Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Other People's Gardens: Sissinghurst

Yesterday morning, Tuesday, 20 July, I prepared for the pilgrimage. These preparations, however, were of the more mundane sort: gathering the camera, deciding whether or not to take my journal, looking at the train schedule to coordinate with arrival at Charing Cross via the Tube.

In reality, preparing for the pilgrimage took years, not that I was ever conscious of the fact that visiting the famed gardens designed by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson would be a quasi-religious experience, nor did I really wish such a visit to be (because as we all know heightened expectations are always diminished by reality). I read books, viewed pictures, embraced everything Vita and Harold, Vita and Virginia (Woolf), and even recently completed (on this trip, as a matter of fact) Adam Nicolson's Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History.

But my reality, the reality of trekking to the gardens, immediately donned the sense of a pilgrimage--so much so that I overlooked the exorbitantly high cost of renting a taxi as the National Trust bus no longer ran (it was deemed not profitable) and the local bus took far too long.

Once the taxi deposited us, we purchased our entrance tickets and walked past the booth. My first reaction was, admittedly, one of diminished expectations. The Elizabethan Prospect Tower was not as tall as the pictures I had seen made it appear. The property was smaller than imagined. And the hordes of people--which I sort of expected--were more than a bit disturbing.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, removed my camera from its case, and something wondrous suddenly overcame me: I adjusted to the scale of the property, set in the lovely Kent countryside, and felt the enormity of the place and its history wash over me. The Tower loomed large above and before me; the brick reflected a warm reddish-brown light, the plants sparkled, flowers bowed before me. I was here: walking the same grounds and gardens touched, nay, created, by Vita herself.

We strolled through the gate that Queen Elizabeth I once passed through and into the top courtyard, meandered along the walls of the house and to the purple border, poked our heads into the Long Library, a quintessential "old world" shrine to walls of books, an enormous fireplace, and antiques--indeed, the accumulations of generations of family purchases and gifts. As Harold Nicolson, Adam's father and Vita's son, wrote about his mother, "she must be surrounded by evidence of time," and one distinctly felt that time, though not, as he suggested, the burden of the ages.

Time unfolded before me: the Priest, White, Cottage, and Rose gardens; the Yew and Lime walks; the Purple border and the orchard; the Elizabethan tower and the 1420 house in which they lived. Vita's writing room in the Tower, only visible to the visitor through a wrought iron gate, and of course the library, froze time at the moment of Vita's death on 2 June 1962, the moment the family decided to memorialize her and leave her writing room exactly as she left it.

Their garden, I am convinced, was Vita and Harold's attempt to grapple with the passage of time, to hold onto it in some appreciable manner. Care, they understood and Vita must have immediately appreciated upon first seeing Sissinghurst in April 1930, must be bestowed upon time and its residues, its artifacts, lest all of it dissolve like the grand Elizabethan mansion that once stood on the property. And so Vita and Harold picked up some trowels and began the act of recovery and the act of capturing time even as time passed--efforts as it were to beautify the property, but also efforts to "save" Sissinghurst from the erosion of time.

Somehow, armed with that knowledge, the crumbling brick and the few remaining walls of buildings past feel restored, equipped with an energy and a power to confront another 500 years of life. The gardens do not serve as eye candy; indeed, the gardens become the act of restoration itself.

More photos and more entries on Sissinghurst to come

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