Delos Reimagined

I imagine I have a lot to deal with at The Watch House, but being the custodian of a large, historic garden is a different matter altogether. Responsibilities range from maintaining the fragile fabric (living and non-living) to deciding the future course of the garden’s development; not to mention fathoming out where all the money will come from. Only one course of action is not an option and that’s attempting to stop the clock. Historic gardens must evolve and adapt, perhaps by rolling back the years to an earlier period or moving forward with new methods, layouts and plant varieties, but never, ever, stand still.

The custodians of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle (the National Trust) and neighbouring Great Dixter (a charitable trust) have an especially tough task in respect of steering their charge’s future direction. Both gardens were created by talented, wealthy, eloquent individuals who exerted enormous influence over the practice of garden making, not only in Britain but globally. The prolific works of Vita Sackville-West, Harold Nicholson and Christopher Lloyd are still right up there in the pantheon of garden writing – at once entertaining and eccentric, witty and wise. Both Sissinghurst and Great Dixter have extant Head Gardeners who worked alongside these legends and understood their visions perfectly. Meanwhile legion visitors and would-be visitors, experts, staff and volunteers have their own expectations of how these gardens ought to look and feel. It takes a strong individual to set a course and deliver it, a responsibility that often falls to the Head Gardener.

A swathe of anemones carpets the ground in Delos

Sissinghurst’s current Head Gardener is Troy Scott-Smith …. just. After seven years in this prestigious but no doubt burdensome position he’s about to move to pastures new. He arrived with a mission to restore some of the ‘gay abandon’ that Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West cultivated during their time at Sissinghurst. “Beauty is the governing goddess at Sissinghurst. The place should be so over-brimming with plants, you can hardly move” said Troy in May 2013, shortly after taking up his post. That is a tricky thing to realise when you’re managing one of the most visited gardens in the country, but somehow the essence of his ambition has been achieved. Sissinghurst now feels far more free and easy than I recall during my university days and the experience is all the better for it.

One of Troy’s many other achievements is to begin the reintroduction of hundreds of rose and iris varieties that Vita and Harold would have collected and cherished. This is an ongoing mission involving a worldwide search for old and ‘lost’ cultivars. However the completion of one project – the reimagining of an area of Sissinghurst named Delos – will be left to Troy’s successor.

Delos photographed in March 2017. By this time any suggestion of Greekness had long since vanished.

In 1935 Harold and Vita visited the sun-baked island of Delos, part of the group of Greek islands known as the Cyclades. In Greek mythology Delos was the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, a mythic isle possessed of a sacred harbour and sanctuary dedicated to Zeus. The couple were quickly spellbound by the island’s ancient ruins, softened here and there by colourful carpets of aromatic wild flowers.

An abundance of wild flowers on the Greek Island of Delos

On returning to England Harold and Vita identified a plot in front of the Priest’s House where they attempted to recreate the ancient landscape they’d been so entranced by. It was not a success. The spot they had chosen was north-facing and, unusually for such experienced amateur gardeners, their knowledge of Mediterranean plants was sorely lacking. What slowly evolved was a garden of low trees underplanted with spring bulbs and woodland perennials. In recent years any reference to the garden’s original roots disappeared altogether.

I have always thought of Delos as a decompression zone between the bright open spaces of the main courtyard and famous White Garden; not a garden room, but a transitional space with no particular theme or prowess. The name had always puzzled me, even when I knew a little more about the story. Most guide books gloss over Delos completely, and even Vita wrote relatively little about it. I guess she was not someone accustomed to admitting failure. Whilst pretty, especially in spring, Delos fell a long way short of the brilliance and originality found in other parts of the garden.

Troy Scott-Smith (right) surveys the plans for a revitalised Delos

Clearly someone at the National Trust decided enough was enough and that Delos presented an opportunity to create an exciting new garden for Sissinghurst. Dan Pearson was duly appointed and his reimagining of Delos is due to be completed later this year. Using modern design practices and a more robust palette of plants than perhaps Vita and Harold were familiar with, Dan’s design aims to be sustainable, whilst at the same time authentic. It’s a tough, high-stakes commission. One does not expect to chance upon a patch of Grecian earth in the Weald of Kent, surrounded by poplars and oast houses. The juxtaposition could be awkward, but if anyone can pull it off, Dan Pearson surely can.

During my visit with Helen of Oz on a dry, sunny May day I could already sense something of the new garden’s Mediterranean atmosphere. Huge chunks of Kentish ragstone, a form of indigenous limestone used to build many prestigious buildings including Westminster Abbey, The Tower of London, Dover Castle and Vita’s childhood home, Knole, lay scattered over a newly cleared space. The freshly-cut blocks are pale ochre with irregular greyish areas, similar to the colour of the rock found on Delos. Over time they will weather to a warmer, richer tone.

Each piece of Kentish ragstone is numbered in order to identify its final location

In total, fifty-five stones weighing between one and twelve tonnes will be used to complete the design. Three hundred cubic metres of soil blended from washed quarry gravel, river sand and neutral topsoil will provide an anchor for thousands of plants that are currently being sourced by the gardening team. They will be planted during the summer and autumn, in full view of visitors. The illustration below provides some idea of how the reimagined Delos will look, with the faint lines at the top indicating where Sissinghurst’s famous tower is situated, immediately to the south.

I for one am excited about this brave new venture. It takes some guts to meddle with a garden as steeped in gardening lore as Sissinghurst, but someone was finally prepared to say what we were all thinking – Delos wasn’t what it ought to be, a bit of a let-down in an otherwise remarkable garden. Herein lies not only an opportunity to resurrect Harold and Vita’s memories of Greece, but for a new designer and Head Gardener to create a legacy for the future. TFG.