Sissinghurst Castle Garden - History and Facts | History Hit

Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Cranbrook, England, United Kingdom

Peta Stamper

26 Apr 2021

About Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Sissinghurst Castle Garden is a historic manor house and gardens in Kent, England. With medieval origins, the location has become an iconic historic and poetic landmark, owing to its ties with writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, author and diplomat Harold Nicolson.

Today, visitors come from across the world to admire Sissinghurst’s Tudor manor house, writing tower, and the spectacular walled garden designed by Vita and Harold. The house is still partially resided in by the Nicolson family.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden history

The site at Sissinghurst can be traced back to the Saxons – ‘hurst’ meaning an enclosed wood. The oldest owner of the land was Stephen de Saxinherst, named in an 1180 charter. By the end of the 13th century the estate passed to the de Berhams, believed to have constructed a timber building surrounded by a moat that hosted Edward I in 1305.

In 1490 the de Berhams sold Sissinghurst to Thomas Baker, a cloth producer whose successors gained considerable wealth and careers at court. During the 1530s, Sir John Baker’s daughter Cecily married Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset. Sir John’s son Richard built the tower and expanded the large courtyard house, surrounding it with a deer park and in August 1573, Sir Richard entertained Elizabeth I.

Following the Civil War, the fortunes of the Baker family collapsed, leaving the building in decline. It was later used as a prisoner of war camp during the Seven Years’ War; the French soldiers giving Sissinghurst the name ‘castle’. During the 19th century, the demolished manor house was used to build in the local area. In 1928, the property was put up for sale priced at £12,000.

Denied inheritance of her ancestral home Knole in Sevenoaks, Vita Sackville-West saw great importance in Sissinghurst as a substitute home – connected to her ancestor Thomas Sackville. She had married Harold Nicolson in 1913; the two had an unconventional marriage, both embarking on same-sex love affairs such as Vita’s affair with Virginia Woolf. Following Vita broke an affair with Violet Trefusis, the Nicolsons moved to Sissinghurst.

Vita and Harold rescued the Tudor manor’s remains, residing in the South Cottage while dining and hosting in the library or ‘Big Room’, their sons Ben and Nigel in the Priest’s House. Vita, an avid poet and letter-writer, claimed the dual-turret tower as her space, surrounded by the walled garden designed in classical lines and full of sculptures. The gardens were opened to the public for several days a year from 1938 for upkeep.

After Harold died in 1968, the family gave the property to the National Trust, who allowed the Nicholson descendants the left wing of the long house in perpetuity.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden today

Visitors to Sissinghurst Castle Garden will be met by the red clay brick towers peeping above the surrounding hedgerows. You can explore the historic house, including the library which Vita and Harold entertained British politicians and writers, and South Cottage, preserved to look as it did when the couple inhabited it.

Be sure to climb the tower to see the writing room (through a gate) and gain splendid views of the Kentish countryside, before exploring the different gardens curated with excruciating detail. You can also grab a cup of tea and cake within the old dairy or the oasts, characteristic of Kentish hop farming.

Getting to Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Sissinghurst is a 2 hour drive from London via the A21 towards Cranbrook, up a short lane clearly sign-posted. There is parking on-site. Reaching Sissinghurst via public transport is not easy, although you could get a southeastern train to Staplehurst from which you will have to get a 10 minute taxi.