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A classic English country garden

IF YOU are looking for a truly classic and inspirational English garden to visit this summer then you would be well advised to see one of the country’s most popular and famous gardens: Sissinghurst Castle garden.

This much admired Kent garden was first created in the 1930s by poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband, politician Harold Nicholson. The couple who were married in 1913, transformed the 10 acre site surrounding Sissinghurst Castle and in doing so set a new standard for design and horticulture which has not been matched in significance since. Sissinghurst is characterised by a series of contrasting areas or “rooms” which Nicholson laid out with structural hedging. These rooms were then designed and planted by Sackville-West in distinctive ways. One of the most interesting spaces which is still maintained and pleases visitors today is the White Garden; a garden populated with a wide range of white, grey and cream flowering plants.

  1. full bloom:   Billowing roses in the White Garden with the Elizabethan Tower in the background  at Sissinghurst Castle   Picture:  National Trust Photo Library

    full bloom: Billowing roses in the White Garden with the Elizabethan Tower in the background at Sissinghurst Castle Picture: National Trust Photo Library

Best enjoyed in mid-summer, the White Garden was designed to be viewed at night as well as in the day due to the reflective qualities of white foliage and flowers being particularly striking in the moonlight.

Although one of the most celebrated examples Sissinghurst was not original in its use of garden rooms; Sackville-West and Nicholson were influenced by another famous garden from this period which utilised smaller, defined and themed spaces.

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Hidcote Manor Garden was designed and nurtured from bare fields by Lawrence Johnston and was one of the most innovative and influential gardens of the early 20th century.

From 1907 the enigmatic and self-taught Johnston worked tirelessly on his Cotswold garden until his death in 1958. Hidcote’s garden rooms are formed by structural hedging of Yew, Beech, Box, Hornbeam and Holly. Sometimes this hedging is inter-woven to create a tapestry effect. Such is the significance and influence of this garden, which has inspired designers from around the world, that it was the first garden to be acquired by The National Trust who spent more than £3 million on its restoration.

The design of both Hidcote and Sissinghurst, like many other gardens of this time, developed out of the ideals and naturalistic style of the arts and crafts movement. Indeed there was an emerging overall philosophy that garden design was an art form in its own right.

William Robertson was an early and passionate advocate of a philosophical approach to garden style which was in line with the arts and craft movement. He promoted the “wild garden”, a naturalistic style of planting which utilised herbaceous perennials, and more hardy native specimens, which was a radical move away from the formal and tender, exotic bedding of the Victorian era. Robertson wrote a range of articles and books on his theories and these were very widely read – changing attitudes and influencing the style of gardens into modern times.

The two most famous names of early 20th century garden design are arguably those of Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens. He was an architect with an eye for detail and a good understanding of materials, she was a keen plants-woman, who having been an art student knew how to paint with plants. Together Jekyll and Lutyens were the most prolific garden designers of the time, having worked or consulted on hundreds of private gardens. The Jekyll trademark style was the use of herbaceous borders with year-round interest and perennials planted in drifts of colour. They also designed gardens around different areas, often planted for seasonal interest. These areas became the precursor to Hidcote and Sissinghurst’s garden rooms.

A visit to any arts and crafts garden will show just how forward thinking the designers of this time were and how contemporary their work still seems today.

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