— Sunday Times
"Excellent. A clear-eyed picture . . . beautiful."
— The Guardian
"A wonderful book."
— Financial Times
Sissinghurst is world famous as a place of calm and beauty, a garden slipped into the ruins of a rose-pink Elizabethan palace. But is it entirely what its creators intended? Has its success over the last thirty years
A fascinating account from award-winning author Adam Nicolson on the history of Nicolson's own national treasure, his family home: Sissinghurst.
Sissinghurst is world famous as a place of calm and beauty, a garden slipped into the ruins of a rose-pink Elizabethan palace. But is it entirely what its creators intended? Has its success over the last thirty years come at a price? Is Sissinghurst everything it could be? The story of this piece of land, an estate in the Weald of Kent, is told here for the first time from the very beginning. Adam Nicolson, who now lives there, has uncovered remarkable new findings about its history as a medieval manor and great sixteenth-century house, from the days of its decline as an eighteenth-century prison to a flourishing Victorian farm and on to the creation, by his grandparents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, of a garden in a weed-strewn wreck. Alongside his recovery of the past, Adam Nicolson wanted something else: for the land at Sissinghurst to live again, to become the landscape of orchards, cattle, fruit and sheep he remembered from his boyhood.Could that living frame of a mixed farm be brought back to what had turned into monochrome fields of chemicalised wheat and oilseed rape? Against the odds, he was going to try. Adam Nicolson has always been a passionate writer about landscape and buildings, but this is different. This is the place he wanted to make good again, reconnecting garden, farm and land. More than just a personal biography of a place, this book is the story of taking an inheritance and steering it in a new direction, just as an entrepreneur might take hold of a company, or just as all of us might want to take our dreams and make them real.
"A wonderful book."
— Financial Times
I have lived at Sissinghurst, on and off, for the last forty-five years. For my entire conscious life it has been what I have thought of as home, even when living away, in London, or abroad. For all my attachment to other places, this has always seemed like the root. I belong to it. It is the land I have walked over, looked out over, driven through, smoked my first cigarette in, planted my first tree in, bicycled over, slept in, and lived in all my life. It is where I came to understand what a tree was, what a friend was, what a hideout was, what a landscape was, how entrancing streams were as they made their way in and out of the margins of a wood, and what solitariness, nature, and love might be.
If I think of a view, or of mist on an autumn morning, the way it lies in a valley like a scarf, or the way a stream when blocked makes a reedy place upstream of the blockage, where after time willows grow in the wetness and make a dark summer tent over the bog; or the way wildflowers peak and then collapse as spring deepens into summer; if I think of geese belling across winter fields; or of being alone, or of the transition from childhood to adolescence, of the relationship of a place to its history or its future: every one of those things, strung out across my life, like lights marking a channel, is tied to and founded on Sissinghurst. It is the shape of what I am. I do not own it but it is my place. Anything else can only ever be an approximation to it.
There is a tree in the garden, an oak, growing on the edge of the moat, that my sister Juliet and I planted together when she was four and I was one. It is nearly fifty years old but, in its tree life, still in its teens. One or two of the lower branches have been pruned, to improve its shape, and the bark of the oak is creeping back, in pillowed, almost animal ridges, across the scars that the saw has left. But the rest of the tree—it is a strange hybrid, a sycamore oak, which has oak leaves but drops sycamore seeds in the autumn, the single wings helicoptering to the autumn grass—the rest of the tree is in the first glowing moment of adulthood, no leaning in the trunk, a full head of hair, if you can say that about a tree, a kind of bushy-brushed wholeness to it, its trunk like the trunk of a young man. It is now part of the Sissinghurst landscape, rooted, solid, essential, inevitably there, and I feel in my heart as much part of this place as that tree. My nutrients come from this soil.
When I was a boy here in the 1960s, my father used to take us, my sisters and me, down to the stream that runs through the wood, usually after lunch in the winter, to have a boat race. We chose small, fat sticks for boats, to be thrown into the stream where it entered the wood below a marshy patch in the Dog Field. He cut long wands from the hazels for what he called “hoikers”—the only way, if your stick got caught in the deep trench of the stream, that you could hoik it back into the main flow. No cheating was allowed, nor hurrying on of your stick if it happened to be drifting in a treacle-slow section of the current. It had to be stuck and immobile before you could push it back into the race with the hoiker. The finishing line was the chestnut bridge by the outflow from the lake. All of us cheated when he wasn’t looking.
Or there were clearance weekends and bonfires, the brambles and dead wood lopped and slashed away with billhooks and bowsaws, all piled onto a smoky fire, the smoke finding its way out through the roof of the coppiced chestnuts as if through the thatch of a medieval hall. He would send me down to the wood sometimes to start the fire on my own before he came to join me. Start it small, he said, but make it as big as you can. Once he raced me to Bettenham, the neighbor farm to Sissinghurst, half a mile away, him on foot, me on a bike. I remember him now, stampeding down the track ahead of me, uncatchable and distant, however hard I pedaled.
Sissinghurst is embedded in the most explorable and boy-friendly of all landscapes, a part of Kent, no more than fifty miles south of London, called the Weald. That is an ancient Saxon or Germanic word meaning “forest,” but over the twelve or thirteen centuries since the Saxons arrived here, that huge stretch of woodland has been cut up and largely cleared so that the Weald now is a patchwork of small woods and farms, with streams curling between them and lanes connecting one to another. It is a stretch of country that is accessible to London and its commuters but has an enormously deep past and is still full of hidden secrets. A sense of invitation is plastered all over it, and on summer mornings, at breakfast, on the bleached and knotty deal of the kitchen table, my father would pore with me over a two-and-a-half-inch map of it, exploring its possibilities with our fingers: the gridlines pale blue, the occasional contours a browny orange, the stipple of the scattered farms, each with the blue spot of a farmyard pond. Why don’t you go and see what the Hammer Brook is like here—a bridge four miles away downstream—or here, where it joins the Beult? You see where it says “Roman Road” there, where it goes down the contours of that hill? Or look, a Roman ford—miles away, south of Benenden, into another parish—why don’t you see if you can go and find that?
So I did, alone on my bike for hours and days at a time, looking for these places that he had made precious and important to me. I learned to read the map, which I kept folded in my pocket. I found the Roman road dropping south through woodland beyond Benenden: he must have known it but never told me he did, a place reverberating with the past, a huge trench as straight as it should be, just wobbling here and there like a piece of furniture two thousand years old, half a mile long, exactly preserved and deeply creased into the Wealden hill. I remember it now, its runnel filled with autumn leaves, the hornbeams and hazels on its banks, unvisited, unknown, the most wonderful and vivid antiquity I had ever seen. At the bottom of the valley, on a tiny tributary of the Rother no more than two feet wide, trickling to the south, with ferns and moss around them, I found the smooth dark stones of the Roman ford, scattered in the stream bed, as neglected as they had been since the Romans left fifteen hundred years before.
I would return from these expeditions, excited and exhausted, unaware of the riches I was gathering. Only now do I see this as the best education a child could have: the private discovery of a stretch of country rich in buried meanings, so easily and fluently to hand, to be discovered with nothing more than a map and a bike. Seeing, I suppose, how much I loved it all, the finding of the way, the connections made in three dimensions that the map had hinted at and led one to, we started going on longer expeditions. One June morning, early, when the world was heavy with summer and greenness, we went for a long walk together through the flat, oak-hedged grasslands of the Low Weald toward Biddenden. I was about eleven and we walked from one fifteenth-century Wealden farmhouse to another, maybe twelve miles or so through the cold morning, the leaves gray with dew, the sun blinking through them, admiring the close-set studs, the pitch of the roofs designed for thatch, now tiled, the rooted richness of this country.
It is not the buildings I remember, though, but a long hay meadow on the Hammer Brook, a mile or two upstream, just the other side of Hammer Mill, which we came to as we circled back to Sissinghurst and breakfast. I had never guessed that an air of perfection was not something to be dreamt about, but could be experienced on your skin, as a living, seen reality. I thought then and can still imagine now that the meadow was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. One side of the long narrow green space, perhaps four hundred yards from end to end, all of it walled in by the fresh green of the springtime wood, followed the brook’s meandering path. The other took a long straight line against the trees. We were there the morning after the farmer, Mr. Hall, had mown the grass. He had begun by following the stream in his tractor and had laid his swathes in repeated, rippling slices that mimicked the stream itself, as if the wavy hair of the field had been combed flat but kept its wave, gleaming early that brilliant morning, like oiled braids, with the pale stubs of the shorn grass between each mown tress, the buttercups laid in with the grass as a summer wreath, a vision of perfection for that moment only, before Mr. Hall came back with his tractor later that morning and began to turn and stir the grass with his tedder into the lifted ridges in which he needed it to dry.
We did other things: my father bought a double canoe and for three days we followed the Hammer Brook from where the Bettenham track crossed it, along its winding trench to the river Beult and then on to the Medway until we reached salt water at Rochester. We did the same on the Stour from Great Chart to Sandwich, taking with us this time, in a deliberate act of matchmaking, my cousin Robert Sackville-West, so that we would become friends, as we have remained for life. We walked to the North Downs across the Low Weald and then along the Pilgrim’s Way. We went to see where William the Conqueror had landed and then Julius Caesar. It was as if my father was conquering Kent for me, not the Kent of commuter modernity but an older place, one in which nature and culture were more intimately bound together and of which Sissinghurst itself always seemed to be the center and the exemplar.
Nowhere felt deeper or more like a vein under the skin than down in the bed of the Hammer Brook. It was an entrancing and different world, a green, wet womb, a place of privacy and escape. Along the banks, the alders and hazels were so thick that the wavering line of the stream was like a strip of wood run wild. Once beneath them, you were in a liquid tunnel, arched over with leaves, gloomy in its hollows, suddenly bright where the sun broke through, seductively cool when the day was burning on the fields outside. Where the shade was particularly thick, in the depth of the little wood, the sunlight still found its way between the alders and the maples, making spots of light no bigger than a hand or a face, dropped across the darkness as if by a brush, looking like the speckling on the skin of a trout, or those pools of light hair you find on the flanks of a young deer.
The water flowed in riffles over the shallow bed, the gravel banks stained orange with the iron seeping from the ground. Green hanks of starwort sprouted from the stream floor. Occasionally, a small group of trout found its way from pool to pool, dark bodies in the sun, where curtains of the light dropped through the speck-filled water. In this tiny Wealden river, they were not the slick creatures of Wiltshire chalk streams, but flighty, on the edge of viability, darting away even from the shadow of a big dragonfly, a skimmer, maneuvering in the air not far above them. There were pike here and they must have been fearful of those jaws, but I have stood on the bank and watched a family of about twelve trout, the spotted bodies in the golden water, not hanging as they do in a big stream, but actively seeking prey, a gang of fish on the hunt, the big swaying adults, the slighter young ones, all of them rootling like pigs in the stones of the bed.
It was a world that encouraged slowness, detail, attention. Downstream of each of the gravel banks, at the head of the still pools, I watched the current circle back on itself in tiny transient spirals, no more than a millimeter deep, slowly whirling through the leopard-spot patterns of light and shade. Nothing showed that the water was moving unless there happened to be the fleck of a seed pod or a fly caught in the surface, making its waltzing, turning progress downriver. Through it all a drowsy current moved, with amber-lit sandbanks far below, and sometimes a drifting leaf caught under a stone, waving up from its bed.
Then, rarely, as a treasure from nowhere, something different: I remember the first time I saw it here. I was standing in the river, the water running up against my boots and dragging at them, so that the rubber was wobbling with the pull of the current and the tops of the boots were opening and closing like a pair of lips. I had the dog with me, splashing in the shallows, shaking the drops from his muzzle so that his own lips were slapping against his teeth. Then from nowhere it came past us: a kingfisher searing through the gloom, making its turns along this river sunk beneath the fields on either side, a soundless riff played on the river air.
That swerve, a taut, cut line of wing through air, with so much verve to it, as if running the length of an electric wire, was a form of quickness the life of a plodding mammal could never approach, a magnesium strip in the light and dark of the river, traveling through those patches so that it seemed to flash as it passed, a stroboscopic flicking on and off of the color, but with a continuity, a driven line, leaving only an afterburn on the mind’s eye, an undersurface glamour in the shadows of the stream.
I used to leave the house in my windcheater and gumboots and head out to the woods and tracks that cross Sissinghurst from north to south and east to west. The woods seemed enormous then. Their far boundaries were a long way from the house. They felt inexhaustible, unplumbed country. These were the places I loved to sink into, away from the noise and business of the house and garden. I dawdled in the wood, under the dark of the leaves; when scarcely a hundredth of the light in the air outside penetrated to the wood floor, the whole place was as cool as a church. The air in springtime by the streams was thick with wild garlic, and later with the sweeter, gentler smell of the bluebells. The swallows and house martins dipped on to the lake and the woodpeckers yaffled in the distant trees. The grassy banks on the field edges were dense with archangel, red campion, and stitchwort, before the brambles and the nettles, always the winners in this annual race, strangled and overwhelmed them. All of these were the deep constituents of home. For days at a time, I circled the house and garden, all the public places at Sissinghurst, through this other hidden world, and never, or so it felt, emerged into view. It was as if out here, concealed from the public, the real thing existed, and that other place, over there, was an ersatz version of it, prepared for public view, with public, adult concerns dominating it in a way they wouldn’t or couldn’t in a distant field or wood.
The only person I ever met in the wood was the woodman. I never knew his name; neither he nor I was exactly adept at conversation, but I liked his thin, silent, pensive presence, as narrow as a rolled cigarette, intensely solitary, shy, turning away from any question to bend over his work. Every year in the winter he would buy the growing timber on an acre or two of wood, an area Kentish men have always called a “cant.” In a system of management at least as old as the Stone Age, a broad-leaf tree if cut (or “coppiced,” the Norman-French word) would sprout again from the stump or stool. Within ten or twelve years, the new shoots would grow thick enough to be usable for firewood or fencing and could be cut again. In this way the wood yielded up a steady harvest, cant by cant, twelve years by twelve years, and each part of the wood was at a different stage in the cycle: the tall smooth poles ready for cutting, the dense scrubby younger growth, or the cant just cut, shorn and freshened, like a stubble field after the harvest.
Each year the woodman bought his cant, and alone, with his rough shed made from spare poles and a tarpaulin strung across them, he would fell the chestnuts, cut the trees to length, split them, and peel them, so that by the end of the winter huge piles of clean, shaved lengths and gray shaved bark came to lie around his shelter. The waste he would burn in big fires whose smoke trailed out over the heads of the trees like a picture, it always seemed to me, of medieval England. You could have stood in the field outside the wood five hundred or even a thousand years ago and seen precisely that, even heard—if you edited out for a minute the repeated whining and relaxing of the chain saw—the same sharp-heavy falling of billhook on wood stem, a clunk-cut, half heard across the distance, the same sudden crackle of a flame as it caught.
Then one day late in the winter, he would be gone, sometimes leaving his tractor there, wrapped up in tarpaulins, the rubbed places and hollows still worn around his shed where he had been working, but the chestnut poles gone, leaving only the clean faces of the cut stools. As the spring returned, the anemones flowered in the cleared wood and those coppice stools began to sprout again for their next cycle. Above them, the trunks of the oaks stood out in the air for the first time in years. And in the new openness of the cleared cant, the emergent dagger leaves of the bluebells pushed through the leaf litter as if from individual silos. That sense of purpose was everywhere: the primrose leaves crinkled like a Savoy cabbage, with the flowers just then unfolding; the cow parsley in low soft-edged pouffes about the size of a dinner plate at the foot of the hedges; dog’s mercury everywhere in the woods, as well as lords and ladies above the brown wood floor like the blades of green, soft-bodied spears.
Following that, in the great annual unfolding, the nightingales arrived and sang, as they do now, in two patches of thickety wood, one in an abandoned loop of the river, toward Bettenham, another a third of a mile to the south where the Hammer Brook is joined by the boat-race stream coming down through the Sissinghurst woods. The nightingales sing so loudly that you can hear them half a mile away in the garden by the moat, but faintly, like the weakest of signals picked up by the most sensitive of antennae. I remember that as a teenager once, on a warm night, after dinner, with half a moon shining, when everyone else had gone to bed, I went out toward them, walking and stumbling across the fields to where they were singing in their little moonlit thickets, bubbling and trilling, a song interrupted now and then by long, ecstatic, deep-throated slides into the bass register, which seemed to come from somewhere deeper within a body than any bird could manage. Those notes sounded as if the ground itself were singing. I lay down on the warm earth next to the thicket, in the field by the trees, and listened to one on my left, unseen in the bushes, and the other answering him six hundred yards away up the little valley, first one and then the other, a duet or duel, I couldn’t tell. Like most birds, it is the males who do the singing, and they sit on the ground inside their protective thickets. That is scarcely what it sounded like then: men, for sure, but more like the lords of two manors, shouting from their tower tops, each proclaiming the virtues of their wives and lands, their need for dominance and love of possession, the deliciousness of this thicket, the ridiculousness of the other, the hilarious beauty of this life, all its sorrows and all its wonders. I fell asleep and woke an hour later, with the stars turned in the sky above me, and the two of them still singing away, blow for blow, note for note, their sliding gurgle-ecstasies exchanged across the moonlight, and I left them there, walking back through the bright blue fields, listening to the sound of the birds slowly weakening in my ear.
Sissinghurst then, in the 1960s, as well as a house, a family home, and a garden open to the public, was a fully working farm. James Stearns, the farmer, a big, tall young man, with enormous hands and a way of looking down at you from a vast height, lived with his wife, Pat, in the Victorian farmhouse. Seven or eight men worked under him, milking a Guernsey herd, keeping chickens and sheep, growing hops, wheat, barley, and oats, with orchards, one of Worcesters, one of Bramleys. They made hay, still cut faggots from the wood, and carted enormous quantities of farmyard manure out onto the fields at the end of every winter. Year after year, plowing, rolling, harrowing, pruning, hedging, woodcutting, sowing, hop-stringing, sheep-dipping and -shearing, mowing, haymaking, baling, clearing the streams, harvesting the cereals, picking the apples and then the hops—year after year, the farm was an intensely worked and busy place.
As a boy, I felt this was only how things should be. The cattle pushing into the yard to be milked, their dung flopping out on the concrete, their sweet, milky breath, the massive stodge of mud and straw they made in their winter housing down by the big Elizabethan barn, the sound in the summer fields of their teeth tearing at the grass, the rough sandpaper lick of their tongues through the bars of a gate, the feeling that they might eat you if they could; the pigs and their own version of stodged-up chaos in the shed where the National Trust shop now is, and Copper, the chauffeur-handyman, telling me that they were the cleanest and neatest of animals; the chickens pecking their way around the pats in the Cow Field; the flock of Jacob sheep that lived in the field by the lake and were always, it seemed, afflicted with foot rot; the harvest moment in the summer when the tall-laden carts came back up to the barns from Frogmead and Lodge Field, piled high with straw bales, the men who had been stacking them riding on top, ducking under the branches of the oaks where they came past the moat; the hay harvest in the park, where the lines of cut hay swerved to avoid the ancient trees, leaving eye-shaped lozenges of uncut grass around each trunk, as though the trunks were the pupils of those eyes; the white clouds of blossom in the pear and apple orchards and then the autumn smell of the apples coming wafting to the house on the wind: these were the ingredients of the world as it was meant to be.
Down in the southern end of Frogmead, there was a hop garden. It was only ten acres but seemed huge then, the hops growing in towering alleys stretching miles away into the dark, as if they were the creepers of some Amazonian forest. I scarcely dared go in. But in September, when the hops were ready, they were harvested, the bines cut from the network of wires and string, loaded into trailers, which were then hauled up the track to the oast houses for drying. I used to bike up behind them, pulled along by a smell that once smelled could never be forgotten: sweet, acrid, vegetable, mineral, woody, flowery, odd, heavy, heady, druggy, earthy, and sharp, a taste more than a smell, its acidy resins catching at the back of the throat. I can taste these hops as I remember them now. As the trailers bumped along the track, bruised bodies of individual hops were left lying behind them like little green birds. As I rode over them the air turned green. There is something alien to the smell, not what you might expect from a plant that is native to England. It is more outlandish than that. Hops are a relative of cannabis, one of the Cannabaceae, and the air that hangs about them is smokily dopy in the same way, a subtle and combined smell, a blended soporific that would be more at home away on the other side of the Mediterranean, hidden in the souks of Aleppo or Isfahan.
The tractors came up to the oast house, where gangs of men and women dragged the bines off the back and pushed them into the stripping machines on the ground floor, jiggering and sifting the cones from the leaves and string and stalks, and then feeding them through to the gantry, where they were taken to the kilns.
From below, for eight hours or so, giant diesel boilers dried the hops, which were stacked a yard deep above the slatted floor in the big round oasts. When dry, they were shoveled out onto the upper story, the hop loft, which was sheeny with a century of resin gelled into place, burnished and sticky with it. Hop lofts are always dark, with small windows, because light degrades a hop, and the only illumination comes sharply in at one side, from the open doorway, as if from the wings. It was a beautiful scene: the walls and beams whitewashed, the fresh hops going into the kilns lime green, the dried hops transformed, their color, as my grandmother once described them in this same loft, “a cross between ash and gold, the color of dust motes, of corn in moonlight.” In the worn and darkened wood of the room, the men brushed the dried hops into piles with birch brooms before pushing them with canvas shovels called scuppers toward a hole in the floor. A giant press stood over the hole, and underneath it, on the floor below, a giant sack, called a pocket, was hung from the beams. Into it the hops were first deftly shoveled, and then, as a man turned the giant iron wheel on the press, a weight dropped into the pocket and pressed the hops into their bag. So tight were they in a full pocket that the two top corners of the sack, where it was tied, stuck out like bullocks’ ears. Each pocket had stenciled on it the horse of Kent, the county’s Invicta motto, the name of the farm and of the farmer, still here called A. O. R. Beale, James Stearns’s grandfather. At the end of the season, the number of pockets achieved that year was painted on the whitewashed beams above our heads.
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 the 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, the quivering dogs on the edge of the group, suddenly jumping for the rat in the dust and the loose corn, gripping it by the neck and shaking the body to death, while the men joked and rolled another.
I loved the roughness of that world, the thorns and elders pushed up against the side of the buildings, the way that tractors would be left parked at loose and unconsidered angles by the garages, the nettles behind the pig shed, the stacks of logs in from the wood, waiting to be sawn in the saw shed next to the piggery, the sense of unregulated space and the freedom that came with that. This was not somewhere that was made for show, but had evolved this way because of what it did. All parts of the wider Weald that I was coming to know on my bicycle—the streams and the wood, the huge beech trees whose outer tips would come down so near to the wood floor that you could climb onto them and walk all the way up to the main trunk, the variety, multifariousness, and vitality of this world on my doorstep—all of that was at the root of what seemed good here.
In the middle of it all was the house and garden, where we lived. Sissinghurst had reached its apogee in the sixteenth century when an ambitious young man had built a giant, multi-courtyarded palace in which he could entertain Queen Elizabeth. That great building had fallen apart over the following centuries so that by 1930, when my grandmother, Vita Sackville-West, bought it, only fragments remained. The broken romanticism of its condition was one of the things that drew her here. She and her husband, Harold Nicolson, had slept in the only remaining part of the main courtyard, a fragment called the South Cottage. She had worked in the great Elizabethan Tower, their dining room and kitchen was in a small Elizabethan banqueting house on the northern edge of the garden, known as the Priest’s House, while their (largely unused) library-cum-sitting-room, called the Big Room, was made in the old stables, part of a long front range. Their sons’ rooms were on the floor above it. The southern end of that range was divided into two dwellings, one for Mrs. Staples, the cook, the other for the chauffeur-handyman, Jack Copper.
In the early 1960s, after Vita had died and my father moved us back here from London, my parents converted those two dwellings into a single-family house, and that is where we now lived. Jack Copper and Mrs. Staples had moved to new flats in the other half of that range above the Big Room. In our part, my mother had installed a new, clean pine kitchen, with dark blue Formica surfaces and a big six-burner gas stove in the center of it. Mousse-molds in the shape of curved fish hung from the wooden ends of the shelves, and there she cooked warm and delicious food, enormous cartwheels of mushroom quiche, sole in creamy sauces, giant pieces of roast beef, and roast potatoes that she fried to make crisp. One summer, when some people we hardly knew came to lunch, they said to her how delicious peas were when they came straight out of the garden. She and I knew they were frozen, Birds Eye, from the village shop. I had opened the bag earlier for her and poured them rattling into the pan. She thanked our stranger guests, agreed with them, and then looked at me and smiled. I see the smile now, her crinkled laughing eyes, our precious secrecy.
That dining room was lit with silver sconces that Vita had brought from Knole, the great Sackville house in which she had grown up, twenty-five miles from Sissinghurst but still in the Weald. The sconces were fixed to the umber hessian of the walls, and between them hung a large portrait of a Sackville ancestor, the puritan first earl of Dorset, who had been chosen by Queen Elizabeth to give Mary Queen of Scots the news of her impending execution. His rheumy, pink-edged eyes followed me around the room. Beside him were two pictures by John Piper—of Knole in a rainstorm, and a snake strangling a horse, somehow made out of sand. There was a large carved chest, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which I think may have been Spanish, to hold the glasses, and one or two odd framed things: a drawing on a menu from a London restaurant in 1919, which was Edwin Lutyens’s first sketch of the Cenotaph, made for Vita over lunch; a poem of Verlaine’s written in high calligraphy on vellum, “Je suis venu, calme orphelin,” an offering to Vita from one of her lovers; and a battered medieval wooden Spanish saint called Barbara, Harold’s first present to her when first in love. The place was full of memorabilia, fragments salvaged from earlier lives.
For all that, there was no heaviness about it, nor any atmosphere of gloom or ancestor worship. The very opposite: noisy, talky, warm, engaged, alive, nothing formal. I remember as a boy sitting at the long oak table, my back to the frightening earl, on the tall 1890s faux-Jacobean chairs, with flat wine-red velvet cushions on the cane seats, my father at one end, my mother at the other, my two sisters, our nanny Shirley Punnett and I along the sides, feeling in one of those rare moments when, however fleetingly, you imagine you see your life as it is, in its present form, exactly how it is, with all its parts combining and colluding, that here, at this table, with these people, in this house, with the farm beyond it and beyond that the woods and lanes of Kent—the onion skins of my world—I was happy and even blessed that no one could properly ask for anything that I had not been given.
Across the other side of the garden, in the South Cottage, my grandfather lived alone, or with the series of young male nurses who looked after him. He had lived there ever since he and Vita had come to live at Sissinghurst in 1932. By the mid-1960s, when he was almost eighty, he was in a sad and pitiable state, broken by a series of strokes and by his grief after Vita’s death in 1962. I remember nothing of her. Or what I do remember has been overlaid by books, films, and photographs, so that I can no longer distinguish what I remember from what I know. Of him, I knew only his fragility, his canes, his slow, shuffling progress down the garden paths, his weeping silently as he sat at the end of the lunch table, his gobbling of his food so that he had finished before my mother sat down, his strange clothes, left over from an earlier age—huge white or cream summer trousers with turn-ups, the broad-brimmed hats he always wore, plimsolls looking too small below those trousers, always a tie, however ragged. When he looked at us, it was with an unbridgeable distance in his eyes, as if we were scarcely there. In private and occasionally, he had moments of lucidity, particularly with my mother, in which he told her how much he hated the humiliations of his condition, how much he wanted to die, how much he missed Vita. With us, though, he seemed to be looking through a screen.
Although the garden had been open to the public since 1938, it wasn’t treated with the sense of exquisite preciousness it is today. My friends and I used to bike around it and invent racetracks through it. The start was at the front of the house, between the nineteenth-century bronze urns and the floppy arms of the old rosemary bushes: down through the medieval gateway into the Upper Courtyard, sharp right in front of the pink brick Elizabethan Tower swathed in clematis, across the lawn and through the narrow gateway into the Rose Garden—a terrifyingly spiny acanthus bush on the corner there—a zigzag through the alliums and the mounds of old roses before hitting the fastest of all straights through the Lime Walk and under the branching hazels of the Nuttery, where I would finally skid to a halt outside the Herb Garden. The whole thing, which is slightly downhill, could be done in just under a minute. If you had left the gate open there, you could cut through it, along the far side of the moat, up the tail end of the Bettenham track, and back to the front of the house to complete the lap: three minutes if you were on form.
There were no exclusions. Our dog, Rip, a terrier, chased cats down the Yew Walk and through the Rose Garden. In the evenings my father used to stand on the lawns with a tennis racket and hit a ball as high as he could, sixty, eighty, one hundred feet in the air, and ask one or another of us to catch it as it came down, stinging our fingers or smacking our palms, all for increasing double-or-quits money, starting with sixpence, going up sometimes to the heights of thirty-two shillings, sixty-four shillings, before crashing to zero when you dropped one. We did three-legged races from one end of the courtyards to another. And it wasn’t only us: children from the village used to come and play hide-and-seek in the garden. All the gates were always open. There was scarcely a lock on the place. I had a friend, Simon Medhurst, the son of a skilled mechanic and blacksmith who lived in a cottage on the farm, and together we used to make bases for ourselves in the attics of the long range and in the ratty barns. One day we found a pink cardboard box, filled with lead knights and their horses, both men and horses armored, and plumes on their heads. They had been Vita’s toys from the 1890s. Simon, his sister Alison, Juliet, and I played in the hay barns, making terrifying tunnels through the bales, filled with the threat of collapse and suffocation. There was a frighteningly dark air-raid shelter in the orchard where we all played naughty games of show and tell. More politely and more publicly we had a gypsy caravan where Juliet played at tea parties for our parents and their friends. Or we used to stand all morning in the fruit cage, eating the red and green gooseberries from the bushes and pulling the raspberries from the canes. Above the piggery, Simon and I made a den that no one guessed was there. We dragged chairs up the ladder and made a table from boxes. From there, through the warped gaps in the weatherboarding, we could spy on the world outside.
All of this looks in retrospect as if it might have been a dream of happiness and integration. It wasn’t entirely. Inside this beautiful outer shell was a pool of unhappiness. Harold’s grief was explicit, but at least that was a symptom of his love for Vita. Between my own parents there was no longer any love. My father no longer slept in the same room as my mother. Very occasionally, their mutual frustrations burst out into the open. I remember one evening at the table in the kitchen, with all of us, as well as my nanny Shirley Punnett, who had been born in the village, sitting around the scrubbed deal, when the two of them began to shout at each other, from one end of the room to the other, a terrifying, exchanging, shouting barrage in the air above us, as if shells were exploding inside the room, and we ran away upstairs to our own rooms in tears. At another time my mother threw precious plates the length of that table, beautiful nineteenth-century plates on which early balloons were painted—they had belonged to Vita—while my father stood there fielding them as if at cricket.
She couldn’t bear to be alone with him, and, inevitably, another man fell in love with her. She was sad, beautiful, in her late thirties, and looking for someone who would give her a warmer and more comfortable life than the distant, unsexual, and reproachful supervision that was all my father could offer. She left in April 1969, when I was twelve, and went to live in a flat in London while my father continued to live alone at Sissinghurst.
The warmth left Sissinghurst that day. The warmth left with her. The kitchen there never smelled good or right again. It became cold and inert. My father replaced the old double gas stove with a cheap upright electric thing and had the gap filled in with the wrong-colored Formica. The house was never warm again. My father shrank into a feeling of hopelessness and despair. He heated the room he worked in with an electric blower, and the room with a television at the far end of the house with another. The rest of the house remained fridge cold. The cold clung in the walls. Cold seemed to hang behind the curtains and seep up from the floor. If the heating was ever turned on, it would take days for the warmth to penetrate the depths of the house. Getting into bed was like getting into a sea.
My mother had removed some furniture and my father rearranged what was left to fill in the gaps. He made himself instant meals and boil-in-the-bag kippers. Entire weeks went by in which he ate nothing but bananas and cream, occasionally relieved with a Findus fish pie. If anyone came to lunch, he would get the caterers in. One Christmas, when I was there with him alone, as I had asked to be, we exchanged our presents at breakfast and he went up to his room to work. I spent the morning picking books from the shelves and reading a page or two before returning them to their places. At lunch we had half a pound of sausages each and half each of a side of smoked salmon someone had given him for Christmas. Then we watched television and scarcely spoke. A few years later, when my sisters all came to warm up another Christmas, he went to bed on Christmas Eve and stayed there until we left a week later, his meals being brought to him on trays and a few muffled remarks passed through the door. He could not live with the reality of human engagement. It was as if his need for love, real enough, had never been quite unlocked. I did not know it at the time, but he felt he had failed. Any confidence he had once enjoyed now drained out of him.
He worked in the meanest and pokiest room in the house, with no view from the windows, using a varnished modern table from a shop in Tunbridge Wells, sitting on an old and dirty chair. He rarely turned the hot water on. Was it somehow gratifying to combine this private despair with his charming life outside? I doubt it. His repeated nightmare, when he was about eleven, was standing on the stage at school while the audience and the rest of the cast waited for him to speak his lines, but no words came and he was left standing there, his mouth silently opening and closing as if he were a fish.
Just at this moment, in June 1976, Jim Lees-Milne wrote about him in his diary, and in what Jim wrote I suddenly see my father not in the clawing, anxious way that children attempt to understand their parents, but from the outside, and through the eyes of an acute and informed observer. “What an odd man Nigel is,” Lees-Milne wrote:
Affectionate, fair, honourable, just, dutiful, hardworking, a firstclass writer, an exemplary parent, an aesthete, exceedingly clever yet modest. At the same time, is he quite human? He speaks didactically, in a precise, academic manner. He is a cold man who wants to be warm, and cannot be. He has humour and understanding, being totally without prejudices. Discusses his parents’ love lives as though they were strangers. Asked me whether Harold picked up young men of the working classes. No, I was able to tell him. Asked me if I had an affair with Harold. Yes, I replied, but he did not fall in love with me for longer than three months. Nigel told me he was in love with James [Pope-Hennessy] at the same time as his father was and had an affair with him. I know more about this incident than he thinks. For Jamesey told me he was in love with Nigel and used to lie with him without touching. That has always been Nigel’s failing, the inability to make close contact. I expect he regrets it in middle age.
That is not the sort of thing anyone tells their teenage children, and so my sisters and I orbited around the sad and central absence of our father, his regret-filled cold, without ever quite seeing it for what it was, and all of us saddened and angered by it in our turn.
More than anyone I have ever known, he came to polarize the good and the bad in his life: social, warm, delighted, graceful, generous, successful, and hospitable summer openness; solitary, unseen, parsimonious, gloom-ridden, cold, unwelcoming winter despair. If we came to stay, he would long for us to leave. I said to him once that he treated his books and everything he wrote in the way that most people treated their children, with endless, careful nurture; and his children in the way most people would treat a book—look into it, see what it has to say, and put it back on the shelf. Sometimes, he seemed like the enemy. In his files, he kept the letter from the headmaster of my boarding school, saying that I was the most neglected boy the school had ever had. Did he not realize that boys needed visiting from time to time?
He certainly wrote, wonderful letters, which made me cry with longing for home. Only many years later would I come to distrust them, and through them everything about our family’s word obsession. Sissinghurst floats on a sea of words. Shelf after shelf in our house was filled with the millions of words a family of writers has produced over three or four generations. Filing cabinets stood around in our corridors and our landings of my grandfather’s letters to my father and to his brother Ben, my father’s and Ben’s letters to their father, my father’s letters to me and to my sisters, and all of ours to him. There were hundreds of my father’s letters to my mother, if few from her to him, not to speak of the thousands of letters from Harold to Vita and her to him. Harold’s diaries and my father’s diaries occupied complete cabinets of their own. Yards of shelf were filled with the books they had all written. Tin boxes stood stacked in the corner full of Vita’s letters to her mother and her mother’s in return. And so there was another landscape here, written and rewritten, sheet after sheet, a whispering gallery of family meanings, lasting more than a century, from my great-grandparents to us, a layered tissue of communication. You could make a mattress of those papers, lie back on it, and feel the past seeping up into your flesh like a kind of damp.
But for all the volume, all the drawers and files, there seemed to be something lacking. So much was written but so little seemed to have been said. If I think of those filing cabinets standing there in the corridors, what I see is a world that is said to be private and intimate but is in fact colored with performance and display, a show of bravado and communication laid over the anxiety and apprehension underneath. How much of it was real? Was this world of written intimacy and posted emotion, of long-distance paternal and filial love, in fact a simulacrum of the real thing? A substitute for it? Nicolson closeness had been a written performance for a hundred years. And that unbroken fluency in the written word made me think that it concealed some lack. If closeness were the reality, would it need to be so often declared?
My father’s social life consisted not of a steady stream of friends and visitors but bursts of smart sociability in the summer, what he called The Season. I remember one lunch party he held at which everyone had a title. I looked at it all in the unworldly, unforgiving way of adolescence and as I remember it now I can feel the chill of my own regard. Without pause, for what seemed like weeks at a time, they would discuss the Bloomsbury Group. I deliberately learned nothing about it. There were waitresses and cooks, bottles of Riesling, conversational sallies. In each of the guests’ bedrooms my father would provide short, semi-complimentary resumés of the other guests. Only once, thankfully, did he put the wrong list in the wrong room so that one man found himself described as “past his best,” another as “patronizing.” I looked at my father and thought he was living each day for the account he could write of it the following morning in his diary. After that summer show, he retreated to boil-in-the-bag TV dinners, a sense of diminution and failure. This polarized spectacle, the deep disconnection in him, troubled me then as it does now. I remember accusing him once of “dishonesty”—the only word I could bring to address this troubled core of unhappiness—and he of course asked me, cold, angry, and forensic, for examples, of which, in fear, I could provide none.
As a teenager, I remained both devoted to him and angry for what I thought of as his selfishness, his hiding of the truth, his weakness, his lack of practical love, the theatricality of his life, the way in which he would do little or nothing for us and demonstrate so much vivacity, charm, and engagement to those people who hardly knew him and who can have meant little to him. His love of America was the encapsulation of all that: visit after visit, in which he would act “Nigel Nicolson” in front of adoring audiences to whom the edited version could be presented, before returning to the cold of Sissinghurst, to be that other, self-despising person, living, as he put in his private memoir written in 1985, in “the morass of self-reproach I feel.”
In that memoir, written when he was sixty-eight, he summed himself up:
The two great deficiencies in my make-up are lack of judgement, and an incapacity to feel deeply, in anger or in love. A mushiness of temperament, a short-cut mind, indolence, no power to execute, a copy-cat mind, poverty of intellect and spirit, constantly wishing myself more rich in scope, self indulgent, and selfish were it not that I take pains not to appear so, my generosity fake, my gentleness an excuse for lack of vigour. It’s not a pretty selfportrait.
He was so lonely that he could feel comfortable only with people who scarcely knew him. Anyone who came at all close was, to use the word he used in his own memoir, “menacing.” Intimacy itself was menacing.
He and I were always different. I liked roughness and incompleteness, the wrinkled suggestion of things, Romanticism, the seventeenth century, and authenticity. He liked Palladianism and neatness, the Augustan vision, Chippendale not oak, Jane Austen not Shakespeare, tidiness and the effective display. He couldn’t contemplate the idea of religion or psychology; he developed an overt distaste for sex or even any talk of it. I played Bob Dylan loud on the record player but he was unable to listen to music, thinking instead that he should read a book about the workings of the orchestra. He once said to me that if anyone was ever moved by music, it was a symptom of sentimentality.
All he wanted was clarification and tidiness. He was in many ways disgusted by mess and increasingly fearful of the anarchic or the spontaneous. But it is one of the consolations of age that the anger and incomprehension of the adolescent can turn to sympathy and love. I feel toward him now as a father might feel toward a son who seems curiously stuck in his relation to the world, who has not let himself emerge, who has not in some ways let himself be, to be the immediate creation of flesh and appetite he, at least in part, might have discovered. It is as if my father spent his life not existing but making himself up, endlessly fashioning a papier-mâché skin to cover the hollow he both knew and dreaded beneath it.
In his later years he cleared, ordered, and sorted Sissinghurst. Everything found its place. No letter was written without a copy being kept, none received without being filed. He burned a great deal of the lumber in the attics. All our childhood toys were thrown away. I didn’t see any of this for what it was at the time. I was away at school, university, and work. I didn’t realize that this process of clearing up, of cleaning, sorting, and clarifying, not only represented my father’s attempt in the outer world to cure the sense of worthlessness and dirtiness within him, it also coincided with some kind of ending of the world I had known as a boy.
Of course, other factors were in play. The landscape historian Oliver Rackham has called the central decades of the twentieth century “the locust years.” It was the period when a hungry and powerful simplicity, a rationalist clearing away of the mess, was imposed on the world, when logos was substituted for mythos, the rational fact for the imaginative idea, something rather blank and reasonable for the complex and wavering story. In the outer world, the demands of modern agricultural systems meant that the same simplifying, tidying up, and “making efficient” was occurring across the entire farmed landscape of England. Mixed farms were giving way to more profitable monocultural systems.
Sissinghurst had been open to the public since the late 1930s, and for us the visitors had always been as much part of the place as customers in a shop. A Sissinghurst without visitors would have felt odd and incomplete, as if a play were being performed to an empty house. But in the 1960s and ’70s, as Sissinghurst became more famous, 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. I still remember the lopped branches of the trees lying on the autumn grass and the stubs of the trunks standing there in their orderly rows like an abandoned cemetery. The cattle went and then the farmhands. 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. The Jacob sheep’s foot rot became worse than ever and they went. The chickens went. The hay was no longer stored in the brick barn and the old Dutch barn outside it was demolished. The woodshed and the pig shed became a shop. The old granary, where the wood of the partitions was worn by the heavy usage of filled sacks, men, and labor over three hundred years, so that the wood inside looked as if it had come from the groynes on a beach: all of that was taken out and converted into part of the Granary Restaurant.
Jack Copper died, his garage was taken down, and a smooth mown piece of grass with elegant parkland trees replaced it as though a slice of an American campus had taken up residence in the farmyard. My father had the rough, shedlike buildings removed from around the perfect arch of the sixteenth-century barn. The thorn trees and most of the elders that grew next to the oasts were removed, so that their uninterrupted forms could be seen clearly, out and in the open. The cart shed became a ticket office, the dairy and bullpen a coffee shop and plant shop. The stony track was tarred and smoothed. Neatness, efficiency, modern systems, and a certain absence and emptiness replaced what had been the lifeblood of a lived place.
No longer was any dung carried out to any field. Dung in fact entirely disappeared from Sissinghurst. No produce from the fields returned to any of the buildings. No animals lived here. No one worked on the farm full-time. “I look at this farm now,” Mary Stearns, James’s mother, said to me one day, “think what it once was, and almost weep.” The old veins and arteries of the place, the routes going out into the land from the cluster of buildings at its heart, were not used anymore except for ladies taking their dogs for a walk. Only the widened busy arterial lane that is Sissinghurst’s umbilicus to the outside world remained an active, living route. Along it came the hundreds of thousands of visitors, all supplies, all the food for the restaurant, and all the oil for the central heating. Back along it, all the visitors left and all the rubbish with them.
I scarcely saw this change for what it was, but that is how the real losses occur: invisibly, cumulatively, in a way one cannot grasp or measure. Only afterward you see that the snow has melted, that autumn has somehow become winter, that the evening or the past is over.
When my father was ill in 2004, we came back to live at Sissinghurst. When I was a teenager, I had left for university and then lived in London and other places. Since 1994 my wife, Sarah, and I had been living, with our two daughters, on a small farm about twenty-five minutes away, just over the county border in Sussex. Now my father, who was eighty-seven, was fading, but outside Sissinghurst was throbbing with its new life. It had become one of the most successful “visitor attractions” in the southeast of England (180,000 visitors a year, turning over £2 million), and in doing that had slowly and invisibly lost its soul. Remembering what had been here, I came to realize what had gone: the sense that the landscape around the house and garden was itself a rich and living organism. By 2004, all that had been rubbed away. An efficiently driven tourist business, with an exquisite garden at its center, was now set in the frame of a rather toughened and empty landscape. It sometimes seemed as if Sissinghurst had become something like a Titian in a car park.
I walked a lot around Sissinghurst, its woods and fields. Sometimes it filled me with despair. It seemed as if the country was over. It had become a bogus version of itself: thin city, tied together by cars. Get up in the morning at Sissinghurst and you heard the pulse of rural England: not wonderful, variegated birdsong, but traffic—the seamless, unitonal, flat, and flattening noise of tires on tarmac. This ubiquitous presence of traffic in the morning was for me a sudden and terrible measure of what had happened in the twenty-five years I had been away. The traffic laid a lid of sound on everything else. Sissinghurst on those exquisite mornings would be beautiful only if you were deaf.
As I took the dogs for a walk in the wood, the mist lay along the stream in the valley, threading itself in and out between the alders that grow there in a woody marsh. The early sun was pouring honey on the trees and over the fields of the Weald beyond them. Between them, just appearing over the wooded shaws, the tile-hung farmhouses and the white cowls of the oast houses looked, as my father always used to say, as if nothing had happened here since the first maps were made at the end of the eighteenth century. The dogs sniffed for nothing in the grasses. But behind and over it all, the traffic roared, and the traffic was the new reality.
The sound of traffic is the great eroder, the dominant signal that although, in some aesthetic way, little may have changed, in reality everything has. The planning system might have guaranteed that farmers have not sold off garden-sized plots for bungalows. No motorway has been cut through here. But that noise means the old meanings have gone. Was I sentimentalizing this? Was it ever different? I feel sure it was. I can remember hearing, as a specific instance, the sound of motorcycles burning up the road that runs along the ridge above the wood, like a slice cut through the air. That can only mean that the air itself was silent, or near silent. Now it was filled with this aural otherness, a thick substance of the not-here laid all over the here, like a heavy replastering of the walls in an old room you have always loved.
There was nothing now to be done about that. Nevertheless, I knew in my heart that to look across this landscape now was to see something that was not as it should be. The house and garden were no longer connected to a working landscape. There were no animals here, no farmer who considered this farm his own, no farm building used for farm purposes, no sense that this place was generating its own meaning or its own energies. The fields were inert, with no movement or life in them.
And so, on these morning walks, while my father lay in bed, asking about the garden, the flowers, I could see only a kind of voltage gap: between everything I had emotionally invested in this place, inadvertently or not, and the lifeless collection of fields and buildings on which my eyes fell. It looked like façadism to me, an eviscerated pretense, not really a farm anymore, scarcely even a place anymore: just a beautifully maintained garden dropped between a café and a shop, with some fields somewhere in the background. Is there any atmosphere sadder than an empty, dead barn? Or a field that used to glow with health now simply the sterile medium in which highly chemicalized and industrialized crops could be produced? Christopher Lloyd used to say that there was nothing sadder than a garden path that was not used. But here I saw something sadder still: something which for perhaps forty or fifty generations had been fully alive, now maintained in a condition of stilled perfection. There was no longer any relation of life to place.
The afternoon of the day my father died, late in September 2004, I went up to a hill on the edge of the land that surrounds and belongs to Sissinghurst, and for the first time in ten years, and for the only time since, smoked some cigarettes. They were delicious. The burnt matches smelled sweet and woody in the sunshine and the smoke filled my throat and lungs like a drug. It was settling, being there and doing that. I smoked and looked, picking the tobacco from my lips, as nothing much happened in the five hundred acres of wood and farm in front of me, the trees dark blue, the stubble pale with age, a kestrel hanging and then falling into a long curving cruise above the grasses on the edge of the fields.
The top of that hill, only half a mile away from the house and garden that five million people have visited in the last thirty or forty years, is almost private. From there a track drops down the field to the Hammer Brook and then across the wheat fields before making its way through a pair of hedges, one old, one new, to the moat, buildings, and lawns of Sissinghurst itself. From time to time a man and his dog came past. There was a woman on a gray horse. And a polite couple in green anoraks. A wind from the northwest was blowing across us all, as it would for the next few days, and the flag on the Tower, at half-mast, stood out like a noticeboard of my father’s death. The kestrel, now over the alders by the stream, hung and flickered, that steady eye, slid away ten or twenty yards, and hung again. Pigeons flustered out of the big wood to the south and flogged their way across the open ground.
Death itself is more than welcome after the strain of dying, and the air that afternoon felt light and heady, as if a clamp had been released. I looked across the fields and felt I could breathe at last, not because my father had died—not at all: I had come to love him—but because the many months of his lying in bed, gradually thinning under his bedclothes, the sheets becoming tents across his bones, as he made inordinate efforts to be polite for his visitors, even for us his children, leaving him slumped and exhausted afterward, alone with the humiliations of age, the shame you could see every day in his eyes—at last all of that was over.
For all the sense of relief, even if you are in your forties, the death of a father leaves a feeling of orphanage in its wake. A fixed point in the landscape had been removed and the flag flying from the Tower, and extraordinarily bright in the sunshine, was all that remained. I was suddenly responsible for my life in a way I had never been before. I was dislocated, both free and loose, as if a limb, the limb of my own life, had come out of its socket.
When he died, early that morning, very calmly, his nurse, my two sisters, Sarah, and I were all with him and it was, in the end, the steadiest and gentlest of moments. It felt simply, in the quietness of his breathing having stopped, as if the race was over. Only the week before, typically of him, he had given me the Oxford Book of Death to read. He had reviewed it when it came out in the 1980s—slightly offended that the literary editor of the Spectator had considered him a suitably aged candidate to be its reviewer—and had quoted in the review Henry James’s words as he felt death approaching: “Ah,” the novelist had murmured, “the distinguished thing.” That is what it felt like the morning of my father’s death.
My elder sister Juliet said we should pick some flowers for him: three of the late “Iceberg” roses from the White Garden, their second flush of the year. We cut them with scissors and put them on his chest as he lay in his narrow, single bed, with the nineteenth-century drawings of Athens given him by his mother when he was a boy on the wall beside him, a photograph of his brother Ben on the bookshelf, next to a jacket of a new edition of his father’s diaries, the window open and the cold September sun coming past the magnolia outside. The doctor arrived and then the undertakers. They carried his body downstairs on a stretcher from which a set of wheels could come down, turning it into a trolley. They wheeled him along the stone path in the Upper Courtyard and out through the entrance arch. They had brought a blanket and put it over his body and face, but you could see the outline of a person beneath it. The hearse—not a hearse but a white Volvo—was parked by the entrance. It was a Thursday and the garden was closed, as it usually is in the middle of the week, with little chains strung between posts. As I was unhooking them to allow the undertakers to put him in the car, an Italian came up to me, tall, a little agitated. “Is the garden closed?” Yes, I am afraid it is today. “But we have come from Italy.” Yes, I’m sorry, it is always closed on Wednesday and Thursday. “Why is it closed today?” Because it needs a rest every now and then.
The undertakers had opened the trunk of the car and were maneuvering my father into it. “But we have come from Milan. Could we not just for a few minutes . . . ?” His body was in and the trunk lid down. The Italian seemed not to have noticed what was happening. I am so sorry, I said, there are one or two things going on here today. “Just ten minutes?” No, I’m sorry, no. The undertakers got into their car, saying they would be in touch later, and drove quite slowly away. “Five minutes?” asked the Italian, now with his wife smiling kindly beside him.
No, I said, not today.
I thought about my father as I looked at Sissinghurst. All I could feel then was gratitude for his love and affection, for the way, out of his own fragility, he had loved us. Fathers inevitably forget the most important moments in their relationships with their children. There were many, but I remembered one in particular. I talked to him about it one day when he was ill in bed, and of course he had forgotten. I was small. I must have been about seven. We were at home, looking out at the grass on one of the lawns at Sissinghurst where a mulberry tree used to grow. Gordon Farris, the gardener, was hoeing the beds under the lime trees, and my father described to me the difference between Gordon’s work and the work of what he then used to call a “city slicker,” and the contrary difference in what they earned, and their status in the world because of it. In that tiny parable was bundled up an entire universe of liberal political and social ideas, a kind of moral baseline, a yardstick against which the acreages of life could be measured. There were many other things—more than he knew: the importance of love and work, of treating people properly, of not giving up, not cheating, of friendship, efficiency, and honesty; of the love of nature and the landscape; of buildings, history, and archaeology; and above all, as the defining frame for all these things, a love of and attachment to Sissinghurst.
I was thinking of this, this gift of a place, with all that word means, as I sat and smoked that long afternoon, looking across a piece of England, of Kent, the Kentish Weald, which I knew better than anywhere on earth. I listened to the traffic booming on the road to the south and looked at the bobbled roof of the woods, on which the sun was just laying its coat of afternoon light, the scoop of hedged fields between them, the shadows of the trees drawn out across the stubble, almost from one hedge to another, the dust lying in pools on the track at my feet. Was Sissinghurst, this picture of rooted and inherited stability, to be the frame for the remaining half of my life? That afternoon I thought so, and felt its arms closing around me.
I went down to the Hammer Brook. It was a quiet and windless afternoon. The stream, at the end of summer, was low and the feet of the alders exposed, but here and there along its length, over some of its darkest pools, so deep that there is no telling where the bottom lies, the big old oaks were standing on the banks and stretching their arms out across the river to the other side. One by one, quite regularly, every now and then, the acorns fell from the trees into the river, a slow, intermittent dropping, occasionally hitting a branch on the way down and ricocheting through the tree, but more often a steady, damp, percussive music: a plumlike plop, a silence, and then another, glop. The acorns didn’t float, but sank into the depths of the pool to join the piky darkness of the riverbed.
When there was a gust of wind, some of the leaves came floating and zigzagging down to the water, where they landed on the surface as curled boats, to be carried away downstream, or more often caught in the banks, or on the logs and branches that stuck out from them, where in the damp they started to rot, already becoming humus, returning nutrients to the soil from which they had sprung. Meanwhile the soft, slow oak-rain continued, a glugging, swallowing cluck or two each minute, the dropping sound of history and time, mesmeric as I listened to it, the twin and opposite of fish rising, the gulp of a river swallowing seed.
“The past is never behind,” John Berger wrote in Pig Earth, his great collection of tales and meditations on life in a small village in the French Alps. “It is always to the side. You come down from the forest at dusk and a dog is barking in a hamlet. A century ago in the same spot at the same time of day, a dog, when it heard a man coming down through the forest, was barking, and the interval between the two occasions is no more than a pause in the barking.” That is what I have come to understand about the acorns dropping into the Hammer Brook. Nothing is intelligible without the past, not because it is the past but because it is the missing body of the present. The bed of the Hammer Brook has always seemed to me like an ancient place, where without effort one can see and feel what it was like here in the distant past, but Berger’s point is more than that. In places like this, at this level, time has not passed at all. The dropping of the acorns is how things are.
I came to realize what I was hungry for, not that afternoon, but in the weeks and months that followed. It was to revive a landscape that had been allowed to forget its past. That desire, my attempt to make it a reality, and a belief that it was something that had significance beyond Sissinghurst, is what this book is about. I knew that to understand it I first had to go back to some roots and sources, to the beginnings of this place, to establish some of the foundations, to understand what the historical beginnings of Sissinghurst had been, to discover its hidden meanings. But even as I began to think about them, I understood that the place I remembered, with all its multifarious life, was the last of the great continuities that stretched back from here deep into the past. By chance, just at the moment it was coming under the knife, I had been allowed to see it, before the locust years ate away at its body. In the light of that, those years, the years of “modernity,” seemed now to have been an aberration. The lasting fact was the system as it had been. The new sanitized monoculture was a short wrong turning. All I wanted was to rejoin the main path.
How to make these landscapes live again? How to sew back together the very things that modern life seemed to have severed: people and place, good food and good environments, what was done now and what had been done here before? How to reconnect? That was the all-important question: how to reconnect the deeper meaning of the place with the way it existed today. That need for connectedness became the driving motive for me. If I could help steer Sissinghurst toward a richer condition, that would be a form of reclaiming it, of moving it on to another stage in its existence. Sissinghurst had to be restored to a fullness of life, but how to do it? That was the task and the question.
ADAM NICOLSON is the author of many books on history, travel, and the environment. He is the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, the British Topography Prize, and the W.H. Heinemann Award. His previous books include Sea Room, God's Secretaries, Seamanship, Men of Honour, and Earls of Paradise.
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