Last week we visited Sissinghurst Castle, the home of Vita Sackville-West. It was full of people wandering around the gardens, standing on the roof of the castle with binoculars, eating cake in the Granary coffee shop and lunching in the restaurant. We ate exceptionally good poached salmon with dill and mustard sauce, new potatoes and crisp steamed vegetables; gooseberry fool for dessert. Everyone sitting around us spoke French.
In the gardens, I wanted to be astonished because they represent a lifetime's work and dedication. But I am not a gardener and my relationship to the world of flowers is mostly superficial. You must see the White Garden, someone said to me. Go in early summer. I imagined that everything would be white. I forgot that the gardens of great houses are divided up into this and that - a rose garden, a herb garden, a white garden. I pinched off a small piece of lavender and held it to my face, looking round to see if anyone had noticed this small act of vandalism. People walked about with iphone cameras, clicking. Mr. Signs pointed to the laurel growing on the side of a wall and said the laurel in our garden was in better shape. It was a joke we developed as we looked at what was flowering: our roses were better too, less drooping and distressed, our peonies bolder and more vibrant, our foxgloves looked fresher and our forsythia was not brown at the edges. We were overheard by some people who looked at us oddly, because it was an odd thing to do: to walk around a famous garden and make unfavourable comparison with one's own. In the white garden our joke began to peter out. There were strange, dancer-like flowers I had never seen before and tall stalks with frill, like some delicate material on a hand-sewn petticoat. Everything was open and vulnerable-looking. Here Vita and Harold Nicholson would spend their time, year on year, tending the flowers, while visitors came and left their shilling contribution in a bucket by the wide arch that looked over the Kentish fields.
More than anything, I wanted to see the study where Vita wrote her books and poems. It was in the turret, about half way up the seventy-eight stairs, which I climbed with difficulty. En route were rooms given over to plaques and illustrations which spoke about the history of the place - how it had once been a poor house, and also how it had, for a period, housed French POWs in the eighteenth century. They were kept in disgraceful conditions. One of the guards had once shot at a group for no reason and killed a couple. The French visitors were milling around me, talking and pointing. There were delicate markings on some of the walls, drawings of boats that the prisoners longed to return to.
The entrance to Vita's study had iron bars through which we could look but not enter. I was disappointed. I had pictured myself standing by one of her windows, seeing what she might have seen (the terrain still much the same) when she had looked. I wanted to be close to the vital life of the room. I pressed my face against the bars and breathed in the scent of old books, the walls being covered with them. My eyes wanted to take in everything, but I knew I would only retain a few details and all else would be sense impressions. There wasn't time, and French pilgrims behind us were impatient for their turn to look. There was a scent, almost not there, but I have a keen sense of smell and if it had been possible for me to linger I might even have identified the brand; not one that would easily be found now. It was the kind my mother, or more likely one of her older friends, might have worn in the fifties, when I was too young to read or know about these things. It was sweet, with a touch of decay, almost unpleasant - but one would have got used to it. The scent had hung about her, I guessed, as she sat and worked, and the furnishings - the chaise longue, rug, wall hangings, and the books - still held it, this essence, and breathed it out.
Coming back to Signs Cottage, we went into our minimally-tended garden, which I do not appreciate as much as I might. It looked particularly beautiful. Mr. Signs pointed to an area he was leaving to grow wild - our meadow. Us aristocrats.
Vita knew her flowers intimately and had a connection to them, gave each their due. One catches this in her poem, The Land - heavy in parts, but it begins to sing when it speaks of flowers, and her relationship to the garden.
She walks among the loveliness she made,
Between the apple-blossom and the water -
She walks among the patterned pied brocade,
Each flower her son, and every tree her daughter.