Jill was feeling a bit better this morning and was out of bed (slowly) for the first time in three days. She thought that she would be comfortable enough to go for a drive in the car, so after a late morning start we decided to go to see the famous Sissinghurst Gardens – about 12 miles away.
These gardens are among the most famous gardens in England . One of the first questions we were asked when we arrived was “Are you gardeners?” Here’s a potted version of their history (if that’s not a pun for a garden visit).
The site of Sissinghurst is ancient and has been occupied since at least the Middle Ages. The present-day buildings began as a manor house built in the 1530s. The ‘Castle Tower’ is actually not a castle; t is the last remaining gatehouse of a huge house added to the property by a wealthy family in 1300. It was built to be suitable for King Edward 1 to visit. In the 18th century, the long gate house (that now looks as though it was the real residence) was leased to the government to act as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Seven Years’ War. The prisoners caused great damage by burning anything flammable in order to keep warm in the harsh regime and by the 19th century much of the property had been trashed. In the mid-19th century, the remaining buildings were in use as a workhouse, and by the 20th century Sissinghurst had declined to the status of a derelict farmstead. In 1928 the castle was advertised for sale but remained unsold for two years. In 1930 the property was was bought by Vita Sackville-West, poet and writer, and her husband Harold Nicolson, author and diplomat with the vision of creating a beautiful garden.
They purchased the property and farm of 450 acres but it was really noting more than a run down ruin and some oak and nut trees, a quince, and a single old rose. Harold Nicolson was largely responsible for planning the garden design, while Vita Sackville-West undertook the planting. Over the next thirty years, working with her head gardeners, she cultivated some two hundred varieties of roses and large numbers of other flowers and shrubs.
When they moved in, the house had no electricity, running water, or drains, and the garden was in disarray. The buildings scattered around the site were converted to become an unconventional home. Part of the long brick gatehouse became the library, or Big Room. The tower gatehouse (castle tower) became Vita Sackville-West’s sitting room, study, and sanctuary. The Priest’s House was home to their sons Ben and Nigel, and held the family dining room, while the South Cottage housed their bedrooms and Nicolson’s writing room. These buildings are all now integrated into the garden.
Sissinghurst remains a major influence on horticultural thought and practice. It was the first garden to be designed around seperate garden areas (we now call them rooms). These cover around 5 acres and are bordered by hedges and some of the brick walls of the original large mansion.
For gardeners, The famous White Garden has been described as “A symphony in subtle shades of white and green”. It is considered to be the most renowned and most influential of all of Sissinghurst’s garden rooms. It was planned before WW2 and completed in the winter of 1949–1950 when labour became available again. It uses a palette of white, silver, grey, and green, it has been called “one of Vita and Harold’s most beautiful and romantic visions”.
Other ‘rooms’ in the garden are a riot of colour with narrow paths running through them and glimpses of other rooms to be had through archways in the wall and through the gaps in the hedge.
We really enjoyed visiting here. Jill was able to get around on the buggy that all National Trust properties have. Every jolt hurt her back, but she seemed ti think that it was worth it as this was the most significant place for her to see on this trip.
Later the afternoon, we drove on to see anther National Trust Property, Ightham Mote. Jill stayed in the car while I looked around – just as well as the grounds were bumpy and there were several flights of stairs inside the house itself.
This is a moated medieval manor house. The origins of the house date from around 1340-1360. Over the years, it was owned by a succession of families – one for three hundred years. It was gradually extended into is square shape forming a quadrangle.
In 1953, The house was purchased by its most recent owner, Charles Henry Robinson, an American of Portland, Maine. He had known the property when stationed nearby during the Second World War. He lived in it for only fourteen weeks a year to avoid having to pay British taxes. He made many urgent repairs, and partly refurnished the house with 17th-century English pieces. In 1965, he announced that he would give Ightham Mote and its contents to the National Trust. He died in 1985.. The guide told me that he was a single man, never married, and all alone in the house. I made the assumption that he must have been “Robinson Crusoe’.
The house has more than 70 rooms, all arranged around the central courtyard and is surrounded on all sides by a square moat, crossed by three bridges. Its rooms show that life here was very comfortable. it even has its own chapel.
The house has some unique features. One of these is the Great Hall where the Lord of the Manor would have once sat to deal with suppliers, solve disputes and manage the property.
Another is the the ‘porter’s squint’, a narrow slit in the wall designed to enable a gatekeeper to examine a visitor’s credentials before opening the gate. The courtyard contains a large, 19th century dog kennel, the biggest I have ever seen. It once housed a St Bernard and later two Pekinese Dogs. They could have had their own 70 rooms inside it.
Mr Robinson updated some rooms and his bedroom and study show his 2o0th Centry taste in furniture.
There are some nicely maintained gardens between the house and the original entrance gate which was through the stables. Apparently, about 70 horses were kept here at one time.
We were back at our hotel by 5.00 pm with Time for Jill to rest up again.