The Most Famous Twentieth Century Garden in England
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These gardens contain an internationally respected plant collection, particularly the assemblage of old garden roses. The writer Anne Scott-James considered the roses at Sissinghurst to be "one of the finest collections in the world". A number of plants propagated in the gardens bear names related to people connected with Sissinghurst or the name of the garden itself. The garden design is based on axial walks that open onto enclosed gardens, termed "garden rooms", one of the earliest examples of this gardening style.
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Sissinghurst Castle Garden, at Sissinghurst in the Weald of Kent in England, was created by Vita Sackville-West, poet and writer, and her husband Harold Nicolson, author and diplomat. It is among the most famous gardens in England and is designated Grade I on Historic England's register of historic parks and gardens. It was bought by Sackville-West in 1930, and over the next thirty years, working with, and later succeeded by, a series of notable head gardeners, she and Nicolson transformed a farmstead of 'squalor and slovenly disorder' into one of the world's most influential gardens. Following Sackville-West's death in 1962, the estate was donated to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. It is one of the Trust's most popular properties, with nearly 200,000 visitors in 2017.
The gardens contain an internationally respected plant collection, particularly the assemblage of old garden roses. The writer Anne Scott-James considered the roses at Sissinghurst to be 'one of the finest collections in the world'. A number of plants propagated in the gardens bear names related to people connected with Sissinghurst or the name of the garden itself The garden design is based on axial walks that open onto enclosed gardens, termed 'garden rooms', one of the earliest examples of this gardening style. Among the individual 'garden rooms', the White Garden has been particularly influential, with the horticulturalist Tony Lord describing it as 'the most ambitious ... of its time, the most entrancing of its type.'
The site of Sissinghurst is ancient and has been occupied since at least the Middle Ages. The present-day buildings began as a house built in the 1530s by Sir John Baker. In 1554 Sir John's daughter Cecily married Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, an ancestor of Vita Sackville-West. By the 18th century the Baker's fortunes had waned, and the house, renamed Sissinghurst Castle, was leased to the government to act as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Seven Years' War. The prisoners caused great damage and by the 19th century much of Sir Richard's house had been demolished. In the mid-19th century, the remaining buildings were in use as a workhouse, and by the 20th century Sissinghurst had declined to the status of a farmstead. In 1928 the castle was advertised for sale but remained unsold for two years.
Sackville-West was born in 1892 at Knole, the ancestral home of the Sackvilles. But for her sex, Sackville-West would have inherited Knole on the death of her father in 1928. Instead, following primogeniture, the house and the title passed to her uncle, a loss she felt deeply. In 1930, after she and Nicolson became concerned that their home Long Barn was threatened by development, Sackville-West bought Sissinghurst Castle. On purchasing Sissinghurst, Sackville-West and Nicolson inherited little more than some oak and nut trees, a quince, and a single old rose. Sackville-West planted the noisette rose 'Madame Alfred Carrière' on the south face of the South Cottage even before the deeds to the property had been signed. Nicolson was largely responsible for planning the garden design, while Sackville-West undertook the planting. Over the next thirty years, working with her head gardeners, she cultivated some two hundred varieties of roses and large numbers of other flowers and shrubs. Decades after Sackville-West and Nicolson created 'a garden where none was', Sissinghurst remains a major influence on horticultural thought and practice.
The site is ancient; 'hurst' is the Saxon term for an enclosed wood. Nigel Nicolson, in his 1964 guide, Sissinghurst Castle: An Illustrated History, records the earliest owners as the de Saxinhersts.[a] Stephen de Saxinherst is named in an 1180 charter about the nearby Combwell Priory. At the end of the 13th century the estate had passed, through marriage, to the de Berhams. Nicolson suggested that the de Berhams constructed a moated house in stone, of an appearance similar to that of Ightham Mote, which was later replaced by a brick manor. More recent studies, including those of Nicolson's son, Adam, cast doubt on the existence of an earlier stone manor, suggesting instead that the brick house, or perhaps a timber construction of a slightly earlier date, occupying the corner of the orchard nearest the moat, was the earliest house on the site. Edward I is reputed to have stayed at this house in 1305.
In 1490 the de Berhams sold the manor of Sissinghurst to Thomas Baker of Cranbrook. The Bakers were cloth producers and in the following century, through marriage and careers at court and in the law, Thomas's successors greatly expanded their wealth and their estates in Kent and Sussex. In the 1530s Sir John Baker, one of Henry VIII's Privy Councillors, built a new brick gatehouse, the current West Range.[b] In 1554 Sir John's daughter Cecily married Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset, creating the earliest connection between the Sackville family and the house. Sir John's son Richard undertook a massive prodigy expansion in the 1560s. The Tower is part of that expansion, and formed the entrance to a very large courtyard house, of which the South Cottage and some walls are the only other remaining fragments. Sir Richard surrounded the mansion with an enclosed 700-acre (2.8km2) deer park and in August 1573 entertained Queen Elizabeth I at Sissinghurst.
After the collapse of the Baker family fortunes following the civil war (1642–1651), the building declined in importance. Horace Walpole visited in 1752: 'yesterday, after twenty mishaps, we got to Sissinghurst for dinner. There is a park in ruins and a house in ten times greater ruins.' During the Seven Years' War, it became a prisoner-of-war camp.[c] The historian Edward Gibbon, then serving in the Hampshire militia, was stationed there and recorded 'the inconceivable dirtiness of the season, the country and the spot'. It was during its use as a camp for French prisoners that the name Sissinghurst Castle was adopted; although it was never a castle, there is debate as to the extent to which the house was a fortified manor. In 2018 an important collection of historical graffiti drawn by some of the 3,000 prisoners was uncovered beneath 20th-century plaster.Around 1800, the estate was purchased by the Mann family and the majority of Sir Richard's Elizabethan house was demolished; the stone and brick were reused in buildings throughout the locality. The castle later became a workhouse for the Cranbrook Union, after which it housed farm labourers. In 1928, the castle was put up for sale for a price of £12,000, but attracted no bids for two years.
Vita Sackville-West, poet, author, and gardener, was born at Knole, about 25 miles from Sissinghurst, on 9 March 1892. The great Elizabethan mansion, home of her ancestors but denied to her through agnatic primogeniture,[d] held enormous importance for her throughout her life.[e] Sissinghurst was a substitute for Knole, and she greatly valued its familial connections.[f] In 1913 Sackville-West married Harold Nicolson, a diplomat at the start of his career. Their relationship was unconventional, with both pursuing multiple, mainly same-sex, affairs. After breaking with her lover Violet Trefusis in 1921, Sackville-West became increasingly withdrawn. She wrote to her mother that she would like 'to live alone in a tower with her books', an ambition she achieved in the tower at Sissinghurst where only her dogs were regularly admitted.[g]
–Sackville-West's first impressions of Sissinghurst
From 1946 until a few years before her death, Sackville-West wrote a gardening column for The Observer, in which, although she never referred directly to Sissinghurst, she discussed a wide array of horticultural issues.[h] In an article, 'Some Flowers', she discussed the challenge of writing effectively about flowers: 'I discovere...