THE GORGEOUS GARDENS OF ENGLAND:
After two weeks in royal-wedding London, a busy writer catches her breath in England's green and pleasant gardens
Saturday, May 28, 2011
By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
SISSINGHURST, England -- It has been the warmest April here in 100 years, prompting all sorts of gloomy, doomy reminders in the media about how beautiful weather always precedes a world war or two (The Times, April 17: "1911's Perfect Summer: As the mercury rose, they danced on the edge of the abyss. ...").
How bad was the good weather? It wilted most of the tulips, lupines and peonies before the Chelsea Flower Show opened Tuesday, forcing staffers to replace them with plants that usually bloom in July -- roses, cornflowers, verbena.
Here at Sissinghurst Castle, though, there was only the sense that there was, perhaps, no better place to be on Earth in early May than in Kent, sitting in the sun drinking tea near the very spot where Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, two of England's great 20th-century eccentrics, made a marriage and a garden together.
Late last month, faced with a few days off after two weeks covering the royal wedding, I found myself pondering the choices: Would it be museums in London or gardens in the country?
"Gardening is Britain's great vernacular art form (as cooking is for the French) so perhaps it is fitting that we should be inspired by private individuals," wrote Tim Richardson in the 2005 book "English Gardens in the 20th Century."
He is right: While well-meaning people urged a visit to the massive Kew Gardens, gardens shaped by a singular imagination are, ultimately, more compelling -- Sissinghurst, or Christopher Lloyd's Great Dixter, or Lawrence Johnston's Hidcote, or Kiftsgate, created by three generations of women in the Muir family.
The Saturday after the big day, I was on a train out of town. First stop: Oxford, where I was to meet a friend of a friend, a history professor at that great university. There would be no visit to Oxford's famous botanical garden on this trip -- although at St. Peter's College there was a gorgeous yellow Lady Banks rose (not hardy in Pittsburgh, alas) scrambling up a west-facing wall, which could be admired while sipping prosecco and nibbling on crumpets, jam and clotted cream at a late afternoon garden party.
After evensong service at St. Peter's chapel (whose rector, a rosy-cheeked young man named Michael Ward, is considered the world's foremost authority on C.S. Lewis), and a stop at the 16th-century Turf Tavern for a pint, we ducked inside Christ Church College's gardens, where the white-flowered spikes of the horse chestnut trees (similar to our buckeyes), lilacs and tree peonies glowed in the deepening dusk.
The next day, it was time to look at two of the greatest gardens this country has on offer. If you're any kind of a plant lover, you've heard of them: Lawrence Johnston's Hidcote (as in lavender) Manor and the Muir family's Kiftsgate (as in the climbing rose so vigorous it grows into trees) Court.
After a winding country drive past actor Ben Kingsley's house (whoops, that's SIR Ben Kingsley to you), I had my English garden epiphany at Hidcote, as in: "Where have I been all my life?" "Why don't my lilacs grow as large as these?" "Oh, why, oh, why didn't I realize that every American garden is just a pale shadow of an English one?" "Oh, why, oh, why -"
Oh, never mind.
Lawrence Johnston Rose
Hidcote (pronounced HID-cote, not HIDE-cote) was created, improbably, by Lawrence Johnston, an American army officer with money and imagination. His 10 acres of small garden "rooms" have influenced many others, including Sissinghurst. There are heart-stopping moments: The geometric lines of an endless, hedged Long Walk can be glimpsed through an arched doorway. It was too early for the antique roses -- but Hidcote's bluebell wood was hushed and lovely, and that was enough.
Conveniently next door to Hidcote is Kiftsgate Court, which still has its famous Rosa filipes "Kiftsgate" growing up 90 feet long and 50 feet high across three trees, perhaps the largest rose in England.
Three generations of women in the Muir family have cultivated this garden, with its spectacular views of distant blue hills, all in the shadow of the family's home with its 18th-century porticoed facade looming over the steeply terraced slopes, recalling Italy. Anne Chambers, granddaughter of the garden's creator, Heather Muir, is the current owner and was seated at the garden's entrance, issuing tickets.
Two days later, Great Dixter -- reached by train and then by cab -- presented itself very differently. Its creator, Christopher Lloyd, a prolific author of garden books, died in 2006. It is in no way a grand garden, but a true expression of his iconoclastic sensibilities: Bored with the 70-year-old rose garden? Rip it out. Bored with straight-line "hedge architecture"? Clip your yews at crazy angles.
There's a shabby beauty to Great Dixter, a sense of a work still in progress. Do I wish there were labels for the plants? Sure, but it was heartening to see group of young gardeners being briefed in the topiary garden about what they would be doing that day.
Created in the 1930s by Ms. Sackville-West, a poet, novelist and garden columnist from one of England's great aristocratic families, Sissinghurst has become to English gardens what, perhaps, Monet's Giverny is to France or the Villa d'Este is to Italy -- which means crowds running rampant, especially in summer.
Ms. Sackville- West
This is in part due to a rash of books written beginning in the 1970s about Ms. Sackville-West and her husband and their unconventional lifestyle -- of fortunes won and lost, grand English taste, shocking affairs with members of both sexes and so forth. Adding to the allure: an eight-part BBC series last year about efforts by Ms. Sackville-West's grandson Adam and his wife, garden writer Sarah Raven, to preserve the garden and transform its adjacent farm to sustainable agricultural methods.
So the crowds descend and garden connoisseurs despair.
"Please do not visit Sissinghurst Castle garden," wrote Tom Turner two years ago on the blog GardenVisits.com, bemoaning its popularity with bus tours after a visit in July, where he found the gardens looking "rather tired."
"Tired"? Not that I could see. These walled gardens within gardens provide a sense of surprise at every turn. Ms. Sackville-West used rosemary as a hedge, planted white wisteria instead of the ubiquitous purple, and I loved the astrantia, a shade-tolerant perennial with star shaped flowers.
The fabled White Garden, one of the first monochromatic gardens, was in between white moments, the spring bulbs having mostly faded in the early heat, and it would be sometime before the white rosa "Mulliganii" would sprawl with abandon across the central canopy, but no matter -- the Clematis Montana frothed over an ancient brick wall and the first clove-scented rosa Rugosa blooms of "Blanc Double de Coubert," a rose Ms. Sackville-West adored, were beginning to open.
Rugosa Blanc Double de Coubert
Always strapped for money -- Ms. Sackville-West never inherited Knole, the grand estate where she was born, because she was female -- she and her husband found peace and great happiness at Sissinghurst.
You can feel it even today, stepping out of the hot sun into the cool semi-darkness of the couple's library and sitting room, known as the "Big Room," a former stable with its sagging shelves of books and an iconic portrait of a young Vita in 1909 by Philip de Laszlo. There is also Harvey, a young man seated in a roped-off area archiving every book the Nicolsons possessed ("Feel free to ask him any questions," a sign reads).
"It is typical of our existence that with no settled income and no certain prospects we should live in a muddle of museum carpets, ruined castles and penury," wrote Ms. Sackville-West.
"After dinner we decide to plant a wall of limes. ... That is our life. Work, uncertainty and huge capitalistic schemes. And are we wrong? My God! We are not wrong."
They weren't, and we gardeners -- even in America, where the lilacs are puny by comparison and the Lady Banks rose can't grow north of Richmond, Va. -- are the better for it.
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org,
First published on May 28, 2011 at 12:00 am
Many thanks to Mackenzie Carpenter of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette USA for allowing us to use this delightful article.
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