Sissinghurst is one of England's most romantic country gardens. Created by English Bloomsbury-set writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson, it is divided into intimate garden "rooms" that offer an array of color all year round. The White Garden is world famous.
Sackville-West was a poet and novelist in the early 20th century. A member of the bohemian Bloomsbury set in the 1920s, today she is better known for her garden and for her love affair with Virginia Woolf.
Vita (short for Victoria) and her family home, Knole, were the inspiration for Woolf's novel Orlando.
A Notorious Couple
Sackville-West and Nicolson, a diplomat and diariest, had an early, and notorious open-marriage, both having more than one affair with same sex partners. One of her lovers, Violet Keppel-Trefusis, was the great aunt of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles (Camilla's great grandmother was Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales - talk about a closet full of rattling skeletons and scandal).
In 2017, to mark 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act (which began the process of decriminalizing homosexuality in England and leading to equal rights for the LGBTQ community) the National Trust has joined forces with the National Portrait Gallery, London, to create a new display, "Speak its Name!" focusing on the lives of the couple, their lovers and their contemporaries. The exhibition continues until October 29.
Despite their unconventional relationship, Sackville West and Nicolson were apparently devoted to each other, to their children and to creating their fabulous garden.
About Sissinghurst Castle
The house, inhabited since the 12th century, was once the site of the first brick house in Kent, a part of which still survives.
An Elizabethan house on the site was used for French prisoners of war in the mid 18th century. Most of that is also in ruins but the towers and gates give the estate its name, Sissinghurst Castle.
The gardens and grounds surround an 1855 farmhouse, purchased by Sackville-West, along with 400 acres of farmland, in 1930. She was looking for a place to create the garden, first opened to the public in 1938 and owned by the National Trust since 1967. The castle tower, the most distinctive architectural feature of Sissinghurst, was Sackville-West's writing room. It closes for six months from October 2017 for maintenance and refurbishment. The South Cottage, which contains Nicolson's book room and was maintained as a writers' den by the Nicolson family for many years, was opened to the public for the first time in 2016. Admission is by timed and ticketed but free, guided tours. Because the cottage is small and fragile, admission is limited and cannot always be guaranteed. But, since most visitors find their way to Sissinghurst for the gardens, few will be disappointed.
About the Garden
Sissinghurst Castle Garden is the most visited garden in England, but if you plan to visit in the afternoon it is generally quieter.
What you will see is a series of enclosed spaces or garden rooms each styled and planted in a different way but all giving an overwhelming impression of abundance and romanticism. Rare plants mingle with traditional English cottage garden flowers. Surprising views of small hidden spaces and long vistas open up at every turn. Among the garden "rooms" to look for:
- The Sunset Garden - planted around the South Cottage with a narrow range of hot colors to create the impact of a sunset.
- The Rose Garden - with roses, honeysuckle, figs and vines.
- The White Garden - planted by Harold Nicolson in the 1950s with white gladioli, white irises, white pompom dahlias and white Japanese anemones. Today the plants may change but the white, scented theme of this garden remains.
- The Herb Garden - where only the "beautiful, the pungent and the elegant" were allowed.
- The Nuttery - a shady walk of hazel, cobnut trees that already existed when Sackville West and Nicolson saw the house and which persuaded them to buy it.
Other named gardens include the Lime Walk, the Moat Walk, Delos, the Orchard and the Purple Border - not really purple but actually a mix of pink, blue, lilac and, yes, some purple.
Special events at Sissinghurst
Throughout the summer months and until the garden's seasonal closing at the end of October, there are regular events at Sissinghurst including garden and supper evenings, tutored "paint in the garden" days, photography sessions, "pond dipping" for children and wildlife walks. Holiday season events are usually scheduled for November and December.
- Where: Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Sissinghurst, nr Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2AB, England
- Phone: +44 (0)1580 710700
- Opening times: The gardens are open mid March to the end of October, from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last admission is one hour before closing (or before dusk if earlier). The gardens are always closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The South Cottage and the 460-acre estate are open year round.
- See their Website for shop, house and restaurant openings.
- Admission: Adult, child, family and group admission prices. National Trust Members go free.
- Services for the disabled: Wheelchairs are available.
- Getting there:
- By car: Sissinghurst Castle Garden is in Kent, two miles northeast of Cranbrook and one mile east of of Sissinghurst village on Biddenden Road, off the A262. It's about 60 miles or two hours from central London.
- By train: Trains from London Charing Cross leave regularly for nearby Staplehurst, five miles away. The journey takes less than an hour. The Maidstone to Hawkshurst bus (Arriva route 4/5) passes the rail station and stops in the village of Sissinghurst, one and a quarter miles away.
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