During my recent travels, I’ve had a companion. Sissinghurst, An Unfinished History:  The Quest to Restore a Working Farm at Vita Sackville-West’s Legendary Garden, written by Adam Nicolson, Vita’s grandson. When I was in Sacramento last April, I stayed with Janelle, who’s actually been to Sissinghurst and bought the book. She asked if I’d like to borrow it. At the time I had some doubts I’d get around to reading it, but thought I’d look it over. So I decided to take it with me for the plane ride to Florida. I also spent a lot of time reading it on Dad’s patio while I was there. At home I can’t read in bed, because my husband doesn’t like the light on when he’s trying to sleep, so it was a treat to be able to read this book every night before I fell asleep. I also read it when I was at Sue’s house. After I got back, we had a lot of afternoons with nice summer weather here in Santa Cruz, which is usually foggy a lot in the summer, so I made my lunch and sat out on the patio swing and read more of the book. I finally finished. The book is fairly long, and there are lots of interesting details, so I had to digest it slowly. This isn’t a book to zip through or speed read.

Adam Nicolson grew up at Sissinghurst, then left for university, then having his own family. He and his family returned to Sissinghurst 25 years later when his father, Nigel Nicolson, was dying. While caring for his father, he became aware of just how much had changed at Sissinghurst since he had left, and how the sense of Place had changed. During Vita and Harold’s time, the Sissinghurst property was a working farm, as it had been for most of its human history. But during the 80s and 90s, one by one, the animals and crops stopped being part of the farm. The farm buildings became part of the National Trust’s tourist related buildings. So over several months, Adam developed an idea of what he wanted to bring back. In the book, he alternates between the development of this plan over the 5 years between his father’s death and the publication of this book, and the history of this part of England, Sissinghurst Castle, and his family’s history with the property.

I loved reading about the history! Sissinghurst is an ancient Saxon name for the place, and predates any of the existing buildings. One of the fascinating facts was that within 3 miles of Sissinghurst were 74 place names that go back at least 1000 years. Twenty-six of these names end in “den”, which meant, “a pasture for pigs.” Sixteen places end in “hurst”, meaning, “a wood, probably on a hill, perhaps enclosed.” The place names show how the area was settled and used, as small farms and pastures and woodlands. Farming and hunting was the way of life here since early Anglo-Saxon times. Nicolson goes on to trace the history of ownership of the Sissinghurst property through the Middle Ages, when the tower and some other remaining buildings were erected. Then through the Elizabethan period when there was a huge Manor House beyond the tower, which incorporated the medieval house that was contemporaneous with the tower, and a hunting park surrounded by a “pale”. That was a new word for me. I’d heard “beyond the pale”, which has a similar origin. In this case the pale was created building up the boundary of the property with soil dug from a ditch just beyond it. This raised edging was densely planted with oaks. It kept the deer in the park. Much of the raised bank of this park pale can still be traced. The manor house was used as a prisoner of war camp during the Seven Years War, which is what led to its destruction. All this history relates to the “why” of Nicolson’s plans to restore a working farm to the property.

The “how” of restoring farming was almost as complex as the history. The property is owned by the National Trust, with the family having perpetual tenancy. Nicolson had to convince the Trust of the merit of his proposals. Then there were the staff, some of whom had been there for many years. They thought of him as someone who’d just arrived and wanted to change the way they’d always done it. And the number of meetings involved could wear a person down enough to give up. But his timing was good, as the idea of an organic vegetable garden on the property, providing fresh, seasonal food to the tourist lunchroom, fit well with the environmental movement taking hold in both Great Britain and the United States. His persistence was inspiring, and the end result, as of the time the book was written, was pretty good. Not everything he had hoped for was accomplished, but much has been started, and more may come with the success of the first steps.

Of course, you can’t be the descendant of famous people, and not include quite a bit about them in a book about their home. Adam’s father, Nigel Nicolson wrote “Portrait of a Marriage” based on his parents homosexual affairs. That is really all I knew about Vita Sackville-West before I read this book. I also knew she was a famous writer, and about the garden they created at Sissinghurst Castle, but I’ve never read anything she wrote. Adam treats his grandparents affairs (apparently many more of them than his father’s story includes) in a matter-of-fact manner. I can’t quite imagine being able to casually refer to someone as “one of my grandfather’s most devoted lovers.” There were many interesting tidbits about the family. All seem to have been prolific writers of letters and diaries, in addition to their many books. Indeed, Nigel Nicolson seems to have held parties just so he could write about them in his diary the next day.

Perhaps in the next few years, I will find some reason that I need to go to England again. This time, I will get to Sissinghurst. It’s no longer just a rose garden to be seen. It is a thousand years of history to be absorbed.

By the way, if you are now anxious to read this book, it is available here:



About Jill Perry

Since 2005, I have been the Curator of the San Jose Heritage Rose Garden, a part of Guadalupe River Parks and Gardens near downtown San Jose. I write about the Heritage Rose Garden, my garden and my travels when I feel inspired and have time. Since I have no regular schedule, if you'd like to know when I write a new article, please subscribe to this blog.
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