Sissinghurst, May 2012: The Flowergasm

Crude, yes. But it got your attention, no?

Like the trip to Stowe, the trip to Sissinghurst was an adventure. Trains, a bus, and then a long walk. Only this time there was a pavement. Of a sort.

The original house was built in the 14th century; none of it remains. In the 1500s another house was built; this long building (a gatehouse) is all that’s left of it. In the 1600s, an Elizabethan building surrounding courtyards was erected, but most of it was torn down in 1800.

The Elizabethan tower stands alone in the middle of the garden; inside and up a spiral staircase, Vita Sackville-West’s writing room/library has been left as it was upon her death in 1962. From the top of the tower, I got an amazing bird’s-eye view of the gardens below.

Except for the taller bits of tower on each end, I got most of a 360 of the garden. The White Garden, which ‘glows’ at dusk. Too bad I wasn’t there late enough to see it! The small building is a Boat House, situated at one end of the Moat.

A portion of the Yew Walk with the Orchard beyond. The white building in the center, hidden behind trees, is a Gazebo.

More Orchard. The trees at the top of the photo hide the Moat.

The edge of the South Cottage with the Moat Walk behind it, at the end of which is an Herb Garden.

The South Cottage and the Cottage Garden. Behind the garden is the Lime Walk.

The Rose Garden, with its center ‘compass’. In the foreground is part of the Lower Courtyard.

The rest of the Rose Garden and part of the Top Courtyard.

The Top Courtyard and part of the Tudor-era Gatehouse.

The Gatehouse and arch, covered in climbing roses.

This end of the Gatehouse is the Library. Next to it is the Purple Border, which showcases a spectrum of purple flowers, from red-purples to blues.

More of the Purple Border, with the Delos Garden behind it, abutting the Priest’s House.

The Priest’s House. The tower is blocking the rest of the White Garden. 

Gardens aren’t static. They aren’t planted and then attain the gardener’s vision and then just stay that way. Sissinghurst as it is now was envisioned by Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, both writers. They took over the place in 1930 (the buildings were in a sorry state), planned out the gardens, and opened them to the public in 1938. This chalkboard greets visitors under the arch, detailing the work going on around them. In a garden of any size, there is always work to be done.

The Purple Border. Sissinghurst is a 20th-century garden. Where the landscape ideas of the 18th century (Stowe) focused on perfecting nature, with wide open vistas, the gardens of the early 20th century were concerned with creating garden ‘rooms’ and experimented with color theory, influenced by Gertrude Jekyll’s ideas of the late 19th century.

The yellow rose noted on the chalkboard. Each rose is the size of the end of my thumb, from tip to first knuckle!

As in gardens from other eras (except the landscape gardens of the 18th century), hedges are used to create separate garden ‘rooms’ and to play with distance and perspective, to frame a view and direct visitors on a particular path. Their formality is at contrast to the riot of color in the flower beds and gives the viewer’s eye a break. They also create drama, both in their form and in their function as a wall between one view and the next.

The Lime Walk’s pleached trees, forced to grow together and trimmed into a rectangular shape. Like with the hedges, they draw your eye and direct your movement.

Aquilegia, also known as Columbine. One bed in the Top Courtyard was filled with several colors/types of this flower. Rather than each particular type losing its identity in a mass of plantings, the different colors drew your attention to the variations, creating a visual impact that was greater than the sum of its parts.

In the Rose Garden, poppies the size of my face.

The White Garden. This garden ‘room’, more than the others, has the feel of being meticulously planned out. Gardens aren’t necessarily meant to be enjoyed at night–at least, those with flowers aren’t. But this one was created for just that: to be enjoyed when eating dinner in summer, while the sun dips below the horizon. The Victorians, in reaction against the 18th-century landscape ideals of gardens as ‘nature’, believed in gardens as art. Sissinghurst, coming as it does on the heels of that era, straddles the line somewhere between nature and art; the gardens have formal bones but are ‘blowsy’ and wild inside the lines.

One secret of the White Garden is the use of texture to create depth. Otherwise, it would just be a wash of white with no detail or interest.

Osteospermum, Pink Whirls. Just because it’s so alien.

I didn’t plan on going to these gardens in any special order, but I am glad that I saw Sissinghurst after Stowe, if only to experience the contrast of the two styles, in addition to touring a garden with no flowers followed by one where the flowers are the main event. To see the progression of garden fashion, even though historic gardens are (in whole or part) recreations of what was once there, helps me imagine how the fictional garden I’m creating for the PhD novel will change and morph as I move from one time period to the next, and how each style will influence the one that follows. Overall, the visits bring home the fact that a garden isn’t a ‘dead’ thing; I capture parts of it with my camera, and as soon as I turn my back it changes. No matter how many times I visit a particular garden, it will never be the same twice. That is the same idea that I am working to capture in fiction, that a garden grows, with a personality of its own, behind the gardener’s back.

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