Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sissinghurst, Kent

By Claire
Another dream come true took place for me today: visiting the castle gardens at Sissinghurst, another wonderful National Trust site. This internationally renowned garden was created by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson around the surviving parts of an Elizabethan mansion. There were three plant themes in the dozen or so gardens: seasonal, type and color. They comprise small enclosed compartments, with color throughout the season, resulting in an intimate and romantic atmosphere. The new vegetable garden—enormous—supplies fresh vegetables and fruit to the licensed restaurant. We saw a sign selling the produce as we were leaving.

Vita and Harold had an unusual marriage—they loved each other dearly and each had other partners with the complete acceptance of the other. They also had two sons. Their eldest, Nigel, inherited the property when his mother died (she had the money) and with his father’s approval, gave it to the National Trust.

Vita and Harold in the Thirties

We arrived 10 minutes after it opened and were directed to the very far end of the large car park. We could not believe how many people were already there! This is the most popular garden in England—and is reflected in their admission prices: £9.50 each plus £2 for parking--all free for us as members. Hurrying to the Tower, we were lucky to beat most of the crowd. It was built in 1560, and when Vita and Harold bought the property it was relatively unscathed. There were broken windows in the room she chose for her study and birds were nesting inside, but they cleaned it up and replaced the windows. I took a sneak picture of the room through the metal bars keeping us out but it doesn’t really show how wonderful it is. Inside this round room is her writing desk and in an alcove are shelves wall-to-wall with books. There is also a sofa for relaxing or sleeping. I was lucky to be able to view it by myself for several minutes before anyone else came along. Even when the room was her inner sanctum, others were rarely admitted to it. The other rooms in the tower held exhibits about the gardens and the history of their lives.


The Tower

Vita's study

The top of the tower afforded commanding views of the entire area and was a great way to start the tour. We had trouble finding the round sculpted-hedge garden on the ground.

Mostly we just wandered from area to area, admiring the flowers and plants, the moat and statuary. There are beehives, wells, gazebo-like structures and a small, round memorial building that was put up by Harold’s sons upon his death.

The moat

Vita and Harold later in life

Vita and Virginia Woolf were close friends. There is a bust of Virginia in the library and her book, Orlando, was a thinly disguised biography of Vita. They met in 1922 and were friends until Virginia’s suicide in 1941. Vita, herself, was primarily a poet and author of fiction. Harold was an historian, diplomat, author of nonfiction and a radio personality.

Driving through the countryside, we saw many of these Kentish Oasthouses and wondered what those things on the top were. They are called cowls and the houses were where hops were dried. The cowls rotate with the wind and act as chimneys to draw off the acid ‘reek’ from the drying hops and shield them from the rain and downdraft.

I have fallen in love with Kent, an area of England I am not familiar with. We are currently in Canterbury, at the Canterbury Camping and Caravanning Club Site. It’s so huge, we even have a street name; ours is Park Lane. The architecture we saw as we drove to Sissinghurst, about an hour west of Canterbury, is unique—lots of orange brick with orange tile roofs. It all looks very old and the roofs are sweeping and curved. I wish I could have gotten some photos but it’s hard from a moving vehicle and park? Forget about it—these were tiny towns.

This is similar to what I’m talking about.

It’s very pastoral and bucolic, which means it also has a strong smell of manure. But…the sun is out and it’s beautiful. Have we finally found summer?

In 1756 Sissinghurst was let to the Government as a prison-camp for French prisoners of war and for the following seven years was occupied by more than 3,000 inmates. Some of the graffiti from these prisoners remains. So much damage was done to the building that by the end of the occupation two-thirds of the building had been destroyed.

We strolled back to Homer for lunch, discovering a flat tire. Fortunately, I have the AA Club phone number for every country on my Kindle; we have a phone and I gave them a call. The woman I spoke with wanted to know if I was a member. I told her we were AAA members and wondered about reciprocity. She didn’t think so but told me she would check and call me back. About 10 minutes later I received a call from a guy who asked for our AAA card number and then proceeded to ask questions about the size of the camper, where we were, etc. I asked him what it would cost and he told me “no charge.” We went ahead with lunch then pretty much sat and relaxed. I read, keeping an eye out, and finally—an hour and a half later—they showed up. The tire was changed and we were on our way. It could have been so much worse. I have visions of us on the side of the motorway with cars roaring by or even worse, losing control. A flat in a car park is perfect. And, having a phone was very helpful.

I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong. ~ Vita Sackville-West


Karin said...

Now that is what I call a HOUSE! And GARDENS!!!! Absolutely charming.....idyllic. Oh, to be rich....(not famous, just rich)!

Looks like a really nice day inspite of flat tire. All worked out nicely!

Karin on Paros

Elle in Passignano said...

What a treat. I wonder if these forward thinkers ever kept company with "our dear Mrs. Parker" (as in Dorothy, Algonquin Round Table NYC)? I am so attracted to the open-mindedness of that '20s-'30s generation. It was V. Woolf who said of her Bloomsbury Group of writers/painters that they were very much like a lions' den.

Many of this "smart set" were sufficiently well-off to possess the luxury of time: time to gather, argue, reformulate ideas, edit one another's work, in effect creating new culture. Whether they helped the working class I'm not certain. Were their servants' lives also more privileged than the norm? Was the tower an isolated ivory tower of the elite, or did their forward-thinking trickle down?

The 3-group garden organization you mentioned was so beautifully cultivated but not rigid to my eye; seemed to harmonize Nature's various aspects. They didn't look too jolly in either foto, but they did remain handsome in their later years! I'll have to read Orlando.
Your trip is gaining momentum in the homestretch; no flats or obstacles can stop you now! Ciao from an intellectual wasteland,