The quest to revive Sissinghurst

Review: Vivien Horler

Sissinghurst – an unfinished history, by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Sissinghurst is probably best known as the celebrated garden in Kent created by Vita Sackville-West, former lover of Virginia Woolf and also of Violet Trefusis.
Vita and her husband, the British diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson, had a famously open marriage, which was chronicled by their son Nigel in his book Portrait of a Marriage.
Nigel’s son Adam is the author of this book about the glorious estate on which he grew up, and which, like many great estates in the United Kingdom, attracted crippling death duties when Vita died.
One solution was to hand the estate over to the National Trust, an organisation dedicated to heritage conservation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Vita, who had served on Trust committees, was vehement that the Trust would not take Sissinghurst in her lifetime. She wrote in her diary: “Never, never, never. … Nigel can do what he likes when I am dead, but as long as I live no Nat Trust or any other foreign body shall have my darling.”
But with an inheritance tax of tens of thousands of pounds to pay and virtually no cash with which to pay it, Nigel approached the Trust just 10 days after his mother’s death in 1962. After some negotiation, the Trust took Sissinghurst on, on condition that Nigel and his descendants would continue to live there in perpetuity, and rent-free to boot.
Nigel had saved his parents’ legacy for succeeding generations, but when you cede property to the Trust you take on their bureaucracy. You can do very little without their permission, and they have high standards.
Forty years later, after Nigel died, Adam and his family came to live at Sissinghurst. He writes of how, in his childhood in the 1950s, Sissinghurst was a working farm with dairy cattle, chickens, sheep, pigs, orchards, hop gardens, and fields of wheat, barley and oats. It was not made for show, but “had evolved this way because of what it did”.
It had been open to the public in the summer since the 1930s, but in the 60s ad 70s visitor number increased enormously and they had to be accommodated. The hop gardens went, the oast houses became silent, the orchards were dug up, the cattle went, the chickens and the pigs went, the pigshed became a coffee shop, the cart shed the ticket office, and the 300-year-old granary became the Granary Restaurant.
By 2004, when Adam and his family moved in, Sissinghurst was described as one of the biggest attractions in south-east England, drawing around 180 000 visitors a year. The consequence was that “neatness, efficiency, modern systems and a certain absence and emptiness replaced what had been the lifeblood of a lived place”.
Or as Adam also wrote: …”something which for perhaps 40 or 50 generations had been fully alive, (was) now maintained in a condition of stilled perfection”. And “it sometimes seemed Sissinghurst had become something like a Titian in a carpark”.
As he says very early in the book, he does not own Sissinghurst, but it is his place. And now he wanted to revive a landscape that had been allowed to forget its past.
Which meant getting the National Trust on board, as well as the many people who lived and worked at Sissinghurst who had not known it in its farming heyday.
The effort to persuade all the estate’s various stakeholders to see his vision and help make it a reality, is the main thrust of this wonderful book. The writing is beautiful, the descriptions of the glorious landscape in and around Sissinghurst are magnificent, there’s a fair bit of history, and the tale of the various human relationships is often painfully honest.
This is not a new book – it was published in 2009 – but it is new to me. I gobbled it up. If you’re interested in gardens, the British gentry or the tale of one man’s determination to make his beloved home live again while fighting what often seemed to be a wall of bureaucracy, you will too.

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