The Magic of Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst Castle library garden

Sissinghurst Castle library garden

It may be that you have noticed; I’m quite keen on plants.  So it was quite a surprise for me that plants weren’t actually the highlight of my recent trip to Sissinghurst.  Yes, of course I am in the midst of writing another blog on its plantings but actually three other factors stood out for me above all else.

1. The Buildings

Bird's Eye View of Sissinghurst from Prospect Tower

Bird’s Eye View of Sissinghurst from Prospect Tower

The history of Sissinghurst Castle is quite remarkable.  It started life as a Saxon pig farm in the Middle Ages, was used as a prison for French seamen during the Seven Years War and had Queen Elizabeth I to stay in August 1753 (what a shame she couldn’t get to see Vita Sackville-West’s summer garden that year!). There have been numerous iterations of buildings and demolitions but what remains today is absolutely breathtaking.

I completely and utterly fell head over heels in love with the architecture.  In fact I admit I did call Paul in Sydney and tell him to keep working hard because we absolutely had to save up and buy this lovely house I had seen in Kent.  I was infatuated with its charm.

Cobaea vine, from the tropical Americas, climbs around the window frame at Sissinghurst, shown here in three stages of flowering and fruiting

Cobaea vine, from the tropical Americas, climbs around the window frames and stunning brickwork at Sissinghurst, shown here in three stages of flowering and fruiting

It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly why the buildings are so stunning; I guess it is a combination of factors that are all in complete harmony with each other.  The brick and tile colourings, the natural variation, the proportion of ceiling height and windows and its sense of grounding amongst the garden all adds to its magic.

The Library at Sissinghurst Castle. Over 11,000 books are currently held at the house

The Library at Sissinghurst Castle. Over 11,000 books are currently held at the house

The interior of the house is just as stunning.  It has to be the most inviting, homely and beautiful place I have ever seen.  So many old houses feel cold and stark, uncomfortable and impersonal, but this is the diametrical opposite. There are little details everywhere you look, all of which fit and contribute positively to its feel, nothing seems superfluous or overly ornate; it is just pure heaven.

Vita Sackville-West, aged 18, above the fireplace in the Sissinghurst library

Vita Sackville-West, aged 18, above the fireplace in the Sissinghurst library

Even the tower does not seem out of place for me somehow.  It works with the rest of the architecture and has the side benefit of enabling the most wonderful viewpoint of the property.

View of Sissinghurst Tower from the Cottage Garden

View of Sissinghurst Tower from the Cottage Garden

2. The Structure of the Gardens

Central hedging in the Rose Garden at Sissinghurst

Central hedging in the Rose Garden at Sissinghurst – its perfection is amazing

I am a big believer that if you get the structure of a garden right, the rest will follow.  Frankly, you can’t get much better that the structure at Sissinghurst.  Despite a few inherently tricky angles that Harold Nicholson (Vita’s husband) had to manage, the bold structure is perfectly formed.

The Rose Garden, seen from the top of the tower, is divided into geometric shapes

The Rose Garden, seen from the top of the tower, is divided into geometric shapes, with informal planting

It is geometric in nature – straight lines, rectangles, perfect circles and semi-circles – with many garden ‘rooms’.  Whilst the planting in each of the rooms is not dissimilar in style, colour schemes and plant types differentiate them and create a sense of anticipation for the visitor.  The garden as a whole hangs together perfectly and yet doesn’t lack variety.  It is the highly skilled planning of the structure which makes this possible.

3. A Sense of Place

View of the surrounding countryside from Sissinghurst Tower - the property nestles perfectly into its environment

View of the surrounding countryside from Sissinghurst Tower – the property nestles perfectly into its environment

A ‘sense of place’ is one of those phrases used by arty, creative types which can sound a bit airy fairy and subjective to the more logical mind.  I actually googled a definition and even the results were airy fairy, but I liked this simple one from www.artofgeography.com best:

‘a combination of characteristics that makes a place special and unique’.
I think it is probably also something about fit with the surroundings – the notion that everything looks right, nothing jars and it feels comfortable in its locality.
Even the barriers have a sense of place at Sissinghurst

Even the barriers have a beautiful sense of place at Sissinghurst

Again, I struggle to thing of a place that fits the ‘special’, ‘unique’ and ‘fit’ categories as well as Sissinghurst Castle.  It is so incredibly rural England, it has more history and stories and soul than almost any other place on earth over such a long time frame and it is certainly pretty unique in this day.
Stunning tiled detail in the herb garden at Sissinghurst - everywhere you look there is attention to detail, beautiful, intricate features and a great deal of thought and skill

Stunning tiled detail in the herb garden at Sissinghurst – everywhere you look there is attention to detail, beautiful, intricate features and a great deal of thought and skill

So often the structure and the details of a garden are only taken in sub-consciously.  Plants draw our attention and focus and whilst we would not feel the same about it if the garden lacked structure, our minds don’t register it consciously.  Here, it was so good that I almost found it hard to see past the wonderful structure, I could feel it embracing the garden.
A small avenue past the nuttery to the herb garden - a long, straight pathway but with so much character

A small avenue past the nuttery to the herb garden – a long, straight pathway but with so much character

As I walked around I found myself almost in disbelief that I was really there; it was so hard to take it all in, almost too much to absorb all at once.  I highly, highly recommend a visit to this remarkable garden, if you are ever lucky enough to get the chance to go.

5 thoughts on “The Magic of Sissinghurst

  1. Adriana Fraser says:

    Inspiring Janna! After reading this blog I wil start looking more at structure and less at plants! Glad the see you got there even though the weather wasn’t kind early on.

    • jannaschreier says:

      If I had been there in summer it is quite possible I may not have noticed the structure quite so much. At least that is my excuse for needing another visit sometime soon – you see different things each time!

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