Just back from a week in East Sussex, re-living childhood holidays with my sister. As children we spent two weeks every summer with an aunt who lived in Battle, Sussex. Last week we took the respective husbands to see where we spent holidays from when we were babies ’til we were 16 or so. Having lost both parents last year, it was a poignant few days, but also filled with happy memories and lots of laughing (howling with laughter as we excavated forgotten stories of games, parental bad behaviour, sibling bad behaviour, and the kind of tales that only 2 sixty-plus year old sisters can generate). But lovely though that was, this blog is not about our nostalgia-fest.
We spent some time visiting gardens, as you do. We made a trip to Dungeness to see Derek Jarman’s garden (of course), and who can visit East Sussex without a trip to Great Dixter and pay homage to the late, great Christopher Lloyd? Sissinghurst also made it onto the agenda, although I am always nervous that these touchstones of garden visiting will disappoint (it didn’t).
I’ve been to Dungeness before – I can’t resist these bleak, open spaces – all sea breeze, shingle and sparse, gorse-covered mounds around the old water-filled gravel pits. The RSPB reserve there always turns up a rarity or two. But this visit was about the landscape and Derek Jarman’s garden fits into it perfectly. Visible from the road the little black-tarred cottage with its jaunty yellow window frames invites you to take a closer look and although many of the flowering plants were over – the Crambe, the Santolina – it is still an inspiring delight of flotsam sculpture, beech-combed items displayed carefully and the whitened stones from the beach a structural theme. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I have always loved it.
I haven’t been to Great Dixter for probably ten years. Although it’s another favourite of mine, I have been nervous of visiting since Christopher Lloyd’s death. Last time we were there the great man himself came down the terrace steps as we were approaching them on our way to the Long Border. He raised a hand to us and walked off down into the meadow, dachshund at his heels. It was a ‘hold-your-breath’ kind of moment. The front of the house is still beautiful, with the pots full of colour as always, and the oak beams silvered in the late sun. There is the most beautiful small border curving away from the right of the house planted with silver, purple and pink. Sadly, I didn’t have the camera so you’ll have to imagine! The pool garden was also looking well, although it’s hard not to be beautiful with that huge expanse of tiled roof on the barn forming the perfect backdrop. I love the exotic garden – a big improvement on the roses that were there before – and the long border, even as it turns towards the end of the season – was still impressive with orange and yellow daisies, dahlias and the structure of giant thistle particularly effective. In fact the dahlias were magnificent throughout the garden. The topiary was freshly clipped and so looking perfect against the blowsy, overgrown, overstocked flower beds that are a mark of that part of the garden. I think earlier in the year I would have been enchanted, as it was I felt overwhelmed by the height of everything in those beds – even the nasturtiums were growing at eye-level – but as always the grouping and the juxtaposition of plants makes you stop and stare. There were some particularly tall, deep red dahlias set in front of a clump of green and white variegated bamboo (I think) that was just a stunning combination, in fact, the dahlias all over the garden were fabulous – there were pom-pom dahlias in the pond garden that had flowers the size of your head! And next year I am definitely growing Eupatorium wherever I can fit it in.
As someone who loves gardens and gardening I am ashamed to say that I have never visited Sissinghurst, so this week’s visit was the fulfilment of a 40 year intention. I have read (a lot) about Vita and her lovers and Harold and his, and of course about the making of that romantic garden. That whole Bohemian thing is magnetic – Vita, Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury group, Violet Trefusis, Augustus John, Dora Carrington and the rest. Pushing social and sexual boundaries, living in a way that was (at the time) outrageous and exciting. But the devotion of Vita and Harold through years of extra-marital relationships on both sides is fascinating and enthralling. There is a LGBTQ exhibition at Sissinghurst at the moment which is well worth a visit if you go to the garden.
There is something about the old red brick and tile of Kent and East Sussex that makes the perfect environment for the quintessentially English garden that Sissinghurst has become. The White Garden, almost a cliché, but still beautiful at the end of September with fading roses and jasmine and the cool pergola offering shade to sit in one corner. An autumnal border in the late afternoon sun was glorious and a few simple Sedum plants in a stone container were fresh lemon and lime and quite lovely.
In the orchard there were autumn crocus and colchicum studding the rough grass and the windfall fruit were dropping even as we walked across the ground. Near the moat the acorns plopped into the water and showered onto our heads as we took shelter in Vita’s writing gazebo with its view of the Kent countryside rolling away to the horizon. How could anyone write even 200 words a day with the distraction of the garden and the view? As at Great Dixter, the dahlias were many, various and magnificent. I fell in love with the shoo-fly plant (Nicandra Physalodes) still flowering as it set seed in its black-veined lanterns. The gardeners were busy in the borders but friendly and helpful, identifying plants from our sketchy descriptions and offering advice on where they might do well. It may not have been the glory of high summer, but there were fewer visitors and the gardens could be seen in comfort with vistas clear and empty paths. I should have visited before. I will visit again.
The Optimistic Gardener