Saturday was the last day of June! Since June is peak garden month in England, and the weather was forecast was perfect, I rented a car and set out to see a couple of my top bucket-list gardens.
First stop? Sissinghurst castle garden in Kent (about 2 hours southeast of London). There is no “castle” per se, though the property does date back to medieval times and there are remnants of an Elizabethan estate, mainly in the form of some converted stables, a couple of cottages, and a random tower. But the gardens are incredible. The author Vita Sackville-West and her husband purchased the derelict property in the 1930s and set about creating the most romantic of gardens. The gardens are so frequently mentioned in the gardening books I’ve been reading that I figured this was the place to start.
The castle from the outside just looks like a long rectangular building. According to a couple of guides, this building is an old mews dating back to the 14th Century. Not particularly interesting aside from the age, but you begin already to see the garden aesthetic emerge: a “wild” meadow beneath some young fruit trees; lush plantings on either side of the main entrance.
Inside the central courtyard stands a somewhat random tower that was built in the 1500s and originally served as a sort of gatehouse to the original stately house. Nowadays, it’s the only thing left, and it’s mainly interesting for its great aerial views of the gardens and countryside. Vita Sackville-West had a writing room and 3,000 books squirreled away in one of the turret rooms.
The gardens are among the most beautiful I’ve seen. They seem to approach the Platonic ideal of the romantic English garden. I loved the profusion of color and layering of plants. One of my favorite groupings was a massive climbing rose with large yellow flowers that had been inter-grown with tiny bell-like clematis and some dangling purple thing.
Another thing I loved was the use of vines — everywhere flowering vines! Clematis and roses and sweetpeas in particular. They clambered over walls, of course, but also trees and trellises. The trellises were most interesting to me. They were constructed simply with tree branches, and once overgrown looked like a mass of plants rather than something structural.
The garden was divided into “rooms” with themes. The rose garden and herb garden were lovely but somewhat predictable. But the white garden, and the yellow-and-red garden, were gorgeous palette-driven plantings with remarkable effect.
Out past the color-filled garden rooms was an old orchard with long meadow grasses and, of course, more climbing roses.
As I go back through these photos, I realize how little justice they do to the gardens. The effect is strongest when you’re there in the sun and the breeze, surrounded by flowers and immersed in the fragrance of roses, lilies, and jasmine, and eavesdropping on the conversations of the other visitors: couples discussing which plants they’d like to try at home; groups of old women reminiscing about the gardens they had in their youth in Italy.