At our March meeting we welcomed back Stephen Harmer, lecturer in garden history, to hear about ‘Sissinghurst – the history’. Rather than dwell on the plants of this well-known garden, Stephen’s focus was on the personal life and loves of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, the couple who created the world famous garden in the 1930s. Despite being devoted to each other and the garden they made together, they still managed to have many affairs in their open marriage. At one time Vita ran off with Violet Keppel and lived in Paris as ‘Julian’ complete with moustache – their respective husbands eventually had to charter a plane to France to bring them back.

The overall garden design was conceived by Harold, who was also a fanatical weeder often telling paying visitors to ‘b***er off’ if they attempted to engage him in conversation whilst he was in the garden. Vita concentrated on softening the formal designs with her planting schemes, she chronicled her experiences in weekly garden articles in the Observer (1947-1961). Their son Nigel Nicolson didn’t convince the National Trust to take on Sissinghurst after her death until he had built up international interest in the unconventional lives of his parents. His book Portrait of a Marriage, based on a long confessional he found locked away in his mother’s study all helped to sell Sissinghurst as a destination.

Vita’s study for over 30 years was the iconic Elizabethan tower that was originally built to view the hunts on the estate. The estate buildings were a prison for 3,000 French sailors in 1750s-60s, conditions were particularly harsh even by the standards of the day and Stephen points out that anyone using the car park today is walking on ground where French prisoners were buried. Later estate buildings were used as work houses and the place had a violent reputation for unwary visitors. Rest assured, today it is the epitome of an English country garden and perfectly safe – even for the French.

After these accounts of sex, death and violence – we finished off the evening with refreshments and a raffle. Our next talk on 5th April (7.45pm for 8pm) is ‘Fifty Greys of Shade’ I’m pretty sure, despite the title, this is strictly plant-related as it is given by local nurseryman Colin Moat – but why not coming along and find out for yourself?

Liz Mercer