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Favorite Garden Books – Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History

December 11, 2010

Book jacket imageIn Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History (Viking, 2010), Adam Nicolson (grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and current resident of Sissinghurst Castle) makes his case for why Sissinghurst should be restored to its former status as a working farm. For him, the iconic Sissinghurst garden is a beautiful jewel that is not complete without the right setting, and that setting is productive farmland.  He invokes his grandmother’s authority in support of this vision, quoting a verse from her poem “Sissinghurst” in which she described:

in chain / The castle, and the pasture, and the rose.

Adam Nicolson begins his story of Sissinghurst with a personal history of boyhood memories. The famous garden is only a small part of his memory, a place where neighborhood boys raced their bicycles down the lime walk. His Sissinghurst is a much larger landscape, a place that he could explore for hours on end with a map and his bicycle, and a place that bustled with agricultural productivity:

I loved the farm as it was then. I loved its detail and business, the sheer fullness of what happened there, the way the young men in summer with their shirts off would chuck the tractors down the lanes between the buildings, throttle open, work to be done; or the shoving and jostling of the cattle, the business in the hop gardens, the orchards and the arable fields, the way that the men with their Jack Russells would stand around at the door of the barn, sticks in hand, smoking and laughing, waiting for the rats to run…. (p. 15)

He contrasts this romantic rural idyll with what happened in the 1960s and 1970s as the garden became more famous and

… the ever-growing numbers of visitors had to be accommodated in new ways. So the hops went, as their market collapsed, and the hop gardens were taken out. The oast houses went silent, to become first a tea room and then an exhibition space. The black tin hop pickers’ sheds, whose pale, light blue interiors were like the miniature parlors of London houses, were demolished. The orchards were grubbed up and grants were given to bring that about…. The cattle went and then the farmlands. The tractors went: there was no more of that familiar open-throttle chucking of the tractor through the gap between the pig shed and the garden fence. Then the pigs went and their place became a series of carports of which my father was particularly proud. (p.30)

The loss of balance at Sissinghurst is starkly symbolized by a painfully recounted incident that takes place on the morning of Nigel Nicolson’s death. As Adam oversees the loading of his father’s body into the hearse by the undertakers, he is importuned by a tourist who, seemingly oblivious to the scene playing out before his eyes, tries to wheedle his way into the closed garden.

In the chapters that follow, Adam Nicolson alternates an account of his quest to reconnect the Sissinghurst garden to a productive farm setting and a multi-layered history of Sissinghurst that includes a personal history of his family and their lives at Sissinghurst, an agricultural history of the area, and an ancient history of the land and landscape in this part of England.

As he tries to implement his vision for Sissinghurst, Nicolson comes up against the reality that he may live at Sissinghurst, but he does not own it. It’s not just that the National Trust owns the garden, buildings and land. It is also that the National Trust staff at Sissinghurst, many of whom have worked there for decades, are just as attached to the place as he is – and their sense of what makes it special often does not align with his. As a reader, I sometimes found myself exasperated by Adam Nicolson’s blindness to his own privilege. To his credit, it is he who has provided the evidence of other’s reactions to his words, actions and assumptions that underlie my exasperation. For example, he reports the reaction of Pat Stearns (wife of the last resident farmer at Sissinghurst, who went broke trying to keep the farm running) when she hears him give a talk about his vision for Sissinghurst: “She came up to me afterward and said gently and kindly, ‘That was interesting, Adam, but I don’t think you know  just how difficult it was.’” (p. 224) And, although he tells us about this conversation, I am left with the feeling that he doesn’t really “get it” that his boyhood idyll was not so idyllic for many of those who made it possible.

At the end of the book, the history of Sissinghurst is “unfinished” in a number of ways. First, history is always unfinished; the land will continue to change, as will the social and economic context in which it is set. Second, Sissinghurst’s history is unfinished because Adam Nicolson is trying to change its course. Third, the history is unfinished because it is not yet clear whether Nicolson’s scaled back scheme to have the restaurant at Sissinghurst serve food raised at Sissinghurst will work, or if his larger vision will be realized.

Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History is a compelling and  beautifully written personal and social history of a special place. This book is for anyone who considers Sissinghurst special, and also for those who are interested in larger issues of sustainable agriculture and global-local tensions in the production of food.  Reading it made me want to go back to Sissinghurst and to see it with new eyes.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2010 4:39 pm

    I was going to seek you out. Jean’s Garden has gone quiet for a while.

    But this was the sort of post I was waiting for. I have been to Sissinghurst, but so long ago! I think it was Edith who said don’t try to keep a garden as it was. The people move on, and the garden changes.

    Preserving the past, like a mummy? A garden grows, ideas change. It must be hard to be the son, or grandson, of the more famous … Tolkien’s son working on his father’s legacy?

  2. December 11, 2010 5:33 pm

    Beautiful book review, fascinating story about Sissinhurst, and your observations about Adam Nicholson are entertaining. One would have expected that, given his privileged heritage, he might have been taught early on that history is irreversible.

  3. December 11, 2010 7:24 pm

    My comments must be tempered by the fact that I have never seen Sissinghurt, nor do I know much about it. That said, I find the idea of any one person ‘owning’ a garden interesting. At one time I volunteered at a botanical garden and I can say that every single volunteer, gardener, board member, etc. all felt like it was ‘their’ garden. The result was different ideas and views of what should be planted, undone, changed, cared for. (often with entertaining results!) Add on top of that the very nature of a garden is to change, from season to season, year to year. I actually find the idea of returning a garden to a working farm to be very in tune with many present day issues and could keep an older garden relevant. Sounds like an interesting read Jean, thank you for reviewing this.

    • December 11, 2010 8:50 pm

      Diana, It’s the end-of-semester grading crunch, and for several weeks now I’ve been buried under a mountain of student papers. I have not been doing much of anything but work; and for the first time since I began them last February, I realized that I couldn’t manage a “blog of the month” post this past week. By next week, though, the semester will be over; and I’m looking forward to getting back to blog reading and writing over the holidays.

      Allan and Diana, Your comments made me realize that I had given the wrong impression by saying that Adam Nicolson was trying to “reverse the course” of history at Sissinghurst. It’s not that he’s trying to create exactly the same kind of farm there as existed when he was a child. From his point of view, it is the National Trust that has tried to freeze the garden at Sissinghurst in time. He wants a real garden and farm there, not an ossified garden as museum. What he’d like to see is a modern, diversified organic farm that provides high quality food for a local market. I’ve edited the post to replace the word “reverse” with “change,” which I think more accurately reflects his goals.

      Marguerite, I think you would enjoy this book. Adam Nicolson’s vision for Sissinghurst is very much connected with present day issues. He sees a restored farm at Sissinghurst as part of the local food movement. As someone who belongs to a CSA and tries to buy as much of my food as possible from local sources, I find his ideas very resonant.

  4. December 11, 2010 11:04 pm

    Though I have seen Sissinghurst only in photographs, your book review has heightened my interest. I do feel for Adam Nicholson, and I get a feel for his vision. But the past is hard to get back. The best is a compromise, where the past has influence but acknowledges the needs of the present. I think Sissinghurst in an organic farm setting would be idyllic, and I would love to eat a meal prepared from food grown on that farm!

  5. sequoiagardens permalink
    December 12, 2010 2:05 pm

    Dear Jean – since I first heard of the book I have wanted to read it, following the history of Sissinghurst, which I know intimitely through reading almost everything ever published by its owners and about it. You have addded greatly to that desire, for I believe in Adam N many of the passions that inspired his grandmother take on a very relevant 21st c. slant! Enjoy your break- I know I am enjoying mine!

  6. December 12, 2010 4:59 pm

    This post shows what blogs can achieve: not only to disseminate information, but also to ask questions and to encourage conversations.

    The points about the identity of historic gardens are apposite: it is all about how one strikes the balance between the vision of the original designer and the inevitable growth and change of the organic structure.

    Interestingly, similar issues arise in historic houses: how to preserve the authenticity of the interiors while allowing lots more people to move through and see them then they were originally designed for.

    I found your blog because I noticed a few viewers to my blog coming from yours, prompted by the randomly-generated ‘possibly related posts’ link. Occasionally those algorithm bots do make sense, it seems 🙂

  7. December 14, 2010 12:02 pm

    Hi Jean,

    Oh yes, the end of semester blitz! Almost done with mine too. Can hardly wait to start visiting my favorite Blotanical blogs again and maybe some new ones–and then there’s the writing to be done.

    Hope to visit Sissinghurst this spring if all goes the way one hopes. Will look into this book as prep. A modern organic farm sounds good there–or anywhere, really.

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