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Sissinghurst, England’s Literary Garden


A medieval castle in ruins that has become an intimate English garden.

The lightness of English gardens is one of the most generous forms of beauty. The boundary between the wild and the planned, in a genuine “English garden,” is invisibly delimited with constructions of brick and stone, and with branches that crisscross and produce an impeccable, untamed and above all modest space.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden lies in the county of Kent, known as ‘the garden of England’ for its greenery, and which plays a very special role: offering that British intimacy, despite the public nature of the place having become famous among visitors who come to stroll through it.

Sissinghurst is an ancient site, and its Saxon name means “clearing in the woods.” The main building, a stone castle surrounded by a moat, was built in the Middle Ages and since then has gone from being a prison camp for French captives during the Seven Years War (when it suffered its most serious deterioration) to a poor and neglected farm, before being transformed into a famous garden cultivated by writers.

Its owners: the poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West and her husband, the diplomat and actor Harold Nicolson, acquired the medieval ruins of Sissinghurst in 1930 to turn them into a literary garden, divided into chapters and natural themes. The design of the space is inspired by the books of Gertrude Jekyll, a prolific writer on gardening and “environmental philosophy” who proposed a less formal appearance for private gardens: asymmetrical curves, herbaceous corners and dense borders. The standard scheme of an English garden as we know it. Jekyll wrote: “A garden is a great teacher; it teaches patience and careful observation; it teaches industry and savings; and above all it teaches trust.”

From that philosophy of informality and contemplation, the British writers transformed the sovereign ruins of Sissinghurst into a garden divided into ten separate spaces. Each one designed with autonomy and all of them deliciously different. Walls and hedges separate the thematic terrains, giving the visitor the impression of being in tranquil isolation.

Among the gardens at Sissinghurst is Tower Lawn, a plateau of grass watched over by a very tall tower: the Moat Walk and Azalea Blank, where there are Wisterias Floribunda and a mirror of water also with white flowers. But perhaps the most famous of all is the rose garden, a space designed in the traditional way with bushes and families of flowers covering the visitor’s view to the very last space. This space suggests that there is nothing but roses in the world (“to be conscious is not to be in time/ But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden” T.S. Eliot dixit).

To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered;

In short, Sissinghurst Garden is permeated with a halo of antiquity and poetry, and all who enters is, during their stay, a bard.

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