The gardens at Sissinghurst Castle have been described as the most beautiful in England. They were created, in the romantic setting of the ruined Castle walls, in the last half-century, by two brilliant amateur gardeners, Sir Harold Nicolson and his wife, the poet Victoria Sackville-West.
Sissinghurst Castle itself dates from the reign of Henry vm, and has had a varied history. Horace Walpole described it in 1752 as ‘perfect and very beautiful’ – but eight years later it was being used as a gaol for French prisoners-of-war. Soon after, most of the building had become ruined, except for the dominating tower.
The Nicolsons bought Sissinghurst in 1930, and at once set about creating the garden that the visitor sees today. What makes the garden so special is the architectural way in which it has been planned, the surviving walls of rosy old brick and newly planted hedges of yew and beech, making a crisp and scholarly framework for the brimming flowerbeds. Today, fifty years later, the hedges have grown to maturity, and look as if they might have been there in Tudor times. The walls are hung with roses, vines and unusual; each enclosed part of the garden has its own character and appeal; each border its own carefully devised colour scheme.
The original plan for the garden was not an easy one to make. There were no old trees, as might have been expected, to act as focal points. The courtyard, or what was left of it, was not square with the tower. But with thought and ingenuity, all the existing features were woven into an overall scheme, which today can be seen to be totally successful.
What are the main features of the garden at Sissinghurst? The tower, of course, soaring aloft over the multi-coloured carpet of gardens which lie at its feet. The two rondels, an old word revived by Victoria Sackville-West, who vividly recalls the ‘stab of pleasure’ when she discovered that that was the word the local Kentish people gave to the circular area surrounded by a hedge, where they used to dry hops. The rondels at Sissinghurst are turfed and left free of planting. With their green lawns and circular walls of dark yew, they offer areas of quiet and rest for eyes which might otherwise have become almost sated with all the colour round about.
Colour plays a great part in the planting at Sissinghurst, and it is colour which gives the garden its unique character. There are blue borders, borders devised in tones of claret, rose and silver, a small garden-within-a-garden which is daringly planted in shades of orange, yellow and bronze. Most spectacular is the White Garden which presents, when at its height, a dreamy bridal chamber for a statue of a young girl. The White Garden has been acclaimed as the most beautiful of all the clustered gardens at Sissinghurst and is at its best in June ‘when cloudy with white roses growing through almond trees … its air laden with the incense of white regale lilies . . . theirafloat, it seems, on a mist of gypsophila and silver-leaved plants’.
The creators of the garden are both dead, but the garden is beautifully maintained by the National Trust and is always open in the summer. But each year, it seems, the observant visitor seems to notice little differences. One planting scheme is richer, a new brick path has been added, a shrub which, as the Kentish say ‘has come too mighty’, has been tactfully cut back. For no garden must remain static and the most perfect of parterres can be improved. Much love and thought – and back-breaking work – goes into the maintenance of the high standard of the garden at Sissinghurst. Few visitors, and certainly no garden enthusiast, can leave it without a lifting of the heart.
OPEN April 1st-October 15th: daily. Monday-Friday: 12 a.m.-6.30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays: 10 a.m. -6.30 p.m. LOCATION 1 mile north-east of Sissinghurst village on A262. 16 miles south of Maidstone.