Sissinghurst, an Unfinished History: The Quest to Restore a Working Farm at Vita Sackville-West's Legendary Garden

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A bestselling author's passionate memoir about restoring life to one of the world's greatest gardens

Sissinghurst Castle is a jewel in the English countryside. Its chief attraction is its celebrated garden, designed in the 1930s by the poet Vita Sackville-West, lover of Virginia Woolf. As a boy, Adam Nicolson, Sackville-West's grandson, spent his days romping through Sissinghurst's woods, streams, and fields. In this book, he returns to the place of his bucolic youth and finds ...

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Overview

A bestselling author's passionate memoir about restoring life to one of the world's greatest gardens

Sissinghurst Castle is a jewel in the English countryside. Its chief attraction is its celebrated garden, designed in the 1930s by the poet Vita Sackville-West, lover of Virginia Woolf. As a boy, Adam Nicolson, Sackville-West's grandson, spent his days romping through Sissinghurst's woods, streams, and fields. In this book, he returns to the place of his bucolic youth and finds that the estate, now operated by Britain's National Trust, has lost something precious. It is still unquestionably a place of calm and beauty but, he asks, where is the working farm, the orchards, the cattle and sheep? Nicolson convinces the Trust to embrace a simple idea: Grow lunch for the two hundred thousand annual visitors.

Sissinghurst is a personal biography of a place and an inspiring story of one man's quest to return a remarkable landscape to its best, most useful purpose. Nicolson is an entertaining and charming writer and this book will capture fans of Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

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Editorial Reviews

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Sissinghurst is a book of the past, the present, and the future. Author Adam Nicolson is the grandson of poet, gardener and socialite Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat memoirist husband, Harold Nicolson. In the 1930s, Sackville-West created the Sissinghurst Castle Gardens on their estate, transforming this ancient site into one of the most beautiful and famous gardens in England. The family gave the property to the National Trust in 1967, but continues to renew their connection with this natural sanctuary. In recent years, Nicolson has launched a campaign to revive the preserve as a working farm. This sumptuous hardcover records that effort in words and breathtaking photographs.

Publishers Weekly
Nicolson, grandson of poet Vita Sackville-West and diplomat Harold Nicolson—best known, perhaps for being Virginia Woolf's lover—grew up in the 1960s at Sissinghurst, the ruined castle where Sackville-West created her renowned gardens in the 1930s. The author's father Nigel gave the estate to the National Trust in 1967, and when Nicholson came back to live there after his father, Nigel, died in 2004, he embarked on a campaign to “revive a landscape that had forgotten its past.” It's through this lens of love for its past and passion for its future that Nicholson relates the story of his quest, embedding it in a history of Sissinghurst, beginning in its origins in clay, forest, and pastures and the “custom of Kent”—a unique culture of self-reliant men and women who depended on the land rather than on a lord—following through its transformation into a prison for French prisoners of war in the 18th century and its 20th-century revitalization by Vita and Harold. Nicholson's love of language is equal to his love of the land, and his poetic prose evokes the richness of the landscape he strives to save. (May)
Library Journal
This book is a treasure for Anglophiles. In addition to a detailed history of the Sissinghurst estate, bought by Bloomsbury writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, in 1930, the author provides an extensive history of the county of Kent, home to the estate and its extensive farmlands, all of which were turned over, after much negotiation, to the National Trust in the 1960s after Sackville-West's death. The author, a grandson of Vita and Harold, has dedicated much of his life to restoring Sissinghurst. Its famous gardens are open to the public, including the vegetable garden that provides a good deal of the food served in the restaurant on the premises. Sissinghurst's current fame results largely from the author's devotion to its restoration, with the resurrection of a productive, working farm there. He credits his grandmother with the beauty of the gardens, as she was "greater as a gardener than as a poet." VERDICT This is both a wonderful landscape and property history and a warm family history, taking the book beyond being only about the restoration and popularity of Sissinghurst. Perfect for studying a slice of rural English history, for lovers of gardening and farming memoirs, and for readers of English country-house studies. [See "Prepub Exploded," BookSmack!, 12/17/09.]—Elizabeth Rogers, CEF Lib., Plattsburg, NY
Kirkus Reviews
The grandson of poet Vita Sackville-West records the sometimes murky history of Sissinghurst, a Kent estate where the author grew up-and now lives again-and which he has endeavored to restore to its former status as a self-sustaining farm. Nicolson (Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War, 2008, etc.) relates several stories. The focus is always Sissinghurst itself, but the author chronicles its varied, sometimes bloody, history in many of its aspects: geological, agricultural, political (the ruins of a Roman road are nearby; Queen Elizabeth I stayed there in 1573), architectural and personal. Although the author's family had owned the property, hard times forced his father to turn it over to the National Trust, which allowed the Nicolsons to remain residents while the Trust maintains and improves the property and seeks to attract tourists. Tens of thousands visit Sissinghurst every year. When the author decided to return to live there after the death of his father, writer Nigel Nicolson, he walked the grounds and was saddened to see that it had become principally a house-and-garden tour stop-no more grain, pigs, cows or vegetables. He decided he wanted to return an agrarian focus to Sissinghurst, to provide organic food for the kitchen (which serves lunch to myriad visitors) and to see it again become what it could and should be. The fireworks began immediately. People already working there liked, even loved, what existed, and the Trust was reluctant to support a plan initially so tenuous and idealistic. But the author's persistence and affection eventually changed key minds and hearts. Includes helpful photographs and drawings. Though a taddefensive and self-congratulatory, the author emerges as a doughty steward of the land, and his family's legacy. Author events in New York and Washington, D.C.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670021734
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/6/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.48 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam Nicolson

Adam Nicolson is the author of many books on history, travel, and the environment, including Seize the Fire, Quarrel with the King, and the New York Times bestseller God's Secretaries. He is the winner of the Royal Society of London's William Heineman Prize and the Ondaatje Prize and lives at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England.

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