Friday, 4 September 2009

Sissinghurst - an unfinished history indeed

I am a member of a book club, and this month we were reading 'Sissinghurst, an unfinished history' , by Adam Nicholson. What better excuse to visit this legendary garden, rescued from ruin by Vita Sackville-West in the early 20th century, known principally for its famous 'White Garden'?

The White Garden

Adam Nicholson inherited the National Trust run property from his father in 2005. He brought a wealth of history of the house that had been his childhood home, as well as a great warmth towards the place. In the book, he takes you through the history of the area from prehistoric times through the middle ages to the current day, explaining the soil type, the fertility, the land use and so on. He also gives a vivid account of the various characters whose lives had been played out in and around the locality and farms.

When his father died, he was struck by a vision of a Sissinghurst as a working mixed farm, as it had been when he was a child. He felt the heart had been ripped out of the place since it wasn't a working, 'real' place. He wondered if the farm could be viable by supplying fresh fruit vegetables and meat to the restaurant and farm shop at the garden.

The courtyard garden

Here began a personal odyssey to return it to its former self, going in to detail the long and arduous process of getting funding for the project from the National Trust. You start to realise that something on that scale needs more than vision. The economics didn't really make any sense, and it was a surprisingly difficult task of getting support from the existing management of the garden. This was perhaps understandable as their ideas and suggestions seemed to have been ignored for the past 30 years. I have to admit that I would have given up long before he succeeded in getting it off the ground, so you had to admire the tenacity.

Unfortunately, as I walked around the vegetable garden a year after the start of the project, I couldn't muster up any feeling that they had succeeded yet. The vegetable garden was fairly neglected, and didn't even look that productive, considering it was August.

The restaurant itself looked tired and more like a 'back of beyond' motorway services than an organic cafe, with wall to wall varnished pine furniture and self-service. You could definitely understand why the staff had felt it needed to be refurbished.

Although the sign boasted that their own vegetables were used in the restaurant, the only evidence of this was the courgettes and green beans. Any allotmenteer knows that these are absolutely abundant at this time of year - sometimes you can't even give them away. In fact they are probably the last thing that any kitchen gardener wants to eat, having probably been working through a glut of their own for months. I have to say the courgettes were very tasty as courgettes go.

All in all, I think I will go back in a couple of years, once things have started to take hold. The idea is a lovely one, but I do think the team there will need to get fully on board with the concept if it is ever going to work. And I think something would have to be done about the restaurant area, to bring it up to date.


You couldn't help conclude that the resentment caused over the whole change was the main obstacle to progress, especially considering how beautifully kept the garden itself was, in contrast to the vegetable garden. The whole thing is fascinating to watch and read about, even in a slightly voyeuristic 'neighbours at war' kind of way. It was still a lovely day out, and worth a visit for the famous garden. Hopefully one day there will be even more reason to go.



  1. What an interesting post. I'm sorry that you didn't find the kitchen garden 'up to scratch'. As you say, perhaps this is because it's still in it's infancy, but it would be lovely if they could get the idea off the ground.

  2. Thanks Jo. I think the book had raised my expectations, and so I perhaps was looking with a critical eye. However, the concept was so brilliant that it was a shame to see the kitchen garden failing. That's how it looked anyway.