This List entry was subject to a Minor Enhancement on 28/06/2017
A mid C20 formal garden, created on a medieval moated site by the writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson, with surviving built features of the C16 and with adjacent land which formed part of a C16 park and which was planted with parkland trees in the C19.
Contemporary records suggest that the site of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle was occupied by a moated manor house in the late C12. By the middle of the C13 the property belonged to the de Bereham family who held it until Henry de Bereham sold it to Thomas Baker c 1490. The Bakers became very wealthy and in the mid C16, Sir John Baker was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Their fortunes declined however during the Civil War when they backed the Royalist cause, and by the late C17 Sissinghurst was in serious decline. From 1756 to 1763 the property was let to the government as a military prison resulting in considerable damage. In 1764, at the end of the Seven Years War, the property was purchased by Edward Louisa Mann of Linton Park (qv) whose nephew, Sir Horace Mann, largely demolished the house, the remnants being used as the parish poorhouse. The Mann family estates, including Sissinghurst, passed through marriage to the Cornwallis family in 1814. They sold the Sissinghurst estate in 1903 to Barton Cheeseman who sold it on to another farmer, William Wilmshurst, in 1926. His son put it up for sale in 1928.
Vita Sackville-West purchased Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, and lived there with her husband Harold Nicolson in a happy and unconventional marriage. Both Sackville-West and Nicolson had numerous same-sex affairs throughout their married life. Sackville-West had a relationship with Violet Trefusis (née Keppel) between 1918 and 1921, and also had a love affair in the 1920s with Virginia Woolf, who used Sackville-West as inspiration for her novel Orlando: A Biography (1928). Former and subsequent lovers visited Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst.
Nicolson’s affairs were similarly discreet because sex between men remained a criminal offence until 1967. Among his known lovers was James Lees-Milne, an architectural conservationist and writer who worked for the National Trust from 1936-1966 and was instrumental in its development.
On Vita's death in 1962, the Castle and gardens were bequeathed to her younger son, Nigel Nicolson and in 1967 these, together with surrounding farmland, passed to the National Trust, in whose ownership they remain (1999).
LOCATION, AREA, BOUNDARIES, LANDFORM, SETTING
Sissinghurst Castle lies c 0.5km north of the A262, between the villages of Sissinghurst, 1km to the west and Biddenden, 3km to the east. The registered site, comprising c 4ha of enclosed formal gardens and c 16ha of parkland, lies on the very gentle northern slopes of a shallow stream valley which opens north-eastwards onto the broad levels of the River Beult and the distant North Downs beyond. The site is bounded to the west, north, and east by an open landscape of arable fields and woodland. A minor, hedge-lined lane skirts the immediate north-west boundary while to the south, Roundshill Park Wood encloses the site, the boundary being marked by the course of the stream.
ENTRANCES AND APPROACHES
The site is approached by a narrow lane running north-eastwards from the A262. Some 150m west of the Castle it turns due north to serve the car park (on its west side and outside the registered site) while the drive, enclosed by hedging, skirts the south side of a large oval green and continues eastwards past Sissinghurst Castle farmhouse (listed grade II) on its south side to the Castle forecourt. A broken avenue of poplar trees, running eastwards across the green to the Castle entrance, was planted by the Nicolsons in 1932 to mark the approach. On its north-east side, the green is enclosed by a range of farm buildings around the former farmyard (outside the area here registered), now (1997) partly converted to restaurant and shop use and including an oast and roundels (listed grade II) and a C16 brick barn (listed grade I). Andrews and Dury's map of 1742 and Mudge's of 1801 both show a more direct route to the Castle from due south through Roundshill Park Wood, still evident on the ground as a hollow-way (Inspector's Report 1988), but this had ceased to be a continuous course by 1871 (OS). The two earlier maps also show an approach from due north, off the route of a present west to east public footpath, but this had also fallen out of use by the late C19.
The buildings which form Sissinghurst Castle comprise several separate elements. A long north to south, red-brick Tudor range (listed grade I), converted to living areas partly in the 1930s and partly in 1965 faces out, on the west side, onto an outer paved and yew hedge-enclosed forecourt. This range, which encloses the west side of the gardens, was built c 1490 as servants' quarters to the house which the Baker family built to replace the earlier manor house, sited within the moat (on the site of the present orchard). The range is divided centrally by the gatehouse, its central arch, inserted by Sir John Baker in c 1535 leading through into an inner courtyard, on the far east side of which sits the red-brick, three-storey Elizabethan Tower (listed grade I) with its two octagonal turrets. The Tower is the surviving part, with the Priest's House (listed grade II*) and South Cottage (listed grade II*) within the gardens, of the great Elizabethan courtyard house, probably built by Sir John Baker's son Richard, c 1560-70 on the site of the earlier Baker house and demolished by Sir Horace Mann c 1800. The Tower was restored in 1931 to provide a room for Vita on the first floor and this, together with two other rooms, is shown to visitors. Extensive views of the whole garden and the wider Kent countryside may be seen from the top of the Tower.
GARDENS AND PLEASURE GROUNDS
The formal gardens contained by the entrance range to the west, and by the arms of the moat to the north and east, were created by the Nicolsons largely between 1930 and 1939. Although a collaboration between husband and wife, Sir Harold is credited with designing the formal structure of the garden's separate enclosures, or ' succession of intimacies' as he described them, linked by vistas, and Vita with the exuberant planting. The garden was cared for from 1959 to 1990 by the joint head gardeners, Pamela Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger.
From the entrance range, the arch beneath the gatehouse, reopened from its bricked-up state in 1931, leads into the rectangular, walled, Front or Tower courtyard. This is laid to lawn and bisected by a broad flagged path flanked at its midpoint by four Irish yews (planted 1932) which leads to the foot of the Tower. Further narrow, flagged paths surround the lawn on the north-west and south sides with mixed borders and climbing plants against the walls. At the foot of the north wall, built in 1935, is the noted 'purple' border. The axial path leads eastwards through the arch beneath the Tower and down a flight of brick steps onto the Tower Lawn, established in 1931, which occupies the site of the courtyard of the Elizabethan house. The lawn is enclosed by walls clothed with climbers on its north, west, and south sides (the last two listed grade I) and, along the length of the east side, by the high double yew hedge of the Yew Walk, planted in 1932 and enclosing a flagged path. An opening in the hedges allows a long vista eastwards from the Tower Courtyard into the orchard. Contained within the south-east corner of the Tower Lawn is a small sunken garden with moisture-loving plants, built as the Lion Pond in 1930 but drained to form the present garden in 1939 (Lord 1995).
An archway in the north wall of the Tower Lawn leads into the White Garden which is enclosed on its east side by the extension northwards of the Yew Walk and by the Priest's House in the north-west corner. The garden, which was laid out by Vita and Harold after the war to replace a more conventional rose garden (Scott-James 1974), is cruciform in plan and divided into geometric compartments by a pattern of low box hedges and flagged or brick paths. The compartments are abundantly planted with flowers and foliage of predominantly grey or white and an iron-work canopied rose arbour, designed by Nigel Nicolson in 1970, forms the centrepiece from where there are vistas northwards through a clairvoie in the north wall and eastwards through an opening in the Yew Walk into the Orchard. A small vine-covered loggia in the north-west corner served as an outdoor dining room for the Nicolsons. West of the White Garden a path along the south front of the Priest's House leads into the garden known as Delos. Developed informally from the late 1930s and undergoing many subsequent changes, it is now (1997) informally planted with magnolias, peonies, ferns, and other trees and shrubs for year-round interest.
South of the Tower Lawn, and on the north/south axis from the White Garden, a flagged path leads through an archway in the wall into the Rondel, a circular yew-hedged enclosure bisected by north to south and east to west paths and vistas, which forms the centrepiece of the Rose Garden. Flagged paths (grassed until the 1980s) divide box-edged rectangular beds which are filled with a wealth of old-fashioned roses mixed with flowering shrubs and herbaceous plants and climbers. The structure of the Rose Garden was designed by Harold Nicolson and planted in 1937 on the site of their former kitchen garden. The west end of the east/west axial path terminates in a high brick wall with a crescent-shaped arbour, built in 1935 (ibid).
The path from the south side of the Rondel leads southwards into the west end of the Lime Walk, designed by Harold Nicolson and begun in 1932. The wide, central flagged walk is enclosed along its north and south sides by tall hornbeam hedges fronted by borders of massed spring bulbs beneath the avenue of pleached lime trees. The present trees were planted in 1978 to replace the originals of 1936. Some 25m eastwards along the Lime Walk, an opening in the northern hedge forms the approach to the Cottage Garden. A path of paving stones and bricks, on the axis of the south front of South Cottage (the first building the Nicolsons made habitable in 1930), leads to the central feature of a large planted copper, guarded by four Irish yews planted in 1934 (ibid). The abundant planting around the narrow paths is concentrated on the warm shades of red, yellow, and orange.
East of the Cottage Garden, a path leads down a flight of brick steps onto the lawn of the Moat Walk which extends north-eastwards on the site of the southern moat arm and which is focused on a statue of Dionysus (installed 1932, replaced 1995) standing within a niche in the beech hedge on the east side of the eastern moat arm. The north side of the Moat Walk is defined by the brick moat wall while to the south, a bank of azaleas separates it from the Nuttery. This grove of coppiced hazel, surviving from c 1900 (Lord 1995) was planted with the present shade-loving woodland plants in 1975, to replace the Nicolsons' original underplanting of polyanthus. At the east end of the Nuttery, clipped yew hedges enclose the small rectangular Herb Garden laid out by Vita in 1938 with square beds separated by narrow paths, their present brick and stone surface replacing the original grass surface. On the north side of the Herb Garden, at the south end of the moat arm, the two rectangular beds forming a small thyme lawn were laid out by Vita in 1948 (ibid). From this south-east corner, the water-filled moat arms extend along the eastern and northern boundaries of the gardens and enclose the Orchard. Planted by the Nicolsons in 1937 to its present appearance with fruit trees, roses, and spring bulbs in long grass, the Orchard was probably first established c 1900 (ibid). Mown grass paths both cut across it and run alongside the moat, focusing on the octagonal gazebo (built in 1969 in memory of Harold Nicolson) to the north-east at the junction of the moat arms. The Orchard also contains a dovecote (erected 1954) and a Greek altar.
The present parkland lies to the south-west and south-east of the gardens. A walk which runs along the outer banks of the north and east moat arms continues south-eastwards, through the remnants of a poplar avenue originally planted with thirty-six trees, to the two lakes which the Nicolsons constructed in 1930 by damming the stream (Scott-James 1974). The lakes are largely enclosed by woodland to the south-east and are surrounded by a perimeter walk.
The parkland which extends south-westwards is laid to pasture with a light scatter of trees, including some replacement of losses in the storm of 1987. A park was probably established at Sissinghurst with the building of the house c 1500 and is mentioned in deeds between 1531 and 1631 (Inspector's Report 1988). Andrews, Dury and Herbert's map of Kent of 1769 shows a park occupying the site of Roundshill Park Wood (outside the area here registered), the southern two-thirds of the present parkland and additional land to the west. This area (c 70ha) is clearly shown as parkland on the OS Surveyor's drawings of 1797-1801. Greenwood's map of 1819-20 records this same area as Sissinghurst Park although woodland appears to be established by then in Roundshill Park Wood. By 1840 (Tithe map) fragmentation of the park into small woods and fields has occurred; the boundaries and planting pattern of the present parkland appear established on the OS 1st edition of 1876, indicating a mid to late C19 origin.
Country Life, 92 (28 August 1942), pp 410-13; (4 September 1942), pp 458-61; (11 September 1942), pp 506-09
J Newman, The Buildings of England: West Kent and the Weald (1969), pp 508-09
A Scott-James, Sissinghurst, The Making of a Garden (1974)
Sissinghurst Castle Garden, guidebook, (National Trust 1978, revised 1982)
J Brown, Vita's Other World (1985)
Inspector's Report: Sissinghurst Park, (English Heritage 1988)
Sissinghurst Castle, guidebook, (National Trust 1994)
A Lord, Gardening at Sissinghurst (1995)
J Andrews, A Dury and W Herbert, A Topographical Map of the County of Kent, 2" to 1 mile, 1769
C Greenwood, Map of the County of Kent from an actual survey made in the years 1819 and 1820, c 1" to 1 mile, 1821
Tithe map for Cranbrook parish, 1840 (Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone)
OS Surveyor's drawings, 1797-1801, (British Library Maps)
OS 6" to 1 mile: 1st edition surveyed 1870-1, published 1876
2nd edition published 1899
3rd edition published 1909
OS 25" to 1 mile: 3rd edition published 1908
Description written: July 1997
Amended: January 1999
Register Inspector: VCH
Edited: November 2003