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Sissinghurst Castle Garden: a Delight in Cranbrook, Kent

Updated on July 19, 2020

The Renaissance Tower

The Early Days

In 1930, Vita Sackville-West bought the Sissinghurst Castle estate in the Weald of Kent. Over three decades, she and her husband Harold Nicolson transformed the grounds into a series of beautiful gardens that incorporated the farm and other ancient buildings, located there. In addition to this beauty, the estate has an interesting history.

In 1554, Cecily Baker, daughter of Sir John Baker, married Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset, and ancestor of Vita. The Baker family had been living in Sissinghurst since the 1530’s in an estate that had begun as a Saxon pig farm. Eventually, the De Saxinghurste family took over the estate and expanded it into a moated manor house. In the sixteenth-century, the Baker family had acquired it and built the magnificent Renaissance courtyard house that is in evidence today. Across the centuries, the estate changed hands and by the twentieth century, it had been reduced again to a simple farmstead. Sackville-West, dispossessed of her family home, Knole, because of her gender, purchased the Sissinghurst estate.

Vita Sackville-West

The beauty of the garden bespeaks the exotic background of Vita Sackville -West (1892-1962). In addition to her aristocratic descent - her father was Lionel Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville - her mother was Josefa de Oliva, a Spanish dancer, herself the daughter of an acrobat and a barber. Indeed, early pictures of Vita show her with exotic, good looks. In accordance with her birth, Vita's upbringing was unconventional, and her schooling informal. She filled her young years with penning mainly unpublished novels, plays and ballads. Many noblemen courted her but eventually, a young diplomat, Harold Nicolson, won her heart. In 1913, they married and in 1914, had their first child. In the 1920's, Nicolson moved to Tehran and no doubt, Vita's visits there inspired her novel, A Passenger to Tehran. Eventually, the couple bought the Sissinghurst estate.

The Many Garden Rooms

.....lovely blossoms!
.....lovely blossoms!

The Renaissance Garden

Here, I pose the question: what attracted Sackville- West and her husband to laying out a Renaissance-style garden? The idea of the garden has been with us since the stirrings of literature, for example, the Garden of Eden in the Bible. In the Book of Genesis, we find the word ‘cultivate’, the idea that a piece of ground could be manipulated according to the taste of its owner. In 1485, Renaissance writer, Leon Battista Alberta published De Re-aedificatoria. Alberti was a polymath and philosopher whose writings on humanistic disciplines are credited with laying the foundations of the Italian Renaissance. In his book, he argued that a house should be placed above the garden where it (the house) could be seen from outside, and that the owner should be able to look down into the garden, from inside. The Renaissance garden should encompass giochi d’aqua or water tricks, fountains and so forth, the bosco sacro or sacred wood, the giardino segredo or secret garden, and the semplici or simples, for medicinal plants and herbs. The Renaissance garden was an expansive, formal structure, its underlying philosophy being that man must recreate nature, the world, the universe– then believed to be quite a bit smaller than we know it to be now. Of course, only the powerful and rich could do this, and Vita and her husband were perfectly placed to recreate Renaissance grandeur.

Roses Around South Cottage

The Garden Rooms

Several of these features are present at Sissinghurst Castle. The Tower, which from the ground acts as a visual “anchor” for the estate, soars over the most cultivated areas of the garden. Alas, its 78 steps were closed to visitors because of covid-19 restrictions so all we could do was gaze up at its Elizabethan splendour. Although no fountains play in Sissinghurst, the water feature is most certainly reflected in the remains of the ancient most, of which two sides remain and which are incorporated into the attraction as the Moat Walk. The various garden rooms, named to reflect the predominance of the plants, include the Rose Garden, White Garden and Herb Garden, the semplici of Sissinghurst.

Other areas include the Nuttery, the Lime Walk and the Purple Border. Visitors can also access the South Cottage Garden, the Boathouse, the Orchard and the Vegetable Garden. Further afield are the lakes – actually large ponds – and the Wildlife Hide.

The Lovely Weald of Keant

The Weald of Kent

Another reason to visit Sissinghurst is that it is situated in the area of natural beauty, known as the Weald of Kent. Up to a thousand years ago, the Weald, and Old English word that means “woodland” covered in forest. This area encompassed the New Forest of Hampshire, which is west of Surrey, to Romney Marsh on the east coast of Kent. In prehistoric times, nomadic tribes grazed animals in this vast expanse of forest and by Saxon times, kings used them as royal hunting grounds. Later on again, the forest served as a place of refuge for outlaws. By now, nomadic people had begun settling into the villages and towns that define the place today: Tonbridge Wells, Hythe and Rye. One of these villages is Goudhurst, filled with charming buildings, which is en route to Sissinghurst.

The Sissinghurst Oast House

Sissinghurst Today

Today, much of the forest has dwindled to the hedgerows that surround farmland, and huge tracts of land are cultivated. The oast houses evident in this countryside point to the tradition crop of hops. These buildings, with their characteristic white plumes, were used to store and dry out hops, in preparation for the brewing industry. Today, many have been converted into desirable homes, but a small number still supply hops to brewers. Poignantly, the Sissinghurst estate has its own oast building.

Beautiful Blue Flowers

Sissinghurst: Acess and Facilities

At the time of writing this, covid-19 prevention measures are in place and interested parties must book in advance because visitor numbers are limited. The South Cottage and Tower remain closed, and no exhibitions are taking place. However, visitors have access to the shop, coffee shop and bathrooms. Access is by motor car and parking facilities are readily available. Contact details: (tel) 01580 710701 email:


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