It is always amazing how quickly things get leafy out of London; turning off the A20 at Wrotham Heath I began to feel that we were in the countryside. Despite a clear sky on the horizon, a large black cloud and a heavy shower fail to dampen my mood, particularly when there is a rainbow. My mood lifts the closer I get to Sissinghurst, we had rented the Priest’s House at Sissinghurst Castle for the weekend, a chance to spend three days actually living in Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s famous garden.
Sissinghurst Castle is a relatively short drive from Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells and a 10-minute taxi ride from Staplehurst Station (trains take an hour from London). To get to the National Trust property you take a long lane off the main road, then leave your car in the public car park. Those of us privileged to be staying drive past the car park through the old farmyard and up an unmarked lane. There, just by the moat, is a pair of parking places outside the Priest’s House. You go through a gate marked private and the garden spreads out directly in front of the door to the Priest’s House.
One of the joys of renting a holiday cottage from the National Trust is that it gives you the unusual privilege to pass through a gate or a door marked private, to come and go as you please. The Priest’s House sits on the edge of Sissinghurst Castle garden, thus giving us access to the garden out of hours, plus the delight of surprising paying visitors by appearing through the door marked private.
The Priest’s House was originally a small building, perhaps a gazebo on the edge of one of the courtyards of the original 16th-century mansion. At some point, the gazebo was converted into accommodation for the resident priest. Thus, seen from one direction the building has the look of a typical Kent Weald cottage, but from another side, it has fine brickwork and elaborate gables.
By the time Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson took over Sissinghurst Castle in the 20th-century, the great house was long gone, leaving just the Entrance Range, Tower, the Priest’s House and South Cottage as inhabitable buildings plus walled enclosures ideal for gardening. Visitors enter through the main Entrance Range, which Vita and Harold made into their main living accommodation (with the kitchen in the separate Priest’s House).
On entering, one encounters Tower Courtyard with the Tower straight ahead; Vita had her writing room in there, with her study commanding views of the whole garden. A vista stretches across the Tower Lawn to the Orchard beyond. The Tower Courtyard is completely surrounded by walls, but the Tower Lawn has a pair of yew hedges as its far boundary, giving tempting glimpses of the Orchard. Around this basic structure lies the other ‘rooms’ in the garden, the White Garden, Delos, the Moat Walk, the Nuttery, the Lime Walk, the Cottage Garden and the Rose Garden.
The Priest’s House overlooks the famous White Garden, though this time of year it is less than white and rather showing the good structural bones which underpin the romantic planting.
We go for a walk before dinner, with the garden to ourselves now the public has gone. The grass is still unavailable for walking on because of the wet weather. But there are swathes of yellow narcissi in the orchard and outside our door, in the area charmingly named Delos, is a bank of bluebells and magnolia in flower. We bump into Adam Nicolson, grandson of the garden’s founders and current occupant.
Dining takes place in what was the Nicolson’s kitchen, a huge space with an antique fireplace and a lovely old table which seats the five of us comfortably. Our bedroom is the largest of the three upstairs, the one in which Vita died.
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson bought Sissinghurst Castle in the 1930s, with the house forming a substitute for Vita’s ancestral home, Knole (also now owned by the National Trust). When Vita’s father, Lord Sackville, died in 1928, Knole passed to a cousin because the property had to go to a male heir. Instead, Vita and Harold bought Long Barn before moving to the castle when Long Barn became threatened by housing development.
Sissinghurst was then simply a farm which contained the poetic remains of the grand 16th-century mansion built by the Baker family. The family had fallen on hard times, and a period as a home for French prisoners of war during the 18th century meant that the mansion had not survived.
Vita and Harold created a home in the various buildings and used the walled courtyards as the basis for a garden of different rooms. Generally, Harold looked after the structure, while Vita concentrated on developing the ground gardens. One of the joys of the garden remains the way the various rooms interlink, in a series of poetic vistas which have the capacity to surprise and delight even the most regular visitor. The property passed to the National Trust in 1967, but a member of the Nicolson family has always remained involved with the property.
On Saturday we wake to a misty morning, the garden gloriously quiet except for the birds, and we all take a wander round with our breakfast coffee. We are visited by a pair of robins who are tame enough to hop over the threshold and prove persistent in their attempts to snatch our crumbs. Staying in the cottage means we wake up to superb views and can explore when the gardens are empty, allowing us to pretend for a few magical hours that we belong to another, less familiar, society. But from 10am, visitors arrive, abruptly yanking us from our imagined reality.
We visit the Farmers market at Cranbrook to buy supplies, and we acquire vegetables from a friendly farmer from a town near Staplehurst. Next door to the market is the lovely St Dunstan’s Church, a well preserved medieval church and the prospect of tea and home-made cakes in the church hall. Lunch is at the Bull in Benenden, which is part of the CAMRA movement and serves great food. It is too early in the year for cricket on the green, but we walk up to St George’s Church. It was heavily rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries, but looks the epitome of an English country church, with a spectacular millennium tapestry made by the villagers.
Our drive to Tenterden passes the Kent and East Sussex Railway at Rovenden. The market town of Tenterden has plenty of interesting old shops in the lively high street, a local museum, Georgian Town Hall and medieval St Mildred’s Church.
Tea back at the cottage is followed by an early evening wander round the garden, the Nuttery with its primulas, fritillaries and other flowers is particularly enticing and we recount stories about Vita and Harold as we stroll down the Lime Walk. We are asked to leave by a polite young gardener who is rounding up the stray visitors after closing time. We are delighted to tell him that we are staying. Dinner is local vegetables and sausages from local pork, in front of a roaring fire.
Sunday starts with a cooked breakfast, followed by a long walk across the estate. The wider Sissinghurst estate is still very much a living entity. There is a substantial market garden which supplies vegetables and fruit for the National Trust restaurant and extensive woodlands around which visitors are encouraged to walk in.
We strike out across the country, passing many people out walking usually with a couple of dogs in tow. Our goal is the Bell and Jorrocks Pub in Frittenden, a lovely village pub which is a flutter of activity when we arrive. Also CAMRA-listed, they serve excellent food and real ales, and we walk back to Sissinghurst replete.
We must all leave on Sunday evening but there is time for one last walk round the garden before we depart, our temporary inhabiting of this extraordinary place at an end. We will be back.