We were on holiday in the UK this very month last year visiting friends. There wasn’t much time to research points of interest before leaving, in typical fashion, we planned to travel only weeks before departing. However, I’d been there before and quickly formed a must-do list. Visiting gardens was on the top.
Sissinghurst Castle, a National Trust garden, was highly recommended by a friend and landscape architect, Rob Littlepage. When I then read that it was one of the locations used to film the Hollywood version of Pride and Prejudice, among all the other rave reviews, not to mention the brilliant planting design, capitalizing on Gertrude Jekyll’s design philosophy, etc., we were in. Hands down, we were going.
The affection and effort put into the making and keeping of this garden are at its heart. Add to that its history, a moated farmhouse turned Elizabethan manor, changing by need, style, occupants and architecture over hundreds of years. The location and how perfectly the garden moves with and into the surrounding environment. It’s arts and crafts style, plantings and organization. All create an experience while telling a story.
With spring in bud, the garden’s dignity is revealed. The “bones” of the design, or design approach, clearly evident. Laying bare the orchestration of space.
As seen, it is a series or combination of connected gardens, each with unique purpose. The formal courtyards expand out to extended, theme gardens. (The Rose Garden, Cottage Garden, Nuttery, Moat Walk and Herb Garden to name a few.) Eventually becoming less formal as the garden boundaries approach. The “working” areas, such as the orchard above, while informal, retain strong design composition.
The garden we see today reveals the life work of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. They found Sissinghurst mistreated and all but abandoned in 1930, an opportunity to renovate a once-great, forgotten estate. The form of its revitalization communicates the story of place as well as the story of Harold and Vita.
A “marriage of sensibilities,” the garden fuses classical design elements with a profusion of romantic plantings. Each heightened and enjoyed because of the presence of the other.
The formal, tried and true design themes are easy to follow, elements such as the Yew Walk commanding. While its lushness comes from Vita’s desire to cram “every chink and cranny”. A method of “exaggeration, big groups, big masses” employed and maybe lost if not contained and framed by the overlying structure.
William Robinson, champion of wild gardening and author of The Wild Garden (1881) and The English Flower Garden (1883), once wrote: “Formality is often essential to the plan of a garden but never to the arrangement of its flowers and shrubs.”
My reading of the guardians of Sissinghurst exposed a couple absorbed in place, present and past. A couple following their own, individual impulses (Vita was also lover to Virginia Woolf) while seeking comfort from their work in and with the garden. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, ‘something which you could attach your floating heart….’