Like many castles in Britain, Sissinghurst has had a rocky history until, in derelict condition, the castle and farm was put on the market in 1928 for the grand sum of £12,000, with alas no offers of interest for two years.
Fortunately, by one of those pieces of serendipity, Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson were looking for somewhere to buy for their new home and Sissinghurst had the advantage that it was not too far from the family home at Knole Park and also that it had a tower in which Vita Sackville West could recreate the private study space where she and her dogs had privacy in one of the towers at Knole, as visitors there will have seen. Thus, in May 1928, the couple acquired the property for just over the asking price at £12,375 and set about creating a unique home and one of England’s most beautiful gardens.
The Sissinghurst estate probably goes back to the 12th century. It had a chequered life, being developed as a medieval manor house, then an Elizabethan mansion, before falling into disrepair and being used as a prison for French prisoners in the mid-18th century, then a workhouse and accommodation for farm labourers.
The mansion had long since been demolished, so Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson created a unique home spread across the different buildings that were connected by their new gardens. As you arrive at the Castle, you can admire the brickwork of the range of buildings which remain from the manor house of the 1530′s, part of which Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson converted into a library while the Tower, with its two staircase turrets, which is the main feature of the Castle and dates from the 1560′s, was where Vita Sackville West created her study.
There are also various houses from around the time, one of which may have been a priest’s house, and a barn with a sturdy timber roof which visitors can see now that the castle and gardens have re-opened to visitors, while the rest of the buildings are closed due to the current pandemic situation. It is hard to imagine now, but apparently the barn was used as a hospital in the mid-18th century when the castle was used as a French prisoner of war camp during the Seven Year War.
Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson transformed the grounds which were in an appalling state, with a series of different gardens or ‘rooms’ with different textures, colours and scents and set within what remained of the old castle and new avenues of trees and hedges, while retaining the mature trees and adding to them. The rose collection is particularly extraordinary with almost 200 different varieties, and June was an excellent month to visit, with so many of the flowers in full bloom.
Their approach was a collaboration with Nicolson designing the gardens and then Sackville West interpreting the designs and planting them with her team of gardeners, but it took three years to clear the ground and the gardens were substantially complete by the start of the Second World War in 1939, with the White Garden postponed due to the war and completed later in 1949-50. Visitors today can enjoy the gardens after 80 years of maturity and June was an excellent month to visit, with so many of the flowers in full bloom.
The gardens have not stood still. The gazebo designed by Francis Pym, which fits well into the gardens, alongside the moat, dates from 1969, has the same proportions of the Apollo 11 lunar module from the same year and was donated by Harold Nicolson’s sons in memory of their father while the boat house over looking the moat designed by architects Purcell, Miller & Tritton was built in 2002.
The latest project by the National Trust, which now owns the gardens, is one which was never successfully executed by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicolson, but the warmer weather resulting from climate change has now made it possible. Reimagined with the help of landscape gardener Dan Pearson, Delos and Erechtheum has a Greek focus, but it does feel a little strange in this very English environment. It will look better once the plants are established and perhaps needs a descriptive explanation provided on the planting.
There are stunning views over the surrounding countryside, the vegetable garden has understandably suffered during the lockdown, with the restaurant that would normally use its produce not yet open, but will soon spring back once things return to normal.
What, with the benefit of hindsight, is surprising is that the National Trust was initially reluctant to take over the property because of the potential financial obligations; today it is one of the most popular Trust properties with almost 200,000 visitors in 2017, and all the income generated being reinvested in the estate and projects within it.