At Sissinghurst Castle, where Vita Sackville-West created her breathtaking gardens in Kent, England, the very best times for wandering are the early morning and at the evening’s golden hour, just as the soon goes down, when the garden plants look their most beguiling in soft light. For most of the thousands of people who visit every year, however, this is impossible given the opening hours (11-5:30).
A lucky few, however, sleep in the 16th century Priest’s House, which is available to rent through the National Trust, and wander around the gardens to their hearts’ content. Earlier this month we checked in to see what it was like sleeping in the shadow of Vita’s famous tower.
Here is how Sissinghurst’s gardens look with no crowds. I repeat: no crowds.
Photography by Clare Coulson for Gardenista.
If garden lovers have a bucket list, then this would surely be very near the top. From dawn until dusk, and beyond, you can stalk the brick paths and magical plantings of the famous white garden, stand and gasp at the colors in the dreamy purple border, and wander the romantic meadow that sweeps around the castle. And no matter how many times you open the oak kitchen door and venture out into sublime gardens, that pinch-me moment of wonder never goes away.
In the 17th century a chaplain was installed in the Priest’s House and afterward farming families also inhabited the cottage. When Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson bought Sissinghurst in 1930 they lived in the Priest’s House.
It’s easy to imagine the couple in the pretty three-bedroomed cottage with its beamed interiors, inglenook fireplaces, and mullion windows with views to the garden and Kentish Weald beyond. When Vita was dying in 1962, it was the little bedroom overlooking the gardens that she returned to.
Few green spaces are as iconic as Vita’s white garden, a mesmerizing box parterre packed with white flowers and shimmering foliage. When we visited, the garden was filled with tulips (‘White Triumphator’ and ‘Maureen’), white honesty and Mattiola corona alba, a stock with the most delicious scent that is a brilliant addition for pathway edges or planted close to doorways.
Another newcomer that we admired was a group of ornamental quince, ‘Serbian Gold’, with the most beautiful delicate off-white blossom. In the evening, if it’s warm enough, guests at the Priest’s House can sit and have supper under a wisteria covered pergola in a corner of the white garden.
By having Sissinghurst all to yourself, you get to experience the gardens just as Vita and Harold would have done—and it’s a poetic place, from the mist rising over the moat and the incredible dawn chorus that rings out around the meadow to the opportunity to ponder spectacular planting up close with no interruptions.
It also means you get to chat to the gardeners when the garden is calm and quiet. Other than head gardener Troy Scott Smith, the team is currently all female. Being light on your feet here is a prerequisite; the immaculate beds are densely planted.
With no distractions it’s also the perfect time to really get up close with the incredible rose training that takes place at Sissinghurst. Roses are artfully tethered in graceful arches across the many old brick walls and in beds the structure of the roses being trained is something to behold, with branches arched over supports in circles all over the rose garden, encouraging more flowers.
June is traditionally considered the best time to visit Sissinghurst when all those roses are in their first heady flush, but this is a garden that is fascinating in all seasons and it’s hard to beat the lush freshness of spring, when the Lime Walk is bordered with kaleidoscopic spring bulbs. In early May, big terra cotta pots were filled with Sweet William and tulips ‘Ronaldo’, ‘Havran’ and ‘Negrita’ while zingy mounds of Euphorbia polychroma contrasted with the incredible rainbow of bulbs in the ground.
If we’ve taken away any ideas from sleeping at Sissinghurst then it’s undoubtedly from the orchard, where semi-wild gardening is an art form.
Mown paths are not only functional but create beautiful definition around the longer meadow grass. And roses do not need to be restricted to more formal areas of the garden. In the meadow they are trained to wind around trees and features or planted in groups of three.
A sea of narcissi is easy to plant and is a dramatic addition to any area of long grass. Plant it with ‘Actaea’, which blooms earlier, you will have a full month of flower.
The Priest’s House is available to rent through the National Trust; prices start at £711 for a three night stay.
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