It’s early in the morning on a May day at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, in southern England, but Lucie Willan is already starting work on her designated plot of land, past banks of white flowers that sprout up like one big billowing cloud. That’s to be expected, though. Like all the gardeners at Sissinghurst, she is driven by a profound sense of mission.
“I used to be an art specialist at Christie’s Auction House,” she tells me as she weeds. Why the career shift? It turns out it was seamless. “There are eight gardeners here at the moment and we are all determined to keep Sissinghurst thriving, because it’s a living work of art in itself.”
For the dedicated garden lovers who fan out across the English countryside in the spring and summer, sniffing the perfumed air, the sentiment won’t come as a surprise. Sissinghurst is considered one of the great quintessentially British gardens. The carpet of blossoms, planted by writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband, Harold Nicolson, in the 1930s, eschews French formality — those tight, rigid plots of flowers — for a sense of ripe wildness.
Even those indifferent to the perfect plot of dahlias will find enough to enjoy here; the surrounding shire of Kent offers the classic English trinity of pastoral villages, castles and stately manors, and even more gardens. And there is a new reason to make the trek: The National Trust has recently started renting out the Priest’s House, tucked into Sissinghurst Gardens themselves. That means for the first time you can book a mini manor for the week, or a weekend, and have the entire, blooming garden to yourself, once the gates close to visitors at dusk.
The Priest’s House sleeps six and is pretty much everything you’d want from an English bolt-hole. It’s also cheaper than the bleakest B&B if you break it down by person, which is what my partner, Thomas McGhee, and I did when we came down from London with three friends.
We took a one-hour train ride south from London to Maidstone, picked up a rental there and finished the trip by car. The minute we walked into the 16th-century red brick rental, we knew the trek was worth it.
“This kitchen!” exclaimed our friend Kathy, designated cook in the group, standing beside a brick oven big enough to spit-roast a brontosaurus. There were three bedrooms, a free-standing ceramic tub, beamed ceilings, mullioned windows, a living room featuring pillowy sofas and a fireplace. The climax: a library off the living room stocked with real books, an antidote to those faux libraries of color-coordinated volumes, the book literally reduced to its cover, that pop up in too many boutique hotels now.
Those books are testament to the garden’s own roots. Sackville-West, who wrote her Edwardian novels in the brick tower that juts up in the garden’s center, was a close friend and onetime lover of Virginia Woolf, and the gardens occasionally hosted the pastoral wing of Bloomsbury bohemia. Nicolson penned his own vaunted biographies and diaries in the South Cottage. In other words, these weren’t two amateurs haphazardly throwing some lily seeds around. Bringing their two big brains together, they approached the gardens as a joint masterwork and, ultimately, as a love letter to each other.
“What happiness you and I have derived from the garden,” Harold wrote Vita in 1955. “I mean real deep satisfaction and a feeling of success. It is an achievement — assuredly it is. And it is pleasant to feel that we have created a work of art.”
Flowing waves of color
I’m no gardener, unlike Tommy, who knows the Latin name for even the homeliest tulip, but I could nonetheless sense the profound passion that went into every madly sprouting acre of Sissinghurst. The garden was famously laid out like a series of rooms, but as we wandered the mosaic, the gardens felt more fluid than that and the rooms read more as stage sets.
Every promenade, bordered by high hedges, led to a surprise — an urn, a stone nymph, a statue of Bacchus, his head thrown back in heavy-lidded ecstasy against a wall of green leaves. The real show, though, was the subtle palette of the blooming irises, daffodils, crocuses, azaleas, tulips, roses and hyacinths that shifted depending on the time of day; there were pools of plum, orange and yellow flowers, playing off each other in flowing waves of color that were a study in controlled spontaneity. Only the white garden, which surrounds the Priest’s House, was monochromatic, and at dusk those pale blossoms suddenly popped out, fully awake.
There were plenty of other distractions for non-horticulturalists like me. The sign-posted flower names read like poetry — butchers broom, milk thistle, culled wood sage, Chinese lanterns, meadow saffron, silver cineraria, rosa villosa. There were all the tweedy English gents, Ian McKellen doppelgängers, wandering the garden during the day, leading dogs named Beryl and Bertie, like something out of a P.G. Wodehouse comedy. And there was the beamed barn converted into a dining room, just beyond the garden gates, where the rhubarb parfait, and a Stilton English quiche, became our daily addiction.
Quirky English villages
When I was able to tear the flower lovers away from the garden itself, there was the larger blooming patch of Kent, where the surrounding farms — Apple Pie Farm, Crabtree Farm, Lime Tree Farm — made the countryside sound eminently ripe and edible.
Keep driving and you find the kind of quirky crossroads that can satisfy a village-hunter like myself.
Biddenden, just outside Sissinghurst, was almost enough in itself. There was a row of buckling half-timbered houses, the Red Lion pub dishing up lamb and mint pies along with the pints, and a churchyard studded with mottled, tilting gravestones so old the ghostly names of the dead — Louise, Elizabeth — were barely visible, a last faint voice being swallowed up by time.
Overlooking the whole postcard was the town sign, planted on a patch of green, depicting Biddenden’s mascots — conjoined twins Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, who were born in 1100, joined at the hip and shoulder, and who left their wealth to the village after dying within hours of each other. They still stand joined, their necks circled by high Elizabethan collars, on pub signs throughout town — the Biddenden Maids come to rest at home.
Just beyond Biddenden is the more Georgian town of Tenterden, where the antique shops were bulging with Staffordshire china, and the bakeries were selling millionaire bars (caramel topped by chocolate) and cream-stuffed pastries.
If that’s not enough for dedicated Anglophiles, this whole pocket of Kent can lay claim to being one of England’s great epicenters for castle collectors. Within an easy drive of Sissinghurst are Leeds Castle and Penshurst Place, birthplace of Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney. We descended on Knole House instead, to keep a sense of theme going, since Knole was where Vita was raised, and the grand estate she would have inherited if she hadn’t been born, um, a female.
She never overcame the sense of injustice — Sissinghurst was in some ways her retaliation, proof she could plant her own exquisite estate — but she was up against a lot. Knole, it turns out, was one very hard act to follow.
That was clear the minute we approached. Parked in the middle of its own epic garden, the Jacobean manor hasn’t been tarted up for tourist selfies or too tightly curated. Instead it is still a rambling, loopy explosion of English eccentricity and polyglot Grand Tour tchotchke collecting run amok.
We wandered through long galleries rimmed by plasterwork gargoyles and mermaids, under garlands of tulips, lilies and roses, like a garden bursting out of the ceiling. (Take that, Vita.) There were massive gilded candelabras, Renaissance tapestries, and a running family album of aristocratic portraits, each trailing their own story. Some were tragic. The portrait of a very blond, rosy-cheeked George Frederick Sackville, hanging in the manor’s first long hall, looks like an image of pure English fortune. Sadly, though, the heir to Knole was killed in a riding accident a few months after his bonfire-lit birthday celebration at the estate, his spine crushed by a falling horse.
If you need some comic relief after that sad tale, the portrait of Charles Sackville, Second Duke of Dorset, faces the fallen heir; he is wearing a big plumed crown, above a frozen smile, in a perfect approximation of a seriously inbred, wholly endearing twit.
Outside the manor is an orangery, England’s last remaining medieval deer park, and another epic garden, just one of many that pop up throughout Kent, enough for a horticultural marathon.
A sense of home
Increasingly, we were content to stay put, returning to Sissinghurst after every country jaunt with a growing sense of coming home, to the cottage covered in its own furry hide of climbing ivy. The question seemed to be whether we were ever going to leave quietly. Gigi and Kathy, in fact, seemed to be plotting to stay put, hatching some dicey schemes that included signing on variously as volunteer gardeners, shepherdesses or dairy maids; it was never really clear. And Tommy kept disappearing for hours. “The garden is totally different every second,” he would report. “In the morning it’s all soft, hazy pastels and at dusk things turn jewel-toned.”
That, of course, was all part of Vita and Harold’s plan, from the beginning. You can see their fervor in the very first seeds they planted. I came upon that bloom our last evening at Sissinghurst, sprouting beside the South Cottage. “Rosa and Madame Alfred Carriere,” read a chalkboard sign propped up next to the flower. “A noisette rose with clusters of sweetly-scented white/cream double flowers. This plant is 81 years old and was the first thing planted by Vita and Harold at Sissinghurst (even before the deed was signed).”
Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, writes for Epicurious.com, Condé Nast Traveler and other media.