Sissinghurst Castle Garden

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Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Sissinghurst Gardens 1 (4907255329).jpg
"The most famous twentieth century garden in England."[1]
Location Sissinghurst
Coordinates 51°06′57″N 0°34′53″E / 51.1157°N 0.5815°E / 51.1157; 0.5815Coordinates: 51°06′57″N 0°34′53″E / 51.1157°N 0.5815°E / 51.1157; 0.5815
Architect Vita Sackville-West
Governing body National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty
Listed Building – Grade I
Official name: Sissinghurst Castle
Sissinghurst Castle Garden is located in Kent
Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Location of Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, at Sissinghurst in the Weald of Kent, England was created in the early 1930s by Vita Sackville-West, poet and gardening writer, and her husband Harold Nicolson, author and diplomat. It is among the most famous gardens in England and is designated a Grade I listed structure. The garden comprises a series of "rooms", amounting to ten in number, and was one of the earliest examples of this gardening style. The castle, garden, and wider estate are now owned and maintained by the National Trust. It is one of the Trust's most popular properties, receiving nearly 200,000 visitors in 2017.

The origins of the present castle remains are a house begun in the 1530s by Sir John Baker and expanded by him c.1550. Construction was continued by his son Richard, who inherited in 1558.


Early history:[edit]

The site is ancient; "hurst" is the Saxon term for an enclosed wood. A manor house with a three-armed moat was built here in the Middle Ages. In 1305, King Edward I spent a night here.

Rise, decline, collapse: c.1490-1930[edit]

It was long thought that in 1490 Thomas Baker, a man from Cranbrook, purchased Sissinghurst, although there is no evidence for it. What is certain is that the house was given a new brick gatehouse in the 1530s by Sir John Baker, one of Henry VIII's Privy Councillors, and greatly enlarged in the 1560s by his son Sir Richard Baker, when it became the centre of a 700-acre (2.8 km2) deer park. In August 1573 Queen Elizabeth I spent three nights at Sissinghurst.[2] After the collapse of the Baker family in the late 17th century, the building had many uses: as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Seven Years' War; as the workhouse for the Cranbrook Union; after which it became homes for farm labourers.

Harold and Vita: 1930-1968[edit]

Sissinghurst was important to Vita as an ancestral home of her family. Denied the right to inherit Knole through primogeniture, Sissinghurst was a substitute. The Table of Descent set out in Vita's book, Knole And The Sackvilles, records the marriage of Thomas Sackville to Cecily, daughter of Sir John Baker of Sissinghurst Castle, Cranford, Kent in 1554.[3] For Sackville-West, Sissinghurst and its garden rooms[4] came to be a poignant and romantic substitute for Knole,[5] reputedly the largest house in Britain, which as the only child of Lionel, the 3rd Lord Sackville she would have inherited had she been a male, but which had passed to her cousin as the male heir.

Nicolson's diary entry for 4 April 1930, records, "Vita telephones to say she has seen the ideal house - a place in Kent, near Cranbrook, a sixteenth-century castle".[6] Sackville-West was a writer on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group who found her greatest popularity in the weekly columns she contributed as gardening correspondent of The Observer, which incidentally—for she never touted it—made her own garden famous.[7]

Sackville-West and Nicolson found Sissinghurst in 1930 after concern that their property Long Barn, near Sevenoaks, Kent, was close to development over which they had no control. Although Sissinghurst was derelict, they purchased the ruins and the farm around it and began constructing the garden we know today. The layout by Nicolson and planting by Sackville-West were both strongly influenced by the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens; by the earlier Cothay Manor in Somerset, laid out by Nicolson's friend Reginald Cooper, and described by one garden writer as the "Sissinghurst of the West Country";[8] and by Hidcote Manor Garden, designed and owned by Lawrence Johnston, which Sackville-West helped to preserve. Sissinghurst was first opened to the public in 1938.

Harold and Vita converted the buildings scattered around the site to become their home. The long brick gatehouse range from Sir John Baker's construction of c.1533 became Harold's library;[2] the tower gatehouse dating from Richard Baker's in 1560-1570 became Vita's sitting room, study and sanctuary.[2]

During the Second World War, Sissinghurst saw much of the Battle of Britain, which was mainly fought over the Weald of Kent and the English Channel. Harold's diaries for 2 September 1940 reads, "a tremendous raid in the morning and the whole upper air buzzes and zooms with the noise of aeroplanes. There are many fights over our sunlight fields".[9]

Vita died in her bed at Sissinghurst on 2 June 1962. Her husband recorded her passing in his diary, "Ursula is with Vita. At about 1.5 she observes that Vita is breathing heavily, and then suddenly is silent. She dies without fear or self-reproach. I pick some of her favourite flowers and lay them on her bed".[10] Nicolson died of a heart attack in his bedroom at Sissinghurst on 1 May 1968.[11]

The National Trust: 1968-2018[edit]

"Never, never, never! Au grand jamais, jamais. Never, never, never!... so long as I live no National Trust... shall have my darling. No, no. Over my corpse or my ashes, not otherwise. It is bad enough to have lost my Knole but they shan't take Sissinghurst from me. That at least is my own. They shan't, they shan't, I won't. They can't make me, I won't. They can't make me. I never would."

-Vita's reaction to the suggestion that Sissinghurst might be gifted to the National Trust.[12]

In 1954, Nigel Nicolson had raised the possibility of giving Sissinghurst to the National Trust. Vita was violently opposed.[12] The National Trust took over the whole of Sissinghurst, its garden, farm and buildings, in 1967.[13] The garden epitomises the English garden of the mid-20th century. It is among the Trust's most popular properties, receiving nearly 200,000 visitors in 2017.[14] In 2009, BBC Four broadcast an eight-part television documentary series called Sissinghurst, describing the house and garden and the attempts by Adam Nicolson and his wife Sarah Raven, who are 'Resident Donors', to restore a form of traditional Wealden agriculture to the Castle Farm. Their plan is to use the land to grow ingredients for lunches in the Sissinghurst restaurant. A fuller version of the story can be found in Nicolson's book, Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History (2008). The castle and its garden are listed Grade I with many other structures within the garden having their own listings.[15]


The garden itself is designed as a series of 'rooms', each with a different character of colour and/or theme, the walls being high clipped hedges and many pink brick walls.[16] The rooms and 'doors' are so arranged that, as one enjoys the beauty in a given room, one suddenly discovers a new vista into another part of the garden, making a walk a series of discoveries that keeps leading one into yet another area of the garden.[17] Nicolson spent his efforts coming up with interesting new interconnections, while Sackville-West focused on making the flowers in the interior of each room exciting.

Edwin Lutyens, longtime gardening partner of Gertrude Jekyll, was a frequent visitor to Long Barn and advised Vita regarding Sissinghurst.[18] Vita denied that Jekyll's work had an impact on her own designs but Nigel Nicholson described Lutyen's influence on Sissinghurst as "pervasive".[18]


Sissinghurst has given its name to several cultivars of garden plants which were developed there, notably:-


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Sissinghurst Garden". 
  2. ^ a b c Greeves 2008, p. 285.
  3. ^ Sackville-West 1991, Forward ix.
  4. ^ "Sissinghurst Castle". 
  5. ^ Lord 2000, p. 10.
  6. ^ Nicolson 1966, p. 44.
  7. ^ Lord 2000, p. 2.
  8. ^ "Cothay Manor Gardens". Retrieved 2008-12-09. 
  9. ^ Nicolson 1967, p. 110.
  10. ^ Nicolson 1968, p. 415.
  11. ^ Rose 2006, p. 299.
  12. ^ a b Nicolson 1968, p. 268.
  13. ^ Lord 2000, p. 12.
  14. ^ "ALVA - Association of Leading Visitor Attractions". 
  15. ^ England, Historic. "Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst Castle - Historic England". 
  16. ^ Lord 2000, pp. 22–36.
  17. ^ Lord 2000, pp. 67,100.
  18. ^ a b Brown 1982, p. 183.
  19. ^ Lord 2000, p. 128.


External links[edit]