A fascinating account from award-winning author Adam Nicolson on the history of Nicolson's own national treasure, his family home: Sissinghurst.
Sissinghurst is world famous as a place of calm and beauty, a garden slipped into the ruins of a rose-pink Elizabethan palace. But is it entirely what its creators intended? Has its success over the last thirty years come at a price? Is Sissinghurst everything it could be? The story of this piece of land, an estate in the Weald of Kent, is told here for the first time from the very beginning. Adam Nicolson, who now lives there, has uncovered remarkable new findings about its history as a medieval manor and great sixteenth-century house, from the days of its decline as an eighteenth-century prison to a flourishing Victorian farm and on to the creation, by his grandparents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, of a garden in a weed-strewn wreck. Alongside his recovery of the past, Adam Nicolson wanted something else: for the land at Sissinghurst to live again, to become the landscape of orchards, cattle, fruit and sheep he remembered from his boyhood.Could that living frame of a mixed farm be brought back to what had turned into monochrome fields of chemicalised wheat and oilseed rape? Against the odds, he was going to try. Adam Nicolson has always been a passionate writer about landscape and buildings, but this is different. This is the place he wanted to make good again, reconnecting garden, farm and land. More than just a personal biography of a place, this book is the story of taking an inheritance and steering it in a new direction, just as an entrepreneur might take hold of a company, or just as all of us might want to take our dreams and make them real.
From the Hardcover edition.
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ADAM NICOLSON is the author of many books on history, travel, and the environment. He is the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, the British Topography Prize, and the W.H. Heinemann Award. His previous books include Sea Room, God's Secretaries, Seamanship, Men of Honour, and Earls of Paradise.
From the Hardcover edition.
I have lived at Sissinghurst, on and off, for the last forty-five years. For my entire conscious life it has been what I have thought of as home, even when living away, in London, or abroad. For all my attachment to other places, this has always seemed like the root. I belong to it. It is the land I have walked over, looked out over, driven through, smoked my first cigarette in, planted my first tree in, bicycled over, slept in, and lived in all my life. It is where I came to understand what a tree was, what a friend was, what a hideout was, what a landscape was, how entrancing streams were as they made their way in and out of the margins of a wood, and what solitariness, nature, and love might be.
If I think of a view, or of mist on an autumn morning, the way it lies in a valley like a scarf, or the way a stream when blocked makes a reedy place upstream of the blockage, where after time willows grow in the wetness and make a dark summer tent over the bog; or the way wildflowers peak and then collapse as spring deepens into summer; if I think of geese belling across winter fields; or of being alone, or of the transition from childhood to adolescence, of the relationship of a place to its history or its future: every one of those things, strung out across my life, like lights marking a channel, is tied to and founded on Sissinghurst. It is the shape of what I am. I do not own it but it is my place. Anything else can only ever be an approximation to it.
There is a tree in the garden, an oak, growing on the edge of the moat, that my sister Juliet and I planted together when she was four and I was one. It is nearly fifty years old but, in its tree life, still in its teens. One or two of the lower branches have been pruned, to improve its shape, and the bark of the oak is creeping back, in pillowed, almost animal ridges, across the scars that the saw has left. But the rest of the tree—it is a strange hybrid, a sycamore oak, which has oak leaves but drops sycamore seeds in the autumn, the single wings helicoptering to the autumn grass—the rest of the tree is in the first glowing moment of adulthood, no leaning in the trunk, a full head of hair, if you can say that about a tree, a kind of bushy-brushed wholeness to it, its trunk like the trunk of a young man. It is now part of the Sissinghurst landscape, rooted, solid, essential, inevitably there, and I feel in my heart as much part of this place as that tree. My nutrients come from this soil.
When I was a boy here in the 1960s, my father used to take us, my sisters and me, down to the stream that runs through the wood, usually after lunch in the winter, to have a boat race. We chose small, fat sticks for boats, to be thrown into the stream where it entered the wood below a marshy patch in the Dog Field. He cut long wands from the hazels for what he called “hoikers”—the only way, if your stick got caught in the deep trench of the stream, that you could hoik it back into the main flow. No cheating was allowed, nor hurrying on of your stick if it happened to be drifting in a treacle-slow section of the current. It had to be stuck and immobile before you could push it back into the race with the hoiker. The finishing line was the chestnut bridge by the outflow from the lake. All of us cheated when he wasn’t looking.
Or there were clearance weekends and bonfires, the brambles and dead wood lopped and slashed away with billhooks and bowsaws, all piled onto a smoky fire, the smoke finding its way out through the roof of the coppiced chestnuts as if through the thatch of a medieval hall. He would send me down to the wood sometimes to start the fire on my own before he came to join me. Start it small, he said, but make it as big as you can. Once he raced me to Bettenham, the neighbor farm to Sissinghurst, half a mile away, him on foot, me on a bike. I remember him now, stampeding down the track ahead of me, uncatchable and distant, however hard I pedaled.
Sissinghurst is embedded in the most explorable and boy-friendly of all landscapes, a part of Kent, no more than fifty miles south of London, called the Weald. That is an ancient Saxon or Germanic word meaning “forest,” but over the twelve or thirteen centuries since the Saxons arrived here, that huge stretch of woodland has been cut up and largely cleared so that the Weald now is a patchwork of small woods and farms, with streams curling between them and lanes connecting one to another. It is a stretch of country that is accessible to London and its commuters but has an enormously deep past and is still full of hidden secrets. A sense of invitation is plastered all over it, and on summer mornings, at breakfast, on the bleached and knotty deal of the kitchen table, my father would pore with me over a two-and-a-half-inch map of it, exploring its possibilities with our fingers: the gridlines pale blue, the occasional contours a browny orange, the stipple of the scattered farms, each with the blue spot of a farmyard pond. Why don’t you go and see what the Hammer Brook is like here—a bridge four miles away downstream—or here, where it joins the Beult? You see where it says “Roman Road” there, where it goes down the contours of that hill? Or look, a Roman ford—miles away, south of Benenden, into another parish—why don’t you see if you can go and find that?
So I did, alone on my bike for hours and days at a time, looking for these places that he had made precious and important to me. I learned to read the map, which I kept folded in my pocket. I found the Roman road dropping south through woodland beyond Benenden: he must have known it but never told me he did, a place reverberating with the past, a huge trench as straight as it should be, just wobbling here and there like a piece of furniture two thousand years old, half a mile long, exactly preserved and deeply creased into the Wealden hill. I remember it now, its runnel filled with autumn leaves, the hornbeams and hazels on its banks, unvisited, unknown, the most wonderful and vivid antiquity I had ever seen. At the bottom of the valley, on a tiny tributary of the Rother no more than two feet wide, trickling to the south, with ferns and moss around them, I found the smooth dark stones of the Roman ford, scattered in the stream bed, as neglected as they had been since the Romans left fifteen hundred years before.
I would return from these expeditions, excited and exhausted, unaware of the riches I was gathering. Only now do I see this as the best education a child could have: the private discovery of a stretch of country rich in buried meanings, so easily and fluently to hand, to be discovered with nothing more than a map and a bike. Seeing, I suppose, how much I loved it all, the finding of the way, the connections made in three dimensions that the map had hinted at and led one to, we started going on longer expeditions. One June morning, early, when the world was heavy with summer and greenness, we went for a long walk together through the flat, oak-hedged grasslands of the Low Weald toward Biddenden. I was about eleven and we walked from one fifteenth-century Wealden farmhouse to another, maybe twelve miles or so through the cold morning, the leaves gray with dew, the sun blinking through them, admiring the close-set studs, the pitch of the roofs designed for thatch, now tiled, the rooted richness of this country.
It is not the buildings I remember, though, but a long hay meadow on the Hammer Brook, a mile or two upstream, just the other side of Hammer Mill, which we came to as we circled back to Sissinghurst and breakfast. I had never guessed that an air of perfection was not something to be dreamt about, but could be experienced on your skin, as a living, seen reality. I thought then and can still imagine now that the meadow was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. One side of the long narrow green space, perhaps four hundred yards from end to end, all of it walled in by the fresh green of the springtime wood, followed the brook’s meandering path. The other took a long straight line against the trees. We were there the morning after the farmer, Mr. Hall, had mown the grass. He had begun by following the stream in his tractor and had laid his swathes in repeated, rippling slices that mimicked the stream itself, as if the wavy hair of the field had been combed flat but kept its wave, gleaming early that brilliant morning, like oiled braids, with the pale stubs of the shorn grass between each mown tress, the buttercups laid in with the grass as a summer wreath, a vision of perfection for that moment only, before Mr. Hall came back with his tractor later that morning and began to turn and stir the grass with his tedder into the lifted ridges in which he needed it to dry.
We did other things: my father bought a double canoe and for three days we followed the Hammer Brook from where the Bettenham track crossed it, along its winding trench to the river Beult and then on to the Medway until we reached salt water at Rochester. We did the same on the Stour from Great Chart to Sandwich, taking with us this time, in a deliberate act of matchmaking, my cousin Robert Sackville-West, so that we would become friends, as we have remained for life. We walked to the North Downs across the Low Weald and then along the Pilgrim’s Way. We went to see where William the Conqueror had landed and then Julius Caesar. It was as if my father was conquering Kent for me, not the Kent of commuter modernity but an older place, one in which nature and culture were more intimately bound together and of which Sissinghurst itself always seemed to be the center and the exemplar.
Nowhere felt deeper or more like a vein under the skin than down in the bed of the Hammer Brook. It was an entrancing and different world, a green, wet womb, a place of privacy and escape. Along the banks, the alders and hazels were so thick that the wavering line...
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