Complete 700 word article, more pictures available

SISSINGHURST; AN AUTHOR'S LOVING CREATION IS ONE OF BRITAIN'S FAVOURITE GARDENS



It has become so popular that admission has to be timed and no prams, picnics, tripods or easels are allowed inside. There is simply no space to spare for such things here at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, created by poet-author Vita Sackville-West in the Garden County of Kent.

Vita loved Kent. She was born here in 1892 at the family ancestral home of Knole, and in 1913 married diplomat Harold Nicholson in its chapel. Following their return from an overseas assignment the couple bought a property known as Long Barn, just three kilometres from Vita's beloved Knole. It was there that her interest in gardening became a passion.

In creating Long Barn's garden the Nicholsons were the closest of partners; he was the architect, she the creator. When developers moved into farmlands around Long Barn, Vita began her search for a new home. In April 1930, accompanied by her small son Nigel, she discovered Sissinghurst. Sixty-five years later, and living here once again, Nigel told me how appalled he had been at his first sight of the property. He recalled that day when, in pouring rain, he stood before these crumbling buildings with no glass, no doors, no drainage, electricity or running water. Accumulated trash of centuries was everywhere. Some rooms housed farm animals. "We can't live here" Nigel protested, "there's simply no place to live." "Oh I think we can make something rather lovely out of it" was his mother's response.

Within three weeks the Nicholsons had purchased Sissinghurst, which contained little more than the wing of a sixteenth century mansion, a free-standing tower, cottages, outbuildings and a farmhouse. Slowly the rubbish was cleared, new walls built, hedges planted, but it was five years before electricity and water were installed. Nigel still remembers the enormous discomfort he endured here following his happy early years at Long Barn. From the start his mother claimed the tower as her own, for a study and adjoining library.

Vita wrote some 30 books in the tower, usually with complete disregard for comfort. She seldom lit the fire in her study. Instead, to ward off the tower's damp chill, she would wrap herself in a blanket. Often she went hungry. In good weather she spent her days working in the garden, then retired to the tower and wrote through most of the night. Cut flowers from the garden always decorated her study then, as they do now because the tower is open to the public.

Although Sissinghurst is generally known as Vita's garden, she was quick to acknowledge the value of Harold's planning. By 1939 it was virtually completed, with the exception of the fabled White Garden. The overall site is a little less than 240 ha., Bounded on two sides by a moat, and divided into ten different gardens separated by high hedges. Vita saw these as outside rooms in a roofless house.

The essence of Sissinghurst is its profusion. Tall and short plants are mixed; some look as if they are stretching to see over their neighbours' heads. In places they appear to have grown with a mind of their own, when in fact every inch of space has been meticulously planned and cultivated. There is always plenty to see here. The Spring Garden is in full flower from March through May, the Moat Walk flanked by scented azaleas peaks in May, after which the Rose Garden takes over. A tapestry of greys and whites, the remarkable White Garden is at its best in summer.

The pleasure of a Sissinghurst visit is heightened for anyone lodged at the nineteenth-century Castle Farm. Housed on-site this way I was able to walk in the woods at dusk and around the moat in early morning when only the gardeners were about. My thoughts then were usually with Vita Sackville-West, and this perfect place where her two great talents met to inspire each other.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden is 3km (2mi) northeast of Cranbrook, 1.5 km east of Sissinghurst village via A262 in the county of Kent.