Red brick and roses: a visit to Sissinghurst Castle Garden

My mind is brimming with ideas this morning, laying down snapshots and processing happy memories of a glorious, flower-filled garden visit.

We first visited Sissinghurst in the early 2000s before our daughter was born. With two energetic toddlers in tow, we were more focused on keeping them on the paths and not straying too far from the toilets than admiring the glorious gardens and surroundings. I had clocked that it was a place of beauty, though, and we have some very lovely photos of the boys in the meadow. Despite now living only an hour’s drive away, it wasn’t until yesterday that we finally made the time to go there again, this time without any children – none of them could be persuaded to tear themselves away from their computing devices (oh yes, revision). ‘It’s ok, mum, you go on your own. We’ll be fine…’ ‘Well, ok then. If you’re sure.’ And we hotfooted it out of the door. How times change.

Anyway, back to Sissinghurst Castle Garden. The place has a fascinating history: it was used as a prison for 3000 French soldiers captured during the Seven Years War (1756–63); it was a poor-house in the late 1700s; and it was a fine example of Victorian farming during the mid-1800s when it was owned by the Cornwallis family. Poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson bought it in the early 1930s and set about transforming the buildings and grounds, creating the famous garden rooms that draw people from across the globe today. The National Trust took over managing the site in the 1960s, although members of the Sackville-West/Nicholson family still occasionally stay in the South Cottage. History lesson over (if you’d like to know more, start here), let’s move on.

The gardens are what we went to see, although you can also wander into a few rooms (the library, etc) and have a tour of South Cottage if you’re organised enough to get a timed ticket when you arrive (we weren’t). We did climb up to the top of the tower where I took these photos from each corner:

View to the north over the shop in the old piggery and restaurant in the granary (top left of photo).
To the south, over one of the garden rooms with the propagation area (no access, sadly) to the right behind the house and the lovely curved wall.
To the north-east-ish and the famous White Garden. The silvery tree you can see mid-left is a magnificent Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ (weeping silver pear).
South Cottage and a snippet of meadow bottom left.
Gardeners (all women, as far as I could tell) were clipping box hedging; you can just see the wheelbarrows, etc, in the bottom of the pic. It was all very carefully done with lines and spirit levels (which is not how I do it!).
The library in the foreground and the oast houses in the background.

The red brick buildings and garden walls provide the perfect backdrop to the swoon-inducing planting. Really, the planting is delicious. Roses, such gloriously scented roses – climbers trained perfectly against walls, bush roses left to grow huge, climbers growing up inside frames and over hoops, low-growing roses; the air was thick with their heady, intoxicating smell. And the irises and salvias, and magnificent euphorbias of all kinds, all at their peak. The grounds were full of wildflowers – oxeye daisies, tall buttercups, huge clovers, mixed grasses, all nodding and swaying in the breeze. The place is magical.

Right, enough of that; must get on. Back to earth. Bye for now.

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34 thoughts on “Red brick and roses: a visit to Sissinghurst Castle Garden

  1. Lovely to re-visit Sissinghurst again – thank you. I went to boarding school nearby, and it became a tradition to drop in to see the garden enroute to the school for the start of a new term – so slightly mixed memories, but still lots and lots of images in my mind of the flowers at different times of the year. One story I treasure is of my parents visiting the boarding school for the first time and making time for a Sissinghurst visit. They came upon the elderly and fragile Harold Nicholson dozing in the herb garden. Just nice to think of him enjoying that wonderful garden despite the visitors. You will realise that this was quite a long time ago – and I don’t think there were large numbers of visitors then 🙂

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    1. What a lovely story – thank you for sharing. I think Harold’s and Vita’s spirits live on in the garden. I completely understand the mixed feelings (I, too, went to boarding school and have similar feelings about the two albums that we listened to in the car on the journey – Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America!).

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  2. Oh my, it’s perfection, utter perfection. The roses! The wildflowers! The bees! And that view from the tower. My idea of heaven. I really must get over there one day. CJ xx

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  3. Thank you for this, Sam. Sissinghurst is on my list of ‘Things To Do On Our Grand Tour Of England’ but that Grand Tour will take six months given the length of my list. This really is my idea of a dream garden, exactly the atmosphere and planting style I most admire. Honestly, my pulse is racing at the gorgeousness of it!

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  4. Oh how fabulous Sam! Thanks for your photos and evocative description of your day. I can almost smell those roses. I got to Sissinghurst last July after 30 years of wanting to visit and almost burst with excitement on the day. It more than lived up to all my expectations. We visited Great Dixter too during the same week. Two such different gardens but both so utterly wonderful.

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  5. When did you visit to have such a relatively quite time of it?! The number of visitors is the normal downside of visiting. What a good view yu had of everyting – must have been a wonderful day out. Isn’t it Sissinghurst that has a HUGE wisteria? When you have visited so many gardens sometimes the blur into each other a little 😉

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    1. I think going the day after a Bank Holiday Monday meant it was quieter, and we were there not long after it opened. I don’t remember a huge wisteria but I was slightly dazed by the overall beauty of the place!

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  6. To my eye Sissinghurst gets better and better. I have visited lots over the last three years (it makes an ideal courtesy stop for me en route to Canterbury and hip hip hooray my first class daughter is continuing with a Masters so more visits to come!) ) but since Troy took over as Head Gardener the romance is back and the whaleboning is disappearing, soft paths are replacing stone and views are being opened up to the beautiful Kentish landscape. Best of all some of the immaculate chemically improved lawns are being returned to meadow grass. I was last there a couple of weeks ago and it made my heart burst to see the latest changes,. BTW the propogating garden is open on certain days, probably listed on the website, and have you read Adam Nicolson’s excellent book about the history of Sissinghurst?

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    1. Congratulations to your daughter! How brilliant. I haven’t read the book but I will look out for it, thanks for the tip. I wholeheartedly approve of the changes taking place at Sissinghurst!

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  7. It looks wonderful and this time of year must be one of the best times to visit. I have tried to go there twice and both times (one of which was in the 70’s as a child) there were too many people and we couldn’t get in. I know one day I will make it! Sarah x

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