Thursday, May 13, 2010

‘Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History

May 02, 2010|By Susan Salter Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History

The Quest to Restore a Working Farm at Vita Sackville-West's Legendary Garden

By Adam Nicolson

Viking: 342 pp., $27.95

"It was a world that encouraged slowness, detail, attention," Adam Nicolson writes of his boyhood years at Sissinghurst, the 16th century castle where Vita Sackville-West had her famous garden, from 1930 until her death in 1962. Nicolson is the grandson of Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. His love for every square inch of the estate is contagious. Sissinghurst is in Kent, 50 miles south of London, in a part of England known as the Weald, which means forest. It covers hundreds of acres and attracts 115,000 visitors each year. It was opened to the public in 1938 and purchased by the National Trust in the 1960s, a long and difficult process of negotiation shepherded by Adam's father, Nigel.

Adam remembers the fields and forests, streams and crumbling towers. He writes about the hops garden, the orchards, the sound of nightingales and the mystery of ancient trees and mossy corners:

"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 young deer."

This is vivid writing, made richer by the entirety with which Sissinghurst is woven into Nicolson's being. After his father died in 2004, Adam decided to revive Sissinghurst as a working, organic farm, which involved another set of negotiations with the National Trust. He and his family went to live there, and Nicolson spent a great deal of time researching farm records. Wheat, barley, hops, oats, rye, beans, potatoes, kale, sheep and other livestock — Nicolson steeped himself in the history of the land and the estate, which was visited in 1573 by Queen Elizabeth I and her retinue. He records his own efforts — successes and failures; the learning process. He quotes from Vita's diaries and from her poems, including this one, written in 1931, called "Sissinghurst": Buried in time and sleep,/So drowsy, overgrown,/That here the moss is green upon the stone,/and lichen stains the keep."

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