Sunday, June 16, 2013

Journey to Sissinghurst

Ten years ago, I spent one week in London during the month of June. During that week I made day trips to Kew Gardens, Lamb House in Rye, and Sissinghurst Castle. 

From my journal, dated June 22, 2003:

At Victoria Station. Am steaming inside. Why didn't I just have a lie in and read all day? Instead, once again I've wasted time by going to Charing Cross Station first instead of Victoria. Silly me - didn't realize they were going to cancel today's run that stops at Staplehurst. So here I am at Victoria losing an hour. I'll miss the direct bus to Sissinghurst. 

But this is what adventures are all about. Or perhaps I should say this is what quests are all about - the struggle, the conflict, the repeated failures, and yet determination to succeed when it would be much easier just to give up.

Sissinghurst Castle
Sissinghurst Castle, site of the magnificent gardens of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson

My introduction to Sissinghurst Castle came late in 1990 while perusing the November issue of HG, the now-defunct American version of House & Garden magazine. The issue included an article by Nigel Nicolson about the renowned garden created by his parents, the writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. 

The garden has evolved since its origin in the 1930s. In his article "Sissinghurst Grows Up," Nigel Nicolson wrote "The garden changes because we do not slavishly replace a plant that dies with the same plant in the same place." 

On June 22, 2003, I disembarked from the train at Staplehurst Station, located an open taxi stand but decided, after the long ride, to visit the loo before arranging transportation out to Sissinghurst. I retraced my steps to find the nearly hidden sign for the ladies room. Once inside, I saw a urinal and wondered how I managed to end up in the wrong room. It reminded me of a morning a few years earlier when at the Raleigh-Durham airport I came upon a man in the ladies room. A victim of poorly placed signage, the man stood inside a toilet stall, door open, with his back to the restroom entrance. His eyes widened when, turning as he zipped up, he saw me enter the room. I imagine that in that instant he comprehended why this airport restroom had no urinals. 

At Staplehurst Station I almost backed out of what must have been the men's room, but having the chamber to myself, I instead opened a stall wherein I found a half-eaten chili dog perched on the toilet tank. I averted my eyes and held my breath, reminding myself how far I'd come to get there.

A moment later, back outside, I discovered that the taxi stand had closed during my brief absence. After noting the phone numbers posted on the door, I walked to a pay phone at a nearby car park, dropped in the appropriate coins and dialed. The dispatcher who answered the call assured me a car would pick me up in approximately fifteen minutes. 

While waiting inside the station, I noticed two men peering into the glass windows of the taxi stand. One pointed to the phone numbers and pulled out his mobile. A moment later the station door opened and, walking in, he asked if I had ordered the taxi and would I consider sharing the car to Sissinghurst. I told him I'd be happy to have company. 

As we waited together I learned that the two men also had expected to take the train out of Charing Cross, the usual point of origination, and like me had to travel to Victoria, thereby missing the 10:32 train as well as the direct bus from Staplehurst Station to the gardens. 

Both of the men spoke with British accents but one told me he lived and practiced law in San Francisco. Earlier I had heard them asking each other getting-acquainted questions. During our ride to Sissinghurst Castle, the "American" one gallantly attempted to include me in conversations, but captivated with the countryside passing outside the taxi window I left them to their courtship. When we arrived at our destination, the San Francisco resident generously insisted on paying the full fare rather than splitting it as our driver had suggested and as I had expected we would do.    

Once inside the grounds of Sissinghurst, my only complaint was that I had to share the magnificent garden rooms with so many other people - this in spite of the fact that, because of rain, the gardens had fewer visitors than usual. 

The property's current owner, the National Trust, provided a map that guided me to the rose garden, the herb garden, the nuttery, the cottage garden, and the famous White Garden. That afternoon I saw masses of calla lilies, acanthus, yellow columbine. Brick walls served as the backdrop for roses and other ornamentals. The garden rooms were, if anything, even more lush than portrayed in the HG photographs or the written accounts I had read prior to my trip. I found the White Garden breathtaking - something like a giant bridal bouquet with a soft lacy effect. 

Harold Nicolson, as garden designer, put the technique of framing to good use. Ten years on from my trip I still remember admiring the vistas I came upon as I strolled through the garden rooms. Canopies of trees framed three sides of a statue; a stand of ferns provided the bottom of the frame. Was this something Harold Nicolson planned? Or the later work of National Trust horticultural employees? 

Always while visiting the great gardens there is much to see, yet not enough time. I take photographs, not only to remember, but so that I can discover later what I overlooked on site. On this day I had only a film camera and evidently a single roll of print film. As a result, I have far fewer pictures of Sissinghurst than I would have if I had then owned a digital camera.

In Sissinghurst's gift shop I bought a tan National Trust backpack, Vita Sackville-West's novel All Passion Spent, a collection of her newspaper columns entitled In Your Garden Again, and a children's book The Great White Owl of Sissinghurst written by the late Dawn Langley Simmons, an interesting and controversial former resident of Charleston. 

Later while awaiting the train that would take me back to London,  paging through In Your Garden Again, I located Sackville-West's June 22, 1952 newspaper column, published in The Observer exactly fifty-one years prior to the day of my excursion. Sackville-West wrote about herbaceous peonies, sharing the secrets to growing them successfully. In closing she noted that the peonies will "...probably outlive the person who planted them, so that his or her grandchild will be picking finer flowers fifty years hence." 

Did I see peonies in the garden? Sitting there at Staplehurst Station, I wished I had noticed. 

For information about Sissinghurst, visit the website of the Britain's National Trust:

For some ideas of what to plant in your own version of a white garden, take a look at Dreams of White Gardens