Reporting from Sissinghurst, England ——"Everybody knows Kent," Charles Dickens wrote in "The Pickwick Papers," "apples, cherries, hops and women."
Almost 175 years after publication of "Papers," Kent, just 50 miles south of London, is still known as the garden of England and the larder of London. Its formal flower gardens make it a destination, but it also has become a destination for foodies interested in locally produced artisanal foods and locally raised livestock. With its oast houses for drying hops, its farmhouses, rounded tiles and clear, leaded windows, Kent remains stubbornly rural in character.
In the middle of this bounty sits Sissinghurst Castle Garden, once owned by politician and diarist Harold Nicolson and his wife, poet and author Vita Sackville-West. From 1930 through 1967, the unconventional couple owned this spread with views of the Kentish countryside; the weald (or wood), the downs, and on to a horizon that steadfastly conceals the modern, urban world beyond.
It was taken over by the National Trust, and today visitors come by the hundreds of thousands (196,000 last year) mostly to see the garden, known for its roses, and Sackville-West's white garden.
I never truly understood the idea of aristocrats nor did I appreciate their relationship to the land. Until now.
"Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History," a new book by Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Nicolson and Sackville-West, is the story of his relationship to the place where he grew up. It is about many things: his childhood, the castle, which dates back to the mid-16th century, and the garden made famous by his grandparents. (Vita, it's said, was responsible for everything wild and carefree here, while Harold's more formal planning ensured decades of successful beds.)
But the book is also about Sissinghurst's history as a working farm, where hops and wheat, kale and other vegetables and countless fruit trees (particularly Kentish apple varieties) were once grown. Nicolson is correct that reinvigorating that aspect of Sissinghurst's history will keep it from becoming stale and commercial — a mere tourist attraction complete with a commissary and gift shop. After his father, Nigel, died in 2004, Adam asked himself how to convince the National Trust of this. Thus this is the story of how Adam worked and continues to work to make his vision, fed deeply by his own childhood, a reality.
There is something exquisite about Nicolson's efforts to keep this wonderland alive as a working farm, and an organic one at that.
Perhaps the best strategy for seeing this region is to plant oneself in one place and go out each day from there. So I stayed at the Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse, a seven-room bed-and-breakfast built in 1855 on the castle grounds. It has just been refurbished by the National Trust, which also hired Sue and Frazer Thompson from nearby Cranbrook to run it.
The Thompsons are masters of hospitality: helpful, thoughtful and sensitive to the needs of their guests. It is one of those rare places that is fine, elegant and simple all at once. There is plenty of light and space; breakfasts are rich in local products: eggs, fruits and artisanal jams and honeys. Even the smallest rooms have high ceilings and plush, jump-able beds. Tea trays are filled with cocoa and oat cakes. Inca, their black Lab, is your dog for the duration of your stay. You are the only human she really loves. Even in just a few days (I was here for five) I could feel the rhythm of life here, including the quiet mornings. (Farming here is more manual than machine.)
One of the great benefits of staying at the farmhouse is that visitors can wander the grounds, 250 acres of lakes and coppiced woods and fields and orchards, before garden visitors arrive at 11 a.m. and after they leave at 5 p.m. I could see more intimately the work and care that went into the heavy, clay-like soil. Wealden barns were full of small tools for hoeing, raking and planting.
Evenings stretched on forever. Cotton-tailed rabbits seemed fearless; lambs with black faces and wobbly legs bleated in chorus as I walked by. Larks swooped; I saw two red foxes loping across freshly tilled fields and a large badger cleaving to the underside of a yew hedge as it ambled toward the wood. The bluebells were vivid, breathtaking, as were the rows of lettuce, kale and the neat rows of newly planted, pink-blossomed apple trees, a seemingly endless variety.
From Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse, a walk through fields, outlined with fences made from hazel and willow switches, past streams, down a narrow road lined with hedges, led me to the Three Chimneys, to my mind one of the best restaurants in Kent. Almost everything offered is local, from the Hophead beer to the cider, beef, sorrel, wild mushrooms and rich, creamy cheeses. I ate there three nights in a row.
The West House in nearby Biddenden and Apicius in Cranbrook, both Michelin-starred, also come highly recommended by locals. If it's pub food you crave at the end of a long day, the Bull at Benenden serves steak and kidney pie, fish and chips, shepherd's pie (all the old comfort foods) and beer that's a meal in itself; a half-pint of Hophead has all the vitamin B a gardener needs. After a few sips, I found myself voicing opinions on British politics I never knew I had.
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The National Trust has always had a complicated relationship with the heirs of England's great houses, particularly if they live on-site with their families. In the last year or so there has been a great push to intensify a visitor's experience by bringing the houses back to life and focusing on the people who inhabited them. In the case of Sissinghurst, this means focusing on the rich farming heritage and on the endlessly fascinating marriage of Vita and Harold, whose same-sex affairs are detailed in Harold Nicolson's "Portrait of a Marriage."
Adam Nicolson thinks the agricultural legacy is the better way to invigorate the place where he grew up. Walking on the grounds of Sissinghurst, Nicolson, 52, put his arms around an old oak, planted when he was a child. His fingers still touch, "but when I am old, they will not," says Nicolson, who inherited his grandmother's Kentishness.
"Nobody," Adam's father, Nigel, wrote of his mother, Vita, "has felt more profoundly the beauty of her Kentish landscape." Moving here, Vita slowed a wild life full of affairs and travel. She committed to her family and her garden. She wrote a garden column for the Observer and many poems to the season and the place.
"I have not understood humanity," she wrote in her great poem, "The Land" (1926), organized by seasons in a Kentish farmer's year. "But those plain things, that gospel of each year / Made me the scholar of simplicity."
The focus on formal gardens has always been intense: Great Dixter in East Sussex, with its timbered house dating to the mid-15th century and its voluptuous gardens; Hole Park, not a National Trust property (the house is private) but offering splendid views and Alice-in-Wonderland hedges and topiary; Ightham Mote with its fine, small, secret gardens; and dozens of others within a 30-minute drive.
But that fixation has shifted attention from the land, once used to farm wheat, hops and oats, and raise pigs, chickens and beef cattle. Nicolson has seen the surrounding farms coalesce — a nearby 1,000-acre farm growing wheat used to be 13 dairy farms.
Sissinghurst, Adam realized in 2004 after his father's death, "had become something like a Titian in a car park," he wrote in his book. "It seemed as if the country was over. It had become a bogus version of itself." It wasn't a farm anymore, he wrote; it "wasn't even a place anymore: just a beautifully maintained garden dropped between a café and a shop."
"It's much better now," Nicolson says. Self-sufficiency is one of his goals for the farm.
It supplies all the produce for the restaurant, which serves at least 115,000 people a year. The excess produce goes to local schools or is sold in the Sissinghurst shop.
In the end, it is the land, not his grandparents' love affairs or their stories and their belongings, that captivate Nicolson. "I am fiercely noncuratorial," he says. "Would much rather be fishing."
Or walking the fields to a horizon that steadfastly conceals the world beyond.