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Sissinghurst Castle, Kent

acta and Archaeology South-East prepared a conservation management plan for the buildings, gardens and collection at Sissinghurst. The biographies of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson and the way that they lived at Sissinghurst between 1930 and 1960 were central to the project.

The key features included:

  • understanding the development of the buildings by tracing the remains of the Elizabethan mansion, its history as a prison during the Seven Years War, and its subsequent decline
  • documenting Vita Sackville-West’s design of the interiors
  • understanding her garden in its heyday in the 1930s and 1950s from original sources
  • analysing the way that the garden had changed under the National Trust’s management since the 1960s.

The Nicolsons’ letters and papers allowed the way that the buildings were refurbished in the 1930s in accordance with Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings principles to be traced. Using diaries, contemporary photographs, Vita Sackville-West’s writings and radio broadcasts, descriptions of the garden were developed for its pre-war peak in 1938 and post-war peak in 1954. In addition her relationships with her favourite nurseries and with gardening friends such as Norah Lindsay were established. The changes made in the 1960s to accommodate large numbers of visitors and extend seasonal interest were traced. Following this the contrasts between Vita’s garden and the one developed by the outstanding National Trust head gardeners Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger from the 1960s to the 1980s were identified.

In a separate project, the development of Victorian high farming and its impact on the buildings and the wider estate were traced.

Client - National Trust

  1. There are thousands of twentieth-century photographs of the gardens and buildings, which allowed changes to be plotted in detail
  2. Sissinghurst has some of the most notable garden set pieces in England. The climbing rose trained on South Cottage was the first thing planted when Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson bought the property in 1930 and is described as the most photographed rose in England
  3. Sissinghurst was very popular with visitors even before the National Trust took over. Harold Nicolson disliked meeting them and created his private spaces
  4. In the 1960s the present ground cover of the hazel nuttery was created by the head gardeners with the help of Graham Stuart Thomas. It is one of the best examples of the effect for which he is famous
  5. Systematic survey and measured drawings of the buildings enabled the phases of development to be clarified
  6. Vita Sackville-West set out the interiors herself in the early 1930s. The Long Library was the first, but she considered it a failure. Harold Nicolson described it as ‘like the hospital ward in a Turkish barracks,’ and it was rarely used except for formal occasions