Three Days at Sissinghurst

Vita Sackville-West’s garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England closes for the winter on the first of November. Once I visited just before closing and stayed at Sissinghurst Farmhouse, a bed and breakfast located beside the garden. For three days (“three pure and rounded pearls” as Virginia Woolf called three days alone), I saw Sissinghurst from my window in early morning with mist rising from fields, and at night when the moon lit Vita’s famous tower.

One evening I used the phone in the farmer’s study to call my husband – a continent away in Alaska. We were in the midst of deciding whether to make an offer on this place. I wonder how much I was influenced by Vita – overwhelmed with longing to build something, and wanting to garden with England-like seasons.

My Bloomsbury curiosity – a quest that began with Virginia Woolf’s diaries – included Vita on gardening. No matter the difference with my life, I used to reread with pleasure Jane Brown’s “Vita’s Other World: A Gardening Biography” or Tony Lord’s “Gardening at Sissinghurst” about the garden and how it came to be. Vita is a great gardening companion, and sometimes even now I hear words from her garden columns like, “Cram, cram cram, every chink and cranny.”

That trip started me writing about gardening, and the newspaper in Anchorage published the story of my three days. It was a pleasure to tell the tale of Sissinghurst and describe the wreck it was when Vita and her husband Harold Nicholson bought in 1930 – a collection of tumbled-down, crumbled walls of an Elizabethan and a Tudor house, part of a former moat, two brick cottages, a barn, and a farmhouse – all silted over with decades of rubbish.

But it had a central courtyard and history (in 1573 Elizabeth I spent three nights at Sissinghurst), and, best of all, a pink brick, still-climbable tower from which to survey the Kentish countryside. Sissinghurst’s potential instantly captured Vita’s imagination, and now, surrounded by Vita’s famous gardens, it does the same for readers and visitors these many years later.

The garden is made around smallish buildings, not a huge stately home, and you can picture living in the cottages where the Nicolsons lived. They and their sons slept in separate buildings, but came together to eat in the dining room of the Priest’s House, or at a sturdy wooden table in a vine-covered loggia outdoors. In all weather the hardy English family crossed the garden for every meal, Harold coming from his study in the South Cottage, Vita from her tower.

A visitor can still climb the tower, up pie-wedge steps, circling inside the tower past Vita’s writing room. The walls on the battlement part of the tower are just right for leaning elbows and looking out – past the shapes of the garden and fields bounded by hedgerows – to all four horizons.

Sissinghurst is a garden of gardens, every turn round any corner, through any gateway reveals another beautiful garden, small and intimate, and utterly distinct.

I see where the farmhouse is newly refurbished, and learned that Kent has more long-distance walking paths than any other English county. That’s an idea – given the small scale of England, walking a couple of miles might bring villages, farms, forest, and then – magical Sissinghurst.

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