In these dark and dreary days of midwinter in the northern hemisphere we need a bit of colour. What better way than to think about the summer and gardens full of brightly-coloured flowers and some sunshine. One of the most popular and well-known public gardens in the UK are those at Sissinghurst Castle. This year sees the 50th anniversary of its purchase by the National Trust, even though it has been open to the public since 1938. What makes it significant to lgbt heritage is that it was created and looked after by a succession of lgbt couples.
Sissinghurst itself is not
a genuine castle. It began life as a medieval manor house and was expanded
during several centuries into the stately property it is now. In 1930 it came
into the possession of a famous British literary couple, Sir Harold Nicolson
(1886-1968) and Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962).
Their marriage became one
of the most famous, even infamous, marriages in British history, not only
because it lasted over 50 years and produced the wonderful Sissinghurst
gardens, but also because both accepted from the outset that they would have
same-sex relationships outside their marriage. As Vita Sackville-West himself
might have said, love is love regardless of gender.
Harold and Vita lived in a
medieval house in the village of Sevenoaks Weald until 1930. They had heard
that their property was about to be redeveloped by a local farmer and they
looked for a new home. Sissinghurst was recommended to them by a local agent
and even though it was very run down the couple decided to buy it and move in.
The garden, in total
disarray and overgrown, was to be a passion for Harold and Vita even more than
the restoration of the building itself. Harold planned the new gardens and Vita
did the planting. Their original plans no longer exist but we can get a taste
of their ideas through the work of a succession of talented couples who have
looked after the gardens ever since.
Both Harold and Vita had
highly successful careers which often took them away from Sissinghurst. Yet
they created a distinctive garden and regenerated the small working farm on the
estate at the same time.
In 1959 Vita decided to
appoint a head gardener. In the end she appointed two, Pamela Schwerdt (1931-2009)
and Sibylle Kreutzberger. These two women had met at the Waterperry School of
Horticulture for Ladies and established a life-long companionship. At
Sissinghurst they “tidied up” the gardens and introduced new planting schemes
that were more contemporary while still in keeping with Harold’s and Vita’s
original ideas. The garden, which was open to the public, soon gained national
attention and in the first nine years of Pamela’s and Sibylle’s time at
Sissinghurst visitor figures jumped from 6,000 a year to 57,000.
In 1967 Harold gave
Sissinghurst to the National Trust. The family were allowed to live there (as
their grandson still does) and Pamela and Sybille were kept on as Head
Gardeners. By the time they retired in 1991 they had assembled a talented team
of gardeners under them who ensured Sissinghurst’s reputation would carry on
into the 21st century.
The successor as Head
Gardener appointed an assistant who was herself her eventual successor. The
assistant, Alexis Datta, was recruited from the gardens of Cliveden House,
another of the great stately homes in England. Alexis’s partner, Jacqueline
Ruthven, became Head Propagator.
During Alexis’s tenure as
Head Gardener from 2005 the visitor figure at Sissinghurst rose to around
195,000 a year. This is partly due to the general rise in visitor figures to
heritage sites across the whole of the UK but also to the sustained reputation
and increasing interest in the Sissinghurst gardens.
Not many public gardens
have remained basically the same as originally planned. Many modern trends and
fashions have come and gone in the gardening world but Sissinghurst has
remained as a window into the world of a couple of the 1930s. While changing to
reflect modern growing techniques and becoming an organic garden Sissinghurst
has provided a refreshing change to those large over-flowered public gardens of
larger properties. It is seen as a traditional English garden. That is its main
appeal, as the photos I've included of the gardens show.
In 2013 Alexis and
Jacqueline retired from their positions. Both went on to other garden projects
but they left Sissinghurst with the 83-year legacy of Vita Sackville-West and
Sir Harold Nicolson intact for future generations to enjoy.