Sissinghurst Castle (Kent): the bare bones of the garden

Sissinghurst Castle garden is famous.  There has been a whole BBC series about it (which I watched).  Every gardener knows about it.  The family of its creators – Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson – have continued the work of Vita and Harold themselves in promoting the garden to visitors.  Vita’s son, Nigel, left to property and its garden to the National Trust in 1979.

So I don’t really need to talk about its history much, save to say there was a grand double courtyarded Elizabethan brick building on this site, which was latterly used as a prison for French prisoners of war in the late 18th century and then tumbled into ruin.  A few outbuildings remained, including a gate tower (remember Layer Marney Tower in Essex?), and a farmhouse had been built nearby.  The tower was a folly in the garden of the farmhouse.

Vita (who had grown up at Knole) and Harold bought the farmhouse (now a B&B) and set about restoring the ‘folly’ to become their home: there are three houses in the garden (nowadays one is a holiday let, one is lived in by their granddaughter and the other is lived in by their grandson).  During their lifetime, Vita and Harold’s sons each had one of the houses and they lived between the various outbuildings – a study in the tower; a library in the old stables.  Very bohemian.  I hardly need repeat here that Vita used the tower not just as her study but as the location for her adulterous trysts, often with women.  Harold had many an affair with man.

While the social history intrigues me, I was primarily interested in the garden’s structure and how the garden had been built around the remaining Elizabethan buildings.  Wouldn’t it have been so obvious to keep the ruins and grow rambling roses over everything while having blowsy beds of summer perennials?

While we visited in a very cold March when most of the flowerbeds in the gardens contained not much more than some stalks and bare soil, from the roof of the tower it’s possible to get an aerial view of the garden.

When this garden was created from the 1930s onwards, the idea of a garden of rooms was revolutionary: in the 18th century landscape gardening had been all the rage and during the 19th century, rhododendrons, pine specimens, camellias and fernerys had been introduced into the garden to add scale and colour.  The garden at Sissinghurst is more domestic: like the chinzy flowery fabrics that also populated homes in the 1930s.

As with Hidcote, I asked myself “do I like its design (there were few flowering plants so I’ll have to think about them on another visit)?”

The answer.


Before you all shout at me and tell me I have misunderstood why visitors, designers & gardeners appreciate Sissinghurst.

And I say this having not visited at other times of the year (so I might change my view).

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Sissinghurst, but I just don’t like a lack of symmetry when structure is introduced into a garden. 

I do like an intimate cottage garden but Sissinghurst’s outbuildings and half-moat make it too rambling to feel intimate, even when divided into rooms.   I would have done something along the lines of having the central tower surrounded by the circular hew hedge, with paths leaving off and possibly two/three other circles, either on the same level or in front.  From there the eye would have been taken around the garden.  Instead, I don’t find myself drawn around this garden.  I could just have missed out whole sections of it without realising.

I did like four aspects:

1. at one point a couple of steps took me down into a pointless dip until I was in the gap between two hedges and then two steps took me up into the next “room”.  There was a feeling that I had arrived in that section and therefore my attention was sparked;

2. I do like the concept of a garden that uses a flower with a single colour.  I had a red garden last year and really liked it;

The White Garden

3. there was a double yellow hellebore in the garden.  Yum; and

4. the seat made of privet (or is it box) was quite jolly.

Oh, the NT facilities.  How awful.  Having watched the BBC multi-part series about the trials & tribulations of the ‘donor family’ who live at Sissinghurst trying to introduce a vegetable garden and improve the catering facilities, I was astonished that while there were real flowers on the table, in the twee wooden barn used for the café there were MFI-style fake wood tables, the queue for the canteen-style food (on a VERY cold and quiet day at 3pm in the afternoon) was painfully long that I would never have considered joining it) and there were only 2 toilets in the smallest of spaces possible.  Next door to the café is a vast and empty barn.  Time to convert that?

While the shop was fine, D couldn’t find the plants when I said “you go off to look at the plants while I buy a rug”.  The NT places are scattered about.

Not the most successful National Trust garden I’ve ever been to. A bit too sterile.  A bit of a stink of 1930s about the place, despite the 16th century buildings.  Too many ropes banning visitors from passing over certain lawns.   For me, too much hype and I’ve seen nicer.  I agree with Vita’s grandson that animals should be wandering about outside and then entering a private garden from a working farm might have the feeling it did when the Sackville-Wests lived there.

I really like paperbark maples

I wonder what the new head gardener (appointed 2013) will do?  I’d be tempted to sew wildflowers all over the lawns and not mow them for 4 weeks in summer to see what grows.  But then I’m naughty.  I’d like to see a dash of Christopher Lloyd’s genius added to this garden.  But alas, hardly a single free-standing pot did I see.

Sissinghurst was further outshone by the next garden we went to, Godington Gardens, just a couple of miles from Ashford.

We have a plan to revisit this part of Kent in late May, so hopefully I’ll have some photos that show the garden in stark contrast.

When visited: March 2013

Garden: ***


Further reading:

10 thoughts on “Sissinghurst Castle (Kent): the bare bones of the garden

  1. I’m sorry I never visited Sissinghurst. The weather certainly doesn’t do it any justice in your images.

    Do you know what type of pollarded trees line the long paved walk?


    1. aww, I thought my pics captured a cold March day at Sissinghurst well. Hopefully I’ll get some sunny ones in May and maybe even later in the summer if I venture there avec le velo. The trees are pleached limes I believe (I have developed a bit of a habit of snapping pleached limes as I find them rather architectural).

  2. I come from Kent but have never been to Sissinghurst, though I have been a frequent visitor of Knole. Your comments and insights are very interesting, I will definitely be reading more from your blog as I love visiting houses and gardens too!

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