It is slowly becoming a terrific summer for roses. After a chilly rainy May and still rather variable weather, the flowers are really blooming as never before. At home the garden has survived some deer interest, and as Vita Sackville-West once recommended, I have not pruned the roses. Purposely I have allowed them to grow much taller, so the young deer cannot eat them. This has worked well and the Fantin Latour has far more blooms on, as has Celsiana, and Constance Spry and Felicia. The Rugosa Rose, Rosaraie de L’Hay, has performed as reliably as ever. The beloved Madame Isaac Pereire, which has a powerful heady rich scent, which I can’t get enough of, has cleverly managed to climb into the Rosa Mulliganii round the front window, again avoiding attention.
All these old roses were first discovered for myself at Sissinghurst alongside studying various catalogues some years back in the 1990s. Sissinghurst is certainly one of the most abundant gardens I know of and even now, under the National Trust, it still has impressed me, although it now lacks the natural relaxed reality that a private garden might have. An old friend of mine remembered meeting Vita in the garden on a visit with her children in the 1950s, she was very friendly and waved them in and chatted easily.
The lawns are to my mind the giveaway of the over-professionalism, they look like bowling greens they are too perfect, but nevertheless, everything is incredible. Everything one might like, roses, shrubs, hedges, borders, lawns, or meadows, is done about five times over, it is simply bigger, grander and repetitive in concept. Impressive and voluminous and generous in it’s glory, it is passionate. It is very cleverly designed and expertly finished, it is beautiful, it is alcoholic in it’s intensity, I do love it still. The main tower is haunting to my mind, it spirals up out of the Kentish relaxed landscape around it, and divides the formal area from the informal, it is symbolic. It was understandably, however impractical for family life, held a deep connection for Vita S-W in her privileged world of land and ancestry. However out of her passion bloomed creativity. Later in August, after a visit to Great Dixter, I found refuge again:
‘I thought it was time to buzz off to Sissinghurst, for tea and relief, and catch the end of the rose garden. I was not disappointed the beautiful design, by Harold Nicolson, was a feast to the eyes as always. The roses were just still flowering, the white garden was luscious after an unexpected rain shower on arrival. I felt I was on familiar territory again. The cottage garden was building up the hot colour theme into August and from every angle, a view had been created. It was pleasantly deserted late afternoon consequently the photo opportunities were much better than I expected. It had been a mixed day of discoveries.’
In contrast to this mature creation of the Sackville Nicolson family of gardeners, writers and landscape designers, I had heard and read much about an earlier garden that Vita Sackville-West had begun. It was a curiosity for me as it was private and rarely seen design. But a chance article in a garden magazine prompted me to contact the owners and ask about how I could come as was suggested. I acquired my ticket and at last it was possible to see a different kind of Sissinghurst.
Long Barn, as the biographies tell us, was bought by Vita SW in 1915 as a first home, quite a first-time-buy for some couples one might think! It was clearly a gesture of healing from the not-too-far-away, enormous, glowering Knole, that was denied to her. However deep the hurt Vita felt the loss of Knole was, I doubt she could have created the gardens she did in the grounds at that vast and somewhat remote estate.
Long Barn consists of two large imposing, ancient medieval and Tudor barns, one was moved to sit next to the other within a sizeable three acre plot on the Sevenoaks Weald. It is wonderfully accessible and a slightly more domestic sized garden for the less affluent visitor to gain inspiration from! As it has always remained in private hands since Vita SW moved onwards to Sissinghurst, it has retained a freshness and a modesty that is charming for what it is.
The rose garden at Long Barn is a good deal smaller than Sissinghurst, but much more the size that the majority would aim for, two to three largish beds, nice and flat. The old roses are there, Charles de Mills, the Rugosa, William Moss, Madame Isaac as well….as well as a few modern ones, William Shakespeare looks affective draping over a wall. A small knot garden of box near one barn wing and an arbor are charming and this leads the visitor down steps onto the main lawn. A kitchen garden is small and manageable being not much more than about 15ft square, hens sit under the hedge and make loud clucking noises!
There is a small white garden area by the main barn, which is beautiful, white Valerian with roses and foxgloves look terrific, as do a number of hostas near the house round the back, potted up near the water tap. I really must use Hostas more, as my father did, in our shady north east paved area at the rear of the house. Groups of hardy geraniums, link all sorts of colour schemes.
It was helpful to talk to the some of the family and friends who maintain the garden, one full time and family help regularly several days a week. The gardener was busily cutting the box with shears, but uses machinery for other areas. Long Barn has everything one could desire, a glade with a beautiful modest but large enough pond with waterlilies all over, woodland, and very relaxed natural meadows and orchards on the edge of the boundaries. It is a beautiful home and garden that is able to be whatever the owners wish it to be and hopefully it will continue to be loved and maintained by garden lovers in the future.