Siss­inghurst re-Vita-lised?

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - In The News -

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

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