There can’t be many gardening fans who don’t have a soft spot for Sissinghurt, the gardens created by Vita Sackville-West in the grounds of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Each year around 180,000 pilgrims descend on this Elizabethan estate to wander the walled gardens, orchards and tree-lined walks made famous in her gardening columns. The downside to this is the sheer crush – it’s virtually impossible to experience the kind of intimate tranquillity that Sackville-West so often described. Certainly, my first visit several years ago was blighted by torrential rain and crowds armed with macs, sharp umbrellas and even sharper elbows.
So this September I made a return visit, but this time I did it the clever way: with a stay at Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse (from £150), a seven-room Victorian B&B that sits inside the estate, just a stone’s throw from the castle, and affords guests the thrill of visiting the gardens outside of opening hours. The keeper of this National Trust house is Sue Thompson (wife of Frazer Thompson, the CEO of Kent winemaker Chapel Down), an engaging host who makes the whole experience feel like one is staying at a very stylish friend’s country house, complete with wellies in the hall, a waggy black Labrador and tea and homemade cake on tap.
And it was Sue who, one sunny Sunday morning, let us through a little side gate in the walled garden, leaving us to enjoy the grounds completely alone for a full hour before the hordes descended. We lazed in the orchards, inhaled roses and nosed our way around the herb garden, but simply sitting in the shaded pergola of Sackville-West’s beloved White Garden, surrounded by the scent of fig trees, was worth the price alone.
The gardens and surrounding area are also the source of some wonderful food – breakfast at the Farmhouse was a feast of locally sourced sausages, eggs, fruit and jams, served by a cheery housekeeper who also plied us with pots of tea and coffee while we lolled on the lawn reading the papers.
They don’t serve dinner, but there is a wealth of great pubs nearby – we ate at the excellent Milk House, which is just a short drive away (or a 20-minute walk through the moonlit woods). Full, tired and happy, we fell asleep in our cloud-like bed gazing out of the window at the silhouette of Sissinghurst Tower against a night sky full of stars. If you want to see Sissinghurst, this is the way to do it.