There are moves afoot to reinvent Kent’s famous castle garden. By Tim Richardson
Back in 2008 I wrote an article suggesting that the garden at Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent, famously the creation of poet and garden-maker Victoria (“Vita”) Sackville-West and her husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson, had rather lost its mojo. It seemed to me that while it was being gardened at a high level, horticulturally speaking, the tone of the planting and general atmosphere of the place were a long way from anything Vita would have recognised. There was little of the romantic effusiveness, the pleasant disorder, at times shading into chaos, which this aristocratic owner, the very epitome of “shabby chic”, had carefully nurtured.
Instead, the garden was presented as a well organised, professionally run visitor attraction. It had lost its romance. Vita had vanished.
To my astonishment, this elicited a furious reaction from a former head of gardens at the National Trust. He fired off a “green-ink letter” to the then director-general of the Trust, Dame Fiona Reynolds, stating that I was a discredit to the National Trust’s gardens advisory panel.
Fortunately I was not sacked from this job (or should we say “role”, as it was voluntary). But I was taken aback by the force of feeling.
I shouldn’t have been. Sissinghurst, more than any other garden I know, inspires extremes of emotion. There is a feeling that this is Britain’s leading garden – and so, arguably, the world’s, a status that has proven to be both a great boon and an albatross around its neck.
The truth is that the views I expressed then were not particularly controversial. It’s just that the relentlessly celebratory tone of most garden journalism meant that no one had actually said it in print. Many if not most people in the gardens world felt something was wrong there. A 2009 television series about Sissinghurst (made by my wife, as it happens) demonstrated that the “donor family”, led by Adam Nicolson and his wife Sarah Raven, felt this way about the entire estate.
That has all changed. The fourth general manager in four years looks set to stay, and a new head gardener, Troy Scott Smith, has been appointed with the mission to “re-Vita-lise” the garden. Judging by my last visit, in June, it appears that Sissinghurst is already well on the road to recovery. There is a new sense of fullness to important areas (notably the rose garden, because it is now understood that shrub roses are crucial to the garden) as well as evidence of a new sensitivity to atmosphere and the importance of fine detail.
Scott Smith, 44, is the key to this success. He “gets it”. As one member of the Nicolson family said to me, Vita would have thrown up her hands in dismay at the former management. But she would be throwing her arms around Scott Smith today.
As a long-standing National Trust man, he understands how the organisation functions, which helps. He was previously head gardener at Bodnant, North Wales, and before that The Courts in Holt, Wiltshire. Crucially, early in his career he spent five years as a gardener at Sissinghurst.
On visits back to the garden over the years, he admits: “There was something which just bothered me about the place, the look and the feel of it. I was very content at Bodnant but when this job was advertised I thought about it and it became quite clear to me what was wrong.
“Sissinghurst should be really intimate and romantic and immersive. A soft wash should permeate across the garden. But it had become too frigid, too processed. Beyond the
Some proposed changes at Sissinghurst