Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

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A walk in the garden

The aristocratic “backyard” at Sissinghurst Castle is England’s most visited green space

When Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson first viewed what was to become their future home on a wet spring day in 1930, Sissinghurst Castle was a neglected, garbage-filled medieval ruin with a few old apple trees. No wonder it had been on the market for two years: no one wanted the place. But as they traipsed around in the mud, it was the ruins themselves that attracted the aristocratic odd couple. Somehow they saw beyond the rubbish and decay. Today, Sissinghurst, 65 kilometres southeast of London is the most visited gardens in England, and one of its most influential.

In 1930, Harold Nicholson was a recently retired diplomat and author. Vita Sackville-West was a poet and gardening writer and a member of London’s avant-garde Bloomsbury Group. Though Harold and Vita were married and had two sons, they both carried on homosexual affairs. Vita’s far exceeded Harold’s in intensity, most famously with writer Virginia Woolf. But Harold and Vita were clearly devoted to each other as is evident from their near-daily correspondence.

The couple that gardens together

Collaborating on the transformation of Sissinghurst was the couple’s crowning achievement. From the outset Vita and Harold agreed on the main principles of the garden. In Vita’s words: “a combination of long axial walks [….] and the more intimate surprise of small geometrical gardens opening off them, rather as the rooms of an enormous house would open off the arterial corridors. There should be the strictest formality of design, with the maximum informality in planting.”

Taking huge sheets of squared paper, Harold laid out these axial walks based on the alignment of the 16th-century tower that is the signature building of Sissinghurst. It can be seen from almost any point in the garden and it’s quite possible that Elizabeth I, on her visit there in 1573, climbed the same steps as visitors do today for the view of the surrounding countryside. These axial lines determined the location of vistas, walls and hedges that would contain the garden’s “rooms.” These outdoor rooms, in turn, were bordered by the remains of the walls of the Elizabethan house.

Within Harold’s framework, the brilliance of Vita’s imaginative planting was to take full flight — and it began immediately, even before any buildings were habitable. By 1932, the couple had cleared centuries of debris around the tower and formed the two main courtyard lawns. Then they laid out what would become the famed White Garden, the avenue of trees forming the Lime Walk, the first of the rigidly severe yew hedges and the vista from the tower through the orchard to the moat. By 1938, the present form of the garden had been established and Harold and Vita opened Sissinghurst to the public for two days: the entrance fee was sixpence dropped into an old tobacco tin.

During World War II, the garden fell into decline. Before going off to join the Royal Air Force, the head gardener admonished Vita and Harold: “Look after the hedges. We can get the rest back later.” After the war, the garden was full of weeds and it was not until the appointment of Pamela Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger as joint head gardeners in 1959 that the modern phase of Sissinghurst began. They stayed for 30 years, refining and enhancing Vita and Harold’s vision. Today they are rightfully regarded as the joint creators of the garden.

Spring blooms

Weather in April can be fickle, but I was lucky enough to visit Sissinghurst during an abnormally warm spell when plants were flowering almost a month ahead of usual. Like most visitors, our group — my wife Betty, my cousin Shelia, her husband Philip and their daughter Serena — first climbed the tower to get an overview of the garden. Below us to the east the rigid lines of the Yew Walk gave a sense of enclosure to the smaller “rooms” of the Cottage Garden, Rose Garden and White Garden. Beyond the Yew Walk stretched the orchard, bounded by the moat and the open countryside of the weald beyond. A clear vista from the tower ran between the apple trees to a Greek statue on the far side of the Moat.

The Rose Garden having little colour this early in the season, we followed the Yew Walk towards the White Garden, arguably Vita and Harold’s proudest creation. The White Garden manages to display a variety of white, grey and silvery blooms throughout the seasons. In late April, a feathery wisteria vanusta spilled over the pergola and nearby a mass of white tulips was at its peak. The Priest’s House, one of two surviving cottages from Elizabethan times, overlooks the garden. In June 1962, Vita spent her last days in one of the cottage’s bedrooms, the better to see her beloved White Garden in moonlight when the white and silver blooms seem to take on a luminous glow.

In March 2011, the National Trust opened the Priest’s House to overnight visitors for the first time. Now, a few fortunate guests may experience Sissinghurst as its creators did; they can wander the gardens after other visitors have left for the day and see it in early morning light. Needless to say, the cottage is booked well in advance.

Vita’s approach to planting was to create lushness with big masses of flowers. “Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny” was the way she once described it. And that’s what she did in the Cottage Garden next to the South Cottage, a surviving part of the original Elizabethan house that served as Harold’s bedroom and sitting room. On May 6, 1930, the day their offer to buy Sissinghurst was accepted, they planted an early summer flowering rose against the wall of the cottage.

In contrast to the coolness of the White Garden, the Cottage Garden is hot with reds, yellows and golds. Vita and Harold wanted a “sunset” scheme which reached a peak in late summer and early autumn, but as in other parts of Sissinghurst the flowering seasons have been extended by careful planting in recent years.

England’s most influential green space

The Cottage Garden in April was rich with several varieties of wall flowers, red tulips, yellow shrubs and at its centre a magnificent tub, picked up by Harold for a few pounds in Cairo, filled with orange tulips. Leaving the garden, we walked through the orchard, carpeted with masses of narcissus and bright with apple blossoms. The medieval rubbish still beneath the soil here convinced Vita and Harold that it could not become a flower garden but rather should be left as a transition zone between the house and the open countryside beyond. The nearby Nuttery also seems delightfully natural with its trillium and white bluebells — but if a single blue bluebell dares to appear it is quickly banished.

Finally, we visited the Spring Garden with its avenue of lime trees. This was Harold’s special preserve, for he designed the planting as well as the layout, and spent endless hours here weeding and tending to every detail. Vita once said it looked like Platform 5 at Charing Cross station, but she loved the garden as much as Harold did. The long linear beds were bright with tulips and narcissus and other flowers in purple, mauve and yellow. At intervals, the long beds were broken up with big tubs of orange tulips. The lime trees, with flowers clustering around them, had already filled out with new leaves.

We left Sissinghurst longing to see it in other seasons. My cousin visited again some weeks later when the garden was ablaze with flowers of every hue and said that the White Garden was a stunning display of many varieties set amidst silvery grey foliage.

Vita hated to think of her beloved Sissinghurst being taken over by the National Trust when she died, but that’s what happened in 1967. In spite of what Vita feared, I think even she would be impressed at what has become the best-loved garden in England. As for Harold, he’d probably still be bent over his weeding in the Spring Garden.

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