Category Archives: Visiting Beautiful Gardens



Sissinghurst Castle, Cranford, Kent, England

                              Vita’s tower, Sissinghurst Castle, photo by Iory Allison 

Sissinghurst Castle is a place beyond time. A dwelling of private retreat and poetic dreams, built on crumbling foundations of thwarted Elizabethan ambition. Over time it was corrupted by ignorance of its true value from a place of noble hospitality to a fetid dungeon of prison misery. But the ancient Spirits of the Weald, outraged by the ignominy of mankind’s vanity, wove a spell that blanketed the place beneath a profound sleep, guarded over by a jealous tangle of dark forest and briar Rose – fierce protectors of the artist’s muse. 

 Much like Burne Jones’s Sleeping Beauty, the center of the mystery at Sissinghurst is the quest for the perfect lover, the sleeping bulb waiting for the gardener’s caress to awaken the beloved. This was eventually accomplished by a mismatched couple who recognized in each other impossible love and allowed that precious treasure to bloom forth into the light.

Burne Jones, Sleeping Beauty, “The Rose Bower” 1885- 90

Here lies the hoarded love, the key 

To all the treasure that shall be; 

Come fated hand the gift to take 

And smite this sleeping world awake. 

William Morris 

Photo by Iory Allison

Sissinghurst Castle, photo by Iory Allison, the central entrance arch with flanking gables was built in 1530’s 

“A tired swimmer in the waves of time 

I throw my hands up: let the surface close: 

Sink down through centuries to another clime, 

And buried find the castle and the rose. 

Buried in time and sleep, 

So drowsy, overgrown, 

That here the moss is green upon the stone, 

And lichen stains the keep.” 

Vita Sackville-West, “Sissinghurst” 

photo by Iory Allison

The epicenter of Sissinghurst Castle is the tower built in the mid-1500s by Sir Richard Baker as a gatehouse for his vast courtyard palace of which this structure is one of the few surviving components. It also originally served as a viewing platform to follow the progress of the hunts enacted in the 700-acre surrounding deer park. In modern times it was reclaimed by Vita Sackville-West as her private retreat where she spent nights writing some of her 17 novels, 12 collections of poetry, gardening columns for the Observer from 1946 -1961 and endless letters, etc.   

The surrounding garden, composed of a dozen “garden rooms” was conceived and realized by Vita and her husband, Harold Nicolson, beginning in 1930 when they bought Sissinghurst, until their respective deaths in the 1960’s. Harold mapped out the “bones” of the garden with its formal alignments and landscape architecture whilst Vita specialized in the design, selection and planting of the flowers and shrubs. Although the Nicolsons had a staff working with them throughout their long tenure, they were both hands-on gardeners, stooping to pull weeds and plant the “crammed” flower beds and borders that compose this unique garden of earthly delights.  

Harold Nicolson began his career as a diplomat serving the British Empire in Madrid, Istanbul and Persia as well as participating in the Versailles Treaty concluding the First World War. From 1931-1946 he was a member of Parliament. His literary output like Vita’s was prodigious incorporating history, biography, journalism, literary criticism, diarist, etc.  

Vita and Harold had a mystic vision when they recognized the then ruin of Sissinghurst as a place of magic beauty. At first, together with their staff, they attacked the iron grasp of wildness that had a strangle hold on the property and they all labored long to reclaim the lost grandeur of the place. In their struggle an ancient rose, “Rosa Gallica” now known as “Sissinghurst Castle” was found languishing in the bramble. This beauty was perhaps one of the few precious plants dating from Elizabethan times and a symbol of Vita and Harold’s intent to revive an historic property where they could create a garden. There they both could nurture their delicate love of each-other, their two sons and their respective writing careers. They sought to heal the physical and spiritual scars inflicted by a grim period of the Seven Years war with France (1756-63) when the property was used as a prison and then its subsequent century and a half of neglect when the place went into a deep sleep waiting for the questing lovers to find their Eden. 

Harold and Vita lived in an “open” marriage and both of them had affairs and lovers of both sexes, most famously Vita’s passionate love affair with Violet Trefusis as revealed posthumously by her son Nigel in his book, “Portrait of a Marriage.” I was very much aware of the Lesbian and Gay aspects of Vita and Harold’s respective lives. As an “out” Gay man myself in a long term committed relationship of 41 years and now legally married to my husband, Leo, I was gratified by the frank discussion of these subjects at Sissinghurst by the National Trust. Referring to her own Lesbianism Vita is quoted by the Trust, “The psychology of people like myself will be a matter of interest when hypocrisy gives place to a spirit of candor which one hopes will spread with the progress of the world.”

 With a lot of courageous political activism, persistence and just plain common sense that prediction is beginning to come to fruition. A general understanding that same sex love is a natural facet of the human psyche is now gaining ascendancy in world culture. 
   T2H2, The Two Happy Husbands, Leo and Iory  went on a pilgrimage to Sissinghurst last month and with the idea of avoiding the crowds we chose mid-October for our visit. Leo is the gardener of our family and I the writer, so Sissinghurst is a natural place for us.  

Mid-October however was very definitely the tail end of the garden year and while it was quiet of people, the garden was in the last throws of a vigorous season and slowly retreating into the bosom of her mother, that private space of winter where the mystery of regeneration fuels tomorrow’s fecundity. As the leaves of summer turn the subtle colors of faded tapestry and then for a moment dance on autumn’s chilly winds, the structures of bare branches and lichen etched masonry are discovered and we become aware of the “bones” of this garden, where even the whispered memories of passing seasons have a compelling interest – perhaps even more so than the grand trumpeted fanfare of full summer exuberance. 

 There is in England, and Sissinghurst especially, an appreciation for the beauty of extended time and a wise understanding borne from the connoisseur’s eye for the inevitable consequences of that potent force wearing away at the fabric of the material world. The struggle of the artist to preserve and perpetuate her creation is fortified by the knowledge that all layers in the growth of time have profound value and the shimmering imperfection of iridescence is the final revelation to the poet questing for the ideal.  

Photo by Iory Allison 

Vita’s Tower as seen from the rose garden through a turquoise wrought iron gate. The beautiful wrought iron-work of the gate frames this view and also contrasts with the ancient brick walls. Although the tower can be glimpsed from all over the garden and the surrounding fields of the estate, in Harold and Vita’s design it is also concealed from direct view by intentional twists and turns in the overall labyrinth of the garden. Then when we become aware of the tower again it is partially veiled beyond gates or crumbling walls, clipped hedges or strategically placed trees. 

Vita Sackville-West in her twenties, by William Strang, 1918 

This is one of my favorite images of Vita in her characteristic flat brimmed hat. I believe a version of this hat was originally a gondolier’s hat from Venice. In any case the various hats of this kind that Vita adopted over the years have an ambiguous masculine / feminine look that sets her apart. One of the amusing aspects of the English nobility is their frequent pose of eccentricity with its implied assumption of privileged rank, allowing for whim and caprice to partially unbind them from the strict confines of convention. 

Vita’s writing room, photo by Iory Allison  

I took this snapshot of Vita’s inner sanctum through a wrought iron grill that allows only a coy glimpse of this magical space. The portrait on the easel by the fireplace is of Violet Trefusis an early and important lover of Vita’s.

The painting dead center depicting a naked man astride what I suspect is a lion or leopard – not a horse as I originally assumed – is an exasperating mystery that I was not able to identify. It seems an incongruous image to be dominating the private domain of a woman lover of women. But that’s probably my own frustration not knowing why this powerful image is here and what it signifies. Perhaps nothing more than a sensual reference to the strength of man and beast, domination of the rider who mounts the creature and the thrust of his spear impaling a mysterious foe.   

Photo by Iory Allison 

Here is another corner of Vita’s writing room. Perched conspicuously on a book ladder is the famous Gladstone bag that Nigel Nicholson, Vita’s younger son and executor, found in her tower room after her death. The Bag contained the manuscript account of her passionate romance and elopement with Violet Trefusis to Paris in 1920 and forms the central material of Nigel’s book, “Portrait of a Marriage.”    

Original “Hogarth” printing press, photo by Iory Allison  

As Vita’s tower is the center of Sissinghurst so also is this printing press the center of the of the literary history of the place. It now enjoys a place of honor on the second floor of the tower. In 1930 Virginia and Leonard Wolf gave it to Vita and Harold as a house warming present to commemorate their purchase of Sissinghurst. This Minerva Platen printing press is the actual press on which the Wolfs began their publishing career. In the beginning they  hand set and printed a remarkable collection of modernist writers including; T S Eliot’s, “The Waste Land,” Vita’s best-selling novel, “The Edwardians,” Virginia’s novel, “Jacob’s Room,” Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin” and translations of Sigmund Freud to name a few of the 527 titles that compiled the Hogarth Press list  published from 1917 until 1946, the period when the Wolfs were involved in the company.   


Photo by Iory Allison 

The National Trust continues the tradition of bouquets of fresh flowers picked from the Sissinghurst gardens and informally arranged and displayed inside the various buildings. Here is cheery bunch of dahlias in a deep blue glass vase, the sole decoration perched on an old worn table in one of the white washed tower rooms.  

Here is an absolutely charming photo of Vita with her two boys, Benedict and Nigel. Notice that they all have a family resemblance, a distant and wistful expression that hints at private repose like the depths of a mysterious pool only glimpsed beyond surface reflections.   

Photo by Iory Allison 

There are approximately 12 distinctly different “garden rooms” composing the overall design at Sissinghurst. In my photograph, taken from the roof deck of the central tower, I particularly like the semicircular brick wall to the right. It echoes the central feature of the yew hedge (at the far left) and also just because I like curved shapes. From this viewpoint you can see the surrounding country side of Sissinghurst farm with its open pastures surrounded by the Kent weald, or forest.  

Photo by Iory Allison  

This is a closer view of the curved wall that acts like a theatrical backdrop and focal point for a garden bench. From that vantage point one can survey an overabundance of roses encroaching on the regimented grid of flower beds.     

Photo by Iory Allison  

The severely clipped yew hedges forming this central “room” contains a unique space void of flowers, sculptures or other distractions. The imposition of this undecorated geometry is the “rest” or quiet moment in the music that makes the cacophony of exuberant flowers fall into complete harmony.    

In an old photo we see Vita and Harold posing in their garden. Like the ancient brick walls and worn textured doors, the garden bones, they show the signs of age that are the hallmarks of quality. Following that analogy, if the carefully preserved castle ruins are the bones of Sissinghurst and the plants are the flesh on those bones then these two unlikely lovers are the life’s blood of the place

photo by Iory Allison

Scarlet dahlias enliven the autumn garden extending the palette of orangey-pink brick to a full range of fiery tones. To me this chorus of bright blossoms calls out with coloratura bravado, “We are beautiful, this is our time, take note!   

Photo by Iory Allison

As I research this lovely statue of Pomona, the Roman Goddess of fruitful abundance, I was surprised to learn that it had been stolen in May of 2013. I cannot for the life of me find any mention of the return of it to  Sissinghurst and now I am more baffled as to the pristine condition of the sculpture. 

 When visiting the garden, I saw its gleaming white marble and assumed that it had been cleaned and I wondered at that because the obvious aesthetic of everything else was of texture and patina. But I know that contemporary art historians have a tendency to scrub everything down to a sterile shine, so I assumed that was the case here and with due respect she does now sparkle with a twinkle in her eye. But I wonder, was a reproduction sculpture created to fill the forlorn absence of Pomona.  

As I admired this divine dancer holding ringing cymbals vibrating with the harmony of abundant life, I thought how appropriate for this alluring Goddess to be a focal point in Vita’s garden. I was further delighted to speak with the gardener assiduously keeping Pomona’s exuberance in order.    

photo by Iory  Allison

I’ll go out on a limb here and identify this gaggle of pink beauties as Naked Ladies or Amaryllis Belladonna. Whatever the accurate name “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and so do these little darlings, the last glory of the season.  

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