Sissinghurst Castle- Unmatched Beauty of Gardens and more
Enjoying the openness and emerald beauty of the Kent countryside in England, our car zipped past the Rounds Hill Wood to turn into another country road past the Birches Wood and green fields till we spotted the P signs of the car park ahead. Past the fine-looking Visitor’s reception and coffee/food aroma filled Granary restaurant we headed for the Garden Entrance on a gravel path.
From a ‘House with a Moat’ to this Moment
We were here to explore whatever was left of the ‘Manor House with a moat’ belonging to Saxingherstes family so the present name has a ring to it too. We noticed that there was no Castle actually, just a name so a Volunteer explained that by the end of the 16th century the wealthy influential Baker family build a lavish courtyard Home that was leased to the government during the Seven Year War and was unfortunately transformed into a prison for 3000 French prisoners and was mockingly referred to as their ‘Chateau de Sissinghurst or the Sissinghurst Castle’; ironically the name struck on!! After 300 years of decay and fluctuating ownerships; a couple Vita Sackville- West Nicholson and Harold Nicholson bought the semi –ruins in 1930’s and ‘Spring came to Sissinghurst’ as they transformed the ruins to manicured gardens and kaleidoscope of vibrant flowers-beds, bushes and vines.
The 78 Steps Tower
We felt as if we were on a movie set when we caught the first glimpse of the imposing brick Tower through the arch of the main Entrance building. Past immaculate green Tower-lawns lined with trees and flower beds, we came upon an 18thcentury engraving on the Tower wall that illustrated what this area would have looked like in the Elizabeth era and the Tower Lawns would have been part of the impressive Sissinghurst beautiful Baker home.
We reached the spiral staircase of the 16th century majestic Tower and contemplated climbing the 78 steps with determination! The rooftop panoramic view of hundreds of acres of tranquil natural beauty around us made us realise that it is indeed a worthy ascent.
From our Guide-map, we tried to spot the names of the various spectacular gardens of recent owners Vita and Harold’s far below.
I also tried to visually sketch the large beautiful 16th century home of Robert Baker that once existed but now one can locate the remains of the sprawling home- the Long Library, the South Cottage, the Greek Delos Mediterranean garden, the attractive White Garden, the Oast House and the Tea rooms further ahead!
Walking around the small Tower- rooftop I came across few lines from a 1932, published poem Sissinghurst by poetess/writer Vita-Sackville-West-Nicholson which appeared to be a brief reflection of her life!
“A tired swimmer in the waves of time
I throw my hands up: let the surface close:
Sink down to centuries to another clime,
And buried find the castle and the rose”
Historical Milieu – from Stone Age to Queen Elizabeth 1
Relaxing on the parapets of the Tower I stepped into the Time machine to watch Queen Elizabeth I, climbing the Tower and viewing the emerald countryside full of Oak trees, Chestnut trees and Hazelnut plants besides looking out for deer, dragonflies and nightingales!
I recalled reading that the Tower was built in the centre of the Sissinghurst estate and may have manifold usages- like a Watch station for the Estate activities, spot Poachers or used for Hunting! Stone Age tools have been recovered in this area and another interesting find is that of the gold ring of a Celtic Chief! Roman coins found, to the 5th century invaders from North-sea settling in Sissinghurst-woods as Anglo Saxons, the place is steeped in antiquity.
Vita’s Writing Room
Many photographs later we cautiously descended the old staircase and reached a landing where a medieval wooden door opened to reveal a view of the early 20th century Writing-Room of Vita Nicholson where she wrote poetry, novels, her gardening articles, kept notes and manuscripts. It had a definite stamp of Writer Vita-Sackville-West Nicholson’s for the room was unpretentious yet enigmatic! The other highlights are- a tall Bookcase with ranging topics, her oak wood desk left unchanged since 1962 , a sofa to read books, her ball pens, chewed cigarette holder and natural-light large window that overlooked the beautiful flower filled gardens below, the breeze carrying their fragrance in!
The room has undergone repair & conservation by the National trust since August 2021 when its roof collapsed partially but re-opened now. Carefully each and everything has been restored to original positions by the National Trust team.
Yew tree Walk to the South Cottage
With memories of Queen Elizabeth 1 exploring the sentinel Tower and centuries later Vita’s Writing-Room created by her in the same Tower, we reached the bottom and headed for the South Cottage; a restored fragment of the original 1560’s magnificent Baker family home, by the last owners Vita and Harold Nicholson. But we first turned into the well- kept attractive rows of trees of Yew-Walk on the left for photographs of the medicinal tree that can be fatal if consumed directly!
Ahead of us lay the Apple Orchard path at some distance from the South Cottage. We were impressed with the resurrection of medieval ruins into comfortable traditional beautiful home with stunning gardens by Vita and Harold Nicholson in the 1930’s and its maintenance by the National Trust.
Image Courtesy: Arvind Chopra