Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Vita and the School Interview

I’ve always thought that visiting gardens was for nice grannies who were members of horticultural societies. The whole business of wandering around looking at plants seemed a quaint pastime, but not really my thing. I certainly would not consider driving 1 ½ hours out of London to visit a garden, but Eloise was interviewing at a school near Sissinghurst, and even I knew that Sissinghurst was one of premier gardens of England, created in the 1930s by Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Always fascinated by unusual aristocratic lifestyles and anything to do with the Bloomsbury group, I thought it would be really fun to visit the home of the woman who inspired Virginia Woof to write Orlando. Jeff was convinced we were in for another “namby pamby chic lit” experience but I told him that after Sissinghurst we would head for Gravetye Manor, a country house hotel with an impressive reputation and a Michelin one star restaurant. That improved his mood considerably.

Things got off to a promising start when the lady parking cars at Sissinghurst wanted to have an in-depth conversation about my Hermes scarf. I was wearing my best one in the hope of improving Eloise’s chances of getting into “the school of her choice” although Jeff is convinced that what I wear will have absolutely no impact on Eloise’s school admissions but I’m not so sure. As luck would have it, the car park attendant had the latest Hermes catalogue to hand and we were able to review her favourites and mine. By now, the cars were backing up behind us and Jeff was looking really worried that we would move on to shoes and handbags.

Once inside Sissinghurst Castle, which is a collection of remnants from a 15th century manor, we headed immediately for the central red-brick tower which dominates the garden, climbing straight to the top for the glorious views over the Kent countryside. On the way down the steep circular staircase, we stopped at Vita Sackville-West’s incredibly romantic study where she wrote many of her poems, novels and weekly gardening columns which I found hugely inspiring. Back outside, we wandered around the various garden areas which are arranged like a series of outdoor rooms, soaking in the atmosphere and revelling in the fine weather. Neither Jeff nor I can tell an exotic species from a garden weed but you do not need to know anything about gardening to appreciate the amazing aesthetic vision of Sissinghurst’s creators. The gardens are, in a word, sublime.

After the gardens, we headed for the library which looked exactly as you would hope, somewhat gloomy filled with old rugs, old furniture and lots and lots of books. Jeff was delighted to find that the information about the library had been translated into Catalan and began questioning the nice volunteer about the National Trust’s interest in supporting separatist movements which only goes to prove that this wonderful property has something for everyone.

Soon it was time to leave for the promised one star lunch. As was the case with Blenheim Palace, our last school interview outing, I left Sissinghurst with a long reading list which included revisiting Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (I was too young the first time), Sackville-West’s own writings and her son’s account of his parents’ relationship, Portrait of a Marriage, which was first published in 1973. That one garden could inspire such an outbreak of reading speaks volumes about the magical world-within-a-world that was created by two such supremely talented and unusual individuals. As we left Sissinghurst, I gave a thought to how Eloise was doing down the road. Who knows, thanks to her diligence and my scarves, we just might be back. I hope so.

Practical Information about visiting Sissinghurst:

Sissinghurst is run by the National Trust which oversees more than 300 historic homes and gardens. Even if you are only visiting the UK for a week or two, it could easily pay to become a member of this organisation. By my calculation, if you visit as few as four National Trust properties, a membership already saves you money and you are helping a very good cause. Memberships can be purchased on the National Trust website or at the first property you visit.

Although Sissinghurst was not busy on the day we visited in early October, it remains the most heavily visited garden in England and to protect the garden and the visitors experience, on busy days, the National Trust limits the number of tickets sold and those tickets are timed. Therefore, it pays to call ahead to find out what you are up against. On the website, the point is made that the garden is at its quietest in the late afternoon.

Sissinghurst can be reached from London by taking a train from Charing Cross to Staplehurst Station in Kent and at certain times, the National Trust runs a special link from the station to the property. Check the website for details.

Near Cranbrook, Kent TN172AB
Tel: 01580 710700

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