When my Mum and I headed cross-country for a couple of days recently, our main focus was an evening at Sissinghurst with Sarah Raven; a birthday gift shared.
Shortly after the last of the day’s visitors had left Sissinghurst Castle, we made our way up the driveway into the now-quiet estate. We gathered outside the granary that houses Sissinghurst’s cafe for canapes and drinks in the early evening sunshine with the other garden enthusiasts attending this event, before being led into the gardens.
In the cool rays of evening sun, we gathered in the rose garden to listen to Sarah Raven talking about the gardens around us, then moving onto the steps of the tower where her sister-in-law Juliet Nicolson entertained us with a different perspective on this place. Juliet grew up at Sissinghurst with her brother Adam, and she regaled us with stories from her childhood, along with a precis of the history of the estate, reaching back many long years before her grandmother fell under its spell and set about creating the garden that is so famous today.
The history of Sissinghurst is well documented, and I won’t repeat it here. Both talks were lively and enthralling, full of humour and interest: both Sarah and Juliet are compelling speakers. We were taken into the South Cottage, which contained Vita’s bedroom, still used by her grandchildren today, with lovely views across the garden from its double-aspect windows, and Harold Nicolson’s writing room on the ground floor. Then we were unleashed into the gardens until the failing light drew us back to the cafe for dinner.
I’d never visited Sissinghurst before, though reports suggest the castle and gardens are usually crammed with visitors, shuffling from place to place. How magical it was, then, to have free reign to explore these gardens with such a small group. Sadly, with August on the wane, dusk fell rather swiftly, so I apologise for the sub-optimal pictures here.
It was an interesting visit. The structure of the garden is well known, with its series of rooms and wider wilder spaces. I found the rhythm of the garden pleasing, with its brick walls and yew hedges, and the planting within certainly attractive.
However, there was definitely a sense of something that didn’t quite connect, and I think Sarah Raven put her finger on it succinctly when explaining how she felt that the garden had become too tidy, that the spirit of enthusiastic planting had not been maintained in Vita’s style. As Sarah said, “Vita hated to see patches of bare earth”. Alas, there were quite a few of those on our visit.
It is a hard thing, to maintain a living garden, and retain the essence of its creator, while still allowing its guardians the freedom to guide the garden as it evolves. A recent change of head gardener leaves Sarah confident that the garden is now in the hands of a kindred spirit, who should regain the ebullient planting that Vita loved. Imagining the kind of planting that I enjoyed so much at Gravetye Manor earlier in the day within the fine bones of this garden certainly felt like it would address that small sense of something missing here.
When the failing light finally drove us back towards the cafe, we rejoined our comrades for a meal prepared by the Sarah Raven team at Perch Hill. A three-course feast followed, superbly created and presented. Conversation and laughter (and a glass or two of wine) flowed in the cosy atmosphere of the granary, while the world beyond the windows was soon consumed in total darkness. The team from Perch Hill were as warm and friendly as could be, effortlessly looking after us in what was a fantastic finale to the evening.
We made our way back to the car park in the inky blackness, full of good food and laughter. It was a wonderful evening, and I look forward to returning here one day, to discover how the garden evolves in the future and perhaps see a deeper glimpse of Vita Sackville-West’s passion for this garden reflected in the planting.