Author Topic: "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History," by Adam Nicolson  (Read 2779 times)

Offline Kerry

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"Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History," by Adam Nicolson
« on: June 08, 2010, 12:40:23 am »
“Sissinghurst:
An Unfinished History”

by Adam Nicolson


Review by Vanessa Harriss
in Time magazine
Thursday 20 May 2010


http://www.time.com/time/travel/article/0,31542,1990626,00.html

Anyone who has smiled politely through tales of home improvements knows how absorbing they are to the owners, and how deadly dull to everyone else. But "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History", Adam Nicolson's 2008 account of reinstating a farm on his family's land in southeastern England, is no flat-footed story of problems laboriously surmounted. Rather, it's a richly layered memoir of a small patch of Kent and its human inhabitants. Above all else, however, it's a love song.


Adam Nicolson

As with any home, the house and garden that frame Nicolson's story are reflections of the family who live there — but what a family! His grandparents were poet Vita Sackville-West and writer and diplomat Harold Nicolson: both gay, serially unfaithful and voluminous letter writers. Novelist Virginia Woolf was one of Vita's numerous high-society conquests. Violet Trefusis was another. (Trefusis' clan has form — she was the daughter of one famous royal mistress, Alice Keppel, and great-aunt of another, Camilla Parker-Bowles.)


Harold Nicolson & Vita Sackville-West

And yet, in the midst of shattering infidelities, Harold and Vita were able to turn their attention to such harmonious things as trees, flowers and shrubs. Upon moving to Sissinghurst, they created between them a garden of such beauty that it was already attracting a paying public in the 1930s.


No surprise, though, that the marriage produced peculiar offspring: Nigel Nicolson was a cold husband and father, and it's remarkable that his son himself is so well balanced. Nature saved Adam Nicolson, traced back through a boyhood spent fishing, climbing trees and pedaling through lanes a thousand years old. The Kentish Weald became a guardian to the neglected boy, providing the kind of stability his unhappy parents could not.


In contrast to Sissinghurst the garden and too-perfect national treasure ("heritage horticulture with a lesbian-aristocratic gloss" is his acid description), Nicolson wants to restore the land to an older incarnation, as an honored partner that sustains itself and its inhabitants.


Place is everything, he argues. It shapes us and we shape it, past and present folded together. But this is no green lecture. Nicolson's delicious pudding of a book mixes history, anecdote and agriculture with sharp sketches of the people he meets along the way.


The effect is to leaven his struggles with bureaucracy, recalcitrant staff and budgets that won't balance. The battles are protracted, insults fly — his family are "white trash" in one furious exchange — but the author slowly comes to see that the antagonism is sparked by anguish. Everyone around him has a story to tell and is just as rooted in the land as he is. Slowly, together, they grope toward common understanding.


The subtitle, An Unfinished History, makes clear there is no end to this story. But Nicolson's warmth, humor and energy suggest that, for this generation at least, the land is in good hands.

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Offline Jeff Wrangler

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Re: "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History," by Adam Nicolson
« Reply #1 on: June 08, 2010, 08:55:03 am »
Does he happen to mention when the house was built? I'm sure it wasn't all built at once, but I'd be curious to know. In the photos it looks Tudor/Jacobean, but that doesn't mean it really is. It could be "revival."
"It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide."--Charles Dickens.

Offline Kerry

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Re: "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History," by Adam Nicolson
« Reply #2 on: June 08, 2010, 09:22:27 am »
Does he happen to mention when the house was built? I'm sure it wasn't all built at once, but I'd be curious to know. In the photos it looks Tudor/Jacobean, but that doesn't mean it really is. It could be "revival."

Sissinghurst occupies an ancient site. There has been a settlement here since the late 12th century, the name deriving from a Saxon clearing in the woods. During the early middle ages a stone manor house surrounded by a moat (of which two arms remain) was built.

In 1480 the property was purchased by the Baker family (who were related by marriage to the Sackvilles of Knole). The old manor house was allowed to fall into ruin and an impressive brick mansion was built to replace it. It was one of the first large houses in Kent to be built of brick instead of stone and timber. Only the long front range survives today which was originally the service range with stables on one side and servants quarters on the other.

An Elizabethan house, based on a double courtyard, was built by Sir Richard Baker during 1560-70 and was known as one of the most magnificent houses in the Weald.

In 1756, after a change in the families' fortune, the house was let to the government and used as a prison camp for French prisoners of war. Over 3,000 inmates were held here over a period of seven years. It was from these prisoners that the title of 'castle' was given to the site. The house was very similar to a French chateau, a large manor house surrounded by an accompanying estate, and the title stuck.

Much damage was done to the buildings and at the end of the war two thirds of them were demolished. Over the next 50 years the buildings were occupied by the poor of the parish who worked on the estate farm and neighbouring brickyard.

In 1855 the estate reverted to the Cornwallis family who built the farmhouse as the old buildings were scarcely habitable.

The estate was put up for sale in 1928 but for two years a buyer could not be found. In April 1930 Vita Sackville-West came with her son, Nigel, looking for an old house where she could make a new garden. Vita fell in love with Sissinghurst Castle and bought it, along with 400 acres of farmland.

Together, Vita and her husband Harold made a garden which reflects their different personalities, Harold was a classicist whilst Vita was a romantic who favoured profusion and surprise. It was thus Harold who designed the layout of the garden using the walls & buildings already in place.

The garden was first opened to the public in 1938. The proceeds raised £25.14s.6d and Vita nicknamed the visitors 'shillingses', as one shilling (5p) was the admission price.

Vita died in 1962 and Harold and her two sons decided that the best way to preserve the garden was for ownership to be transferred to the National Trust. This was completed in April 1967.

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-sissinghurstcastlegarden/w-sissinghurstcastlegarden-history.htm
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Offline Jeff Wrangler

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Re: "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History," by Adam Nicolson
« Reply #3 on: June 08, 2010, 10:07:14 am »
Thanks for the info on the house, Kerry. Very interesting!  :)
"It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide."--Charles Dickens.

Offline Kerry

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Re: "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History," by Adam Nicolson
« Reply #4 on: June 08, 2010, 10:56:41 am »
Thanks for the info on the house, Kerry. Very interesting!  :)

You're very welcome, Jeff.

More pics of beautiful Sissinghurst can be seen here:

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-vh/w-visits/w-findaplace/w-sissinghurstcastlegarden/w-sissinghurstcastlegarden-photo_gallery.htm
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