind once the crocuses had faded. With only a handful of narcissi in flower, it was the limes in the Lime Walk that stole the show, their bright red fingers extending from gnarled fists towards the blue sky. The lime responsible for this colourful growth is Tilia platyphyllos ‘Rubra’.
As you have doubtless established by now, I was rather enjoying my visit, the sunshine and the freedom of being on my own to linger as long as I liked. I could wax lyrical for several paragraphs more, but I won’t. Instead, I will let the next few pictures do the talking. Please enjoy them. TFG.