Revitalising Vita at Sissinghurst

Troy Scott Smith, the head garden at Sissinghurst Castle, gave an interesting, informative and entertaining talk to the members of the Cork Alpine and Hardy Plant Society recently. His appointment followed on the lengthy tenure of the famous Pam Schwerdt and Sybille Kreutzberger and later by Sarah Cook and Alexis Darta who had brought the gardens to the pinnacle of perfection, attracting approximately 600,000 visitors in their eight month open season.  He was faced with a challenge: to continue with the garden along the lines well established over the previous forty or so years or to make changes.

Sissinghurst (2)

Sissinghurst (1)

The gist of his talk was that he had researched the manner in which Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson had created the garden by reading her gardening notebooks, records and general writings and was now moving along to “Revitalise Vita”, to return the garden to a style which more reflected her ways and he postulated that in the intervening years since her death it had reached a level of perfectionism which did not reflect her attitudes to the gardens. Her’s was a more relaxed style and approach – she was an amateur gardener after all – while Pam and Sybille, consummately competent and professional horticulturalists, did things properly, by the book, correctly, brilliantly and perfectly.

Therein lies the problem of all gardens left in care after the death of the creator – how do we know how Vita and Harold would have developed the garden over the years? Of course, it is impossible to know and Troy Scott Smith, even with the best of research and the best of intentions, can only surmise and give it his best shot and in that one must wish him every success.

In the course of his talk he recalled some of the developments since he took charge. The area between the car parks and the entrance are more “gardened” to make them more attractive to visitors. “Meadows” (inverted commas because these instant creations are really not truly meadows and might better be termed “wildflowers plantings” or some such) have been planted near the entrance. A pond – it was noticed on an old map of the property – has been dug out again and the area surrounding it planted. At some time in the past a gateway in one of the walls of the Rose garden was bricked up. This has been reopened, a set of steps reinstated to bridge the drop in level to the area outside the wall where new garden borders and beds are being planted and views to the surrounding countryside opened.  The area outside the restaurant has been revamped with new furniture and plants while some of the old outhouses have been developed to host displays or exhibitions.

Can these developments be attributed or linked to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson’s thoughts for the garden? I am inclined to think that they probably cannot at least specifically though I believe that as a general development they certainly can. The gardens first opened to the public in the late 1930s when the admission charge was one shilling which lead to the visitors being referred to as the “Shillingses”. They later employed Pam and Sybille to maintain and develop the garden so it is reasonable to assume they intended to develop the garden as a commercial concern. The developments by Troy Scott Smith fit in perfectly with this background, with this commercial outlook. He is developing the garden in a manner which will both attract and facilitate visitors and it is of note when viewing the garden’s website that “Eating and Shopping” facilities feature more prominently and well before the garden. The garden may be the nominal attraction but the shop and the restaurant bring in most money.

Sissinghurst (10)

So, I believe Troy Scott Smith is “revitalising Vita” in a certain sense – the development of what is successful commercially in priority to the developments of the garden.  I am not surprised that he is making some changes to the garden and to the style of the gardening. Pam and Sybille followed by Sarah and Alexis had brought the garden to a perfection unlikely to be surpassed and to simply continue with this style would have committed Troy to a future simply as caretaker and deny him opportunities for creativity. Some of the changes made to date – “meadows” and pond – are very much in line with what is currently fashionable, a sense of conservation, a return to nature and a care for wildlife and I’m sure Vita would have been as influenced by and would have moved with gardening fashion as much as the next though this is hardly referencing any historic direction followed by Vita but a recognition that she would have moved with gardening trends. Troy Scott Smith is young, capable and ambitious and wishes to make his mark on one of the most renowned of English gardens. In this I wish him every success and hope the gardens develop as well as the car park, restaurant and shop.

 

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Paddy Tobin

 

8 thoughts on “Revitalising Vita at Sissinghurst

  1. I live very local to this garden and despite the continuous debate that is carried on it is always refreshing to visit. A few years ago there was serious move made by Sarah Raven and her husband who is a grandson? of Vita and Harold to ‘restore’ the garden and they developed a kitchen garden in an affordable to link the food sold in the restaurant to the garden … many of the arguments were played out on TV! The pond by the garden entrance is a nice edition and subtle changes have taken place. The views across The Weald of Kent from the old barn are stunning. The one off visitor to the garden misses the continual tweaks that have gone on to create the impossible perfection that previous gardeners have aspired towards. Strategically placed pots that look as though they have been in position for years can disappear within a week to be replaced by something else that has reached its peak!
    All gardens are work in progress … Sissinghurst is no exception and I value my visits there.

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    1. Many thanks for your comment, Angela. I envy you your proximity to Sissinghurst. It would be a delight to visit regularly and I am sure it will continue to improve and be a joy to visit. Best wishes, Paddy

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  2. Kent is full of great gardens, Paddy … and many of them are open once or twice a year under the NGS garden scheme. The standards are high to get on to the list and the rewards are great for the visitors. There are the “biggies” like Great Dixter, Hever Castle, Chartwell and Knowle but there are many more humble gems to be discovered … with tea and homemade cake!
    This week it is the snowdrops at Altamont that will give me joy though … now there’s a garden.

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    1. Certainly the NGS is a wonderful organisation and the gardens are excellent. We were in the Gloucestershire area last summer at what was a special NGS week there and visited some outstanding gardens we would not normally have heard of. All excellent. Enjoy Altamont!

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