Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst

Famous Sissinghurst walled garden.

My nepeta sibirica has jumped out of the garden and into the lawn and should be dug up and put back into the border. I lost my head at the nursery and bought hollyhocks, and a Geranium Johnson’s Blue that I’ve been wanting, plus, well, lots of things that ought to be planted right now. Today. And then there’s the weeding and rearranging that must be done before this year’s growth gets completely out of control.

Am I out in this perfect evening weather working on my horticultural to-do list ? No, I am reading Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson. Instead of getting something done on my own patch of earth, I am engrossed in a book about Vita Sackville-West’s legendary garden. I know, I know, there have been too many books written about Sissinghurst already. But this isn’t just another book, this is a memoir and a story about a man with a mission and superbly written. And it is an addition to the Sissinghurst lore because Adam Nicolson makes a vital and important addition to Sissinghurst.

As a boy, Adam explored Sissinghurst and its surrounds. He delved into the Weald (woods) crisscrossed the ancient farm lands, climbed the hills, and followed the streams, often at the instigation of, and sometimes in the company of his father Nigel. He gained a deep knowledge of the land.

Adam never knew his famous grandmother Vita Sackville-West, lover of Virginia Woolf, but he knew his grandfather Harold Nicolson. Harold turned the house and grounds over to the National Trust in order to preserve them, but the family retained the right to live there. In mid-life, after Nigel’s death, Adam moved to Sissinghurst with his own young family.

In the book, he shares intimate details of his famous family , the pain he carried from his parents’ divorce, and the enormity of the written records – letters, diaries, and books – that the Nicolson’s have kept. I can only imagine what a treasure and burden it must be to have decades of such records in the house. The Nicolson’s even kept carbons of their own correspondence.

He writes movingly of the house and gardens, looks into the history before his family’s arrival, studies the trees, the landscape, the ecology of the place. And he comes to feel that under the careful stewardship of the Trust, Sissinghurst has become stultified. In preserving his grandmother’s garden’s, some of the soul of the place has been lost. In Vita’s day, Sissinghurst was more than the gardens; it was working farmland. And so after much reflection, Adam resolves to “grow lunch” for the thousands of tourists who visit each year and in doing so, restore the spirit that has been lost.

Could a gardening book be better than this? It is beautifully written, packed with literary gossip, centered on one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, and entertainingly chronicles a bold quest to restore sustainable agriculture to what has become a museum.

Surely, I am better off for staying in and reading the book rather than going out to pull wild garlic or rearrange perennials. And you will be too. Posted by Suzy.

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One response to “Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst

  1. Suzette Ciancio

    I’ve read another review of the book & garden in the week-end Financial Times – your post really makes me want the book & to visit Sissinghurst. If the book is out I’ll buy it next time i’m at the Co-op.
    I envision reading the book while relxing in my own little gardens.

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