1892-1982 - Victoria Sackville-West



Sissinghurst is a one-off among Britain's literary landmarks. It is not so much a house as an estate, and the 'castle' which is its focus formed part of an Elizabethan manor-house, just a mile or two north of Cranbrook in Kent. One turret contains a number of small octagonal rooms, one of these being the author's study. The other encloses a spiral staircase. Her husband, the essayist and biographer Harold Nicolson, preferred to write in the 15th century cottage in which they made their home. They first came to Sissinghurst in 1930, when the property was in a terrible state of repair - it had lain semi-derelict for nearly 200 years. Over the next 30 years they restored it and designed a series of gardens which have often been J described as 'the most beautiful in England'. They visualised a complementary sequence of 'outdoor rooms', beautifully designed and imaginatively planted. Nowadays few read their books, but the gardens are world famous and attract many visitors. Would working in these idyllic surroundings suit all writers?

Though she was the author of a considerable number of books - on travel, history and gardening as well as fiction -Victoria Sackville-West (known always as Vita) is better remembered today for her extraordinary lifestyle and the even more remarkable home she created at Sissinghurst Castle. She was born into an aristocratic family in precarious financial circumstances, though their home at Knole in Kent (now also in the care of the National Trust) was one of the largest and most splendid in the country. She made a highly unorthodox marriage to a diplomat, Harold Nicolson, and it provoked much speculation and scandal. They became influential members of the Bloomsbury circle, and Virginia Woolf's Orlando, set at Knole, is a celebration of their friendship. Vita's success as a writer of best-selling fiction enabled her to buy Sissinghurst, the ruined remains of an Elizabethan manor house. It is not a true castle, more a chateau in the French sense. By 1760 the house was, ironically, being used to house French prisoners of war and shortly afterwards this 'wretched barracks' fell into dereliction. The place caught instantly at my heart and imagination,' Vita later wrote. 'I fell in love; love at first sight. I saw what might be made of it. It was Sleeping Beauty's Garden; but a castle running away into sordidness and squalor; a garden crying out for rescue. It was easy to foresee, even then, what a struggle we would have to redeem it.' She would work in the garden by day -Nicholson designed it, while she did most of the planting - and write at night in the tower. Though the arrangements were makeshift - there were no guest bedrooms, for instance - Sissinghurst was an important landmark on the literary map of the 1930s and 40s. Among other relics, on the tower's second floor is the treadle-operated printing press used by the Woolfs to print the first edition of T S Eliot's The Waste Land and other important early works of the Hogarth Press.

1885-1930 - D H Lawrence

1914-1953 - Dylan Thomas