I visited Sissinghurst to see the garden Vita Sackville-West created with her husband Harold Nicolson. I also went out of curiosity for I have read a great deal about this couple and wanted to see where they lived and worked.
They were an interesting pair, he a writer and diplomat, she a poet and writer. They were part of a talented circle of writers, artists and ‘thinkers’ who lived in or around Bloomsbury at that time; the group was known for its unconventional lifestyles.
When Vita and Harold moved into the big, brick manor house in 1930 known as Sissinghurst Castle, it was almost in ruins. It was never actually a castle but was named that by French prisoners of war who were imprisoned there more than two centuries ago and the name just stuck.
Vita and Harold fixed up the house and together they created a garden from scratch. Harold established the underlying architecture of the garden, laying long vistas and enclosed spaces. Vita chose the plants and her preference leaned towards the informal. This mix of formal structure with informal planting was one element that made the garden so unique.
They were also very talented in what they did. Harold’s pleached lime walk is exquisite and he called it “my life’s work”. Vita’s planting design is considered to be brilliant particularly in associating colours and textures. The garden itself was designed as a series of ‘rooms’, each with a different colour and/or theme. The best known of these is the White Garden.
Not as well known but a favourite of mine is the cottage garden planted entirely with sunset colours of orange, apricot, tan, yellow and red. It radiates! Vita called it “a muddle of colours but all of them a range of colours you might find in a sunset. I used to call it the sunset garden in my mind before I even started to plant it up”.
There are spurges, yarrows, dahlias, lilies, spikes of mullein, irises, great drifts of columbines, salvias, crocosmias and scarlet roses. There is also an early display of tulips and wallflowers. Foliage is widely used. Columnar Irish yews balance the rather wild informality and it is all centered with a big plant-filled copper pot.
The Sunset Garden is situated outside the South Cottage where they both had bedrooms and the colours harmonized with the brick of the cottage. The garden is relatively secluded and cosy and they called it “our own little garden”. It was a nice place to begin and end the gardening day. Harold’s lime walk has an entrance onto this garden.
Vita and Herald gardened for their own pleasure and not for fame. That came much later after Vita spent years writing a weekly garden column for The Observer.
Vita Sackville-West died in 1962 and Harold 6 years later. Sissinghurst Castle, one of the most individual and beautiful gardens in Britain, is now cared for by the National Trust.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012