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One Traveler's Opinion: If It's Saturday, This Must Be Sissinghurst

One Traveler's Opinion: If It's Saturday, This Must Be Sissinghurst

Old Jun 4th, 2004, 05:57 AM
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One Traveler's Opinion: If It's Saturday, This Must Be Sissinghurst

More than six months ago, an idea began forming in my mind: a trip to England to see that country's gardens at the peak of their spring glory. In the weeks that followed books were purchased, web sites were scrutinized and yellowing newspaper articles resurrected from our travel file. Copious research and planning yielded what my wife and I thought would be the perfect itinerary. Last week, that idea became reality. The remarkable thing is that the trip we took bore only a cursory resemblance to the one we planned, and our change-direction-on-the-fly experience was infinitely better than if we had followed our original itinerary. Herewith, a report.

There are two schools of thought about travel; one says 'why re-invent the wheel?' If someone else knows the territory and can get better rates, take advantage of their expertise and buy their package. The other says that the only way you'll ever get the trip you want is to plan it yourself. I can see both points of view.

In planning our trip to England, we looked at half a dozen tours designed for serious horticulturalists. Several promised intimate looks at private gardens never seen by outsiders; one even promised tea with Lady somebody-or-other while she showed off her estate. These tours were appealing, but too broad. In an effort to cater to the widest taste, they included a smorgasbord of gardens, including the vast landscape 'parks' that held no interest for us. We also chafed at the idea of having three hours allocated to a garden where we might want to spend five hours - or thirty minutes. The more we read, the more we recognized that the types of gardens we would find most appealing were the ones from what is called Britain's 'arts and crafts' period; roughly 1900-1925. This eliminated every pre-arranged tour for which we could find an itinerary.

We also wanted to see the Chelsea Garden Show. This is the Royal Horticultural Society's annual extravaganza, the Queen Mother of all garden shows. Getting tickets isn't hard (they have to be ordered in advance via the RHS web site), but once you buy tickets, you're locked into a specific day. Only one tour offered tickets. That made it definite: this would be a do-it-yourself tour.

And so we created our own itinerary, selecting mostly inns and country houses that put us close to our chosen gardens. We rented a car, a breathtakingly expensive undertaking in a land of $6 per gallon gas. In addition to the standard guides, we brought with us two garden-specific references: the "Yellow Book" listing private gardens that are open for charity on certain days, and the wonderful "The Garden Lover's Guide to Britain". Both would prove to be indispensable. We also ordered a seven-day National Trust pass (which cannot be purchased once you're in the U.K.). The latter proved to be a great bargain.

We are not "Bed and Breakfast" people; chintz is not a 'plus' factor in deciding where to stay. But England is a land where Holiday Inns and Sheratons are few and far between. We decided that, if we were going to stay in country inns, we might as well aim for the interesting ones. We settled on Mill Hay House in the Cotswolds (Broadway), Howard's House in the Southwest (Teffont Evias, near Salisbury), the Kensington Hotel in London, and Stone House in the Southeast (Rushlake Green, West Sussex). Mill Hay House gets an enthusiastic 'thumbs up'; our Garden Suite (there are just three rooms) was beautifully decorated and featured a wonderful old four-poster. Howard's House gets a more tepid recommendation. The room was delightful (another four poster) but the food and service were so-so at best. Stone House gets a reluctant passing grade. The owners are charming, but I resent being offered tea upon arrival, only to find upon checkout that I was dinged $18.20 for the privilege.

I mention hotels at this point only because, in Britain, there is no such thing as a same-day 4 p.m. cancellation clause. If you don't show up for your room, you're charged for it. And, because our trip overlapped a bank holiday long weekend, rooms had to be booked well in advance. As such, our hotels were also anchors. Changes, even if possible, would be incredibly expensive.

We began in the Cotswolds with the magnificent garden at Hidcote Manor. It was everything we expected; we stayed the whole of the afternoon. Also per plan, we drove to Chipping Camden, a town we remembered fondly from an earlier trip. We explored that quintessential Cotswold village, admiring the village's many cottage gardens.

The next morning, we were off to Somerset and Dorset and, by 11 a.m., we were one the grounds of Hestercombe, near Taunton. Another long, lingering visit, but we tore ourselves away in order to reach Barrington Court, fifty miles away, with enough time to see that well-regarded National Trust property. It was at Barrington Court that we realized we had made a fundamental mistake in planning our itinerary: we were seeing lush, formal perennial beds and terrific patterned gardens in boxwood hedges. The problem was that the gardens were already starting to look alike and, besides, we didn't have five acres in which to plant thousands of feet of boxwood hedges to show off our perennials.

We had signed up for the wrong tour, and we had no one to blame but ourselves.

(continued in part 2)
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 05:58 AM
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(continued from part 1)

That evening, we scrapped the rest of our itinerary and went back to our reference books. "The Garden Lover's Guide to Britain" produced a gem almost immediately: beginning in the late 1930s and continuing until her death, an eloquent, gifted gardener named Margery Fish had turned her modest country home into a showcase for informal design. We had read one of her books, "We Made a Garden", but had assumed the garden had vanished with her death 40 years earlier. Instead, we learned it was just a stone's throw from Barrington Court. We were there at opening time the next morning.

Mrs. Fish's Garden at East Lambeth was as much an eye-opener as Hidcote Manor had been that first morning. Just two acres in size, it utilized every square inch of space and every natural feature of the topology. We stayed as long as we liked. Well past noon, we headed to our next unscheduled stop, Lyme Regis.

Lyme Regis today is touristy and a little tacky, but if you squint you can see the seaport where Jane Austen characters gamboled and read poetry to one another. We were there only an hour; long enough to feel a stiff ocean breeze and walk the breakwater walls. We finished the day at Hadspen Garden, a kind of ruin in progress just north of Salisbury. Hadspen Garden was, 80 years ago, an incredible sight; one of the most ambitious gardens in Britain. Today, you can feel the place slowing folding back in on itself. It was an education, though of a different kind.

The next day was Chelsea Flower Show day, and we had originally planned to see another country garden in the morning, but instead we drove straight toward London and stopped at the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. It was a delightful visit, especially to their huge rock garden. By 3 p.m., we had seen Kew, navigated central London traffic, found our hotel, and were checked in.

I don't know how to properly describe the Chelsea Flower Show. For five days a year, it takes over the sizeable compound of the Royal Hospital Chelsea; enormous temporary buildings sprout from the parade grounds and entire landscapes created that will endure just a week. The best thing I can say is this: if you are ever in London at the end of May, go. And don't settle, as we did, for a half-day ticket. Spring for the (gulp) $41.80 full-day pass. You won't regret it.

We took a day off from gardens the next day, enjoying cultural, tourist, and shopping London. The following day, we crossed off the formal garden we had planned to see and, instead, visited Kenwood, the breathtaking manor house and art museum on Hampstead Heath a few miles north of central London. By being there at opening time, we had to ourselves a room containing a Vermeer, a Rembrandt self-portrait, and a dozen other memorable paintings.

By noon, we were headed out of London, a half a dozen ideas for garden stops written down or circled in the NGS Yellow Book. We spent much of the afternoon at Sissinghurst, a garden that sits at the intersection of horticulture, literature, incipient feminism, and scandal. Here, Vita Sackville-West created her vision of a tamed nature while she wrote enduring literature in her tower. The garden was a treat, and the lunchroom an unexpected haven of good food.

The next morning, we marked time by seeing Great Dixter, a somewhat bizarre garden created over the past 30 years by Christopher Lloyd, the well-known gardening writer. We were in and out in an hour. Next was nearby Scotney Castle, not so much a garden as an opportunity to see the remains of a moated castle in a picturesque setting. We did these things because the main event did not start until 2 p.m.

In Great Britain, there is an organization called the National Garden Scheme, or NGS. Every year, they prompt several thousand homeowners to open their gardens for charity. The master list is contained in "The Gardens of England and Wales Open For Charity", better known as "The Yellow Book". We had ordered a copy of the 2004 edition from NGS, though we needn't have bothered because the book was available at every garden we visited. Few gardens were open during the week of the Chelsea Flower Show on the premise that anyone who cared about gardens was in London. But, but by the weekend, there were dozens of listings for every county.

We zeroed in on "The Cobblers", a two-acre property in Crowborough, East Sussex, which as the signs told us as we entered the village, was the home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The garden was packed with visitors, but just what we had come to England to see: an imaginatively designed and carefully executed sweep of perennial borders and clustered gardens. Tea was being served in the barn, and we fell into a long conversation with the woman who, like Margery Fish, had built a garden. She was more than a little surprised to have attracted a couple of Americans, and she quizzed us on what we grew, how we coped with winter, and whether the United States had an NGS-type program (we do, it's called the Garden Conservancy, and it also publishes an annual Yellow Book).

We were nearly three hours at The Cobblers, we even helped move unsold plants and furniture at closing time. It had been our best garden yet and, like The Garden at East Lambeth, it hadn't been on our original itinerary.

The next day, we again marked time, this time in Hertfordshire at Hatfield House. Another formal garden and our last. Open Days gardens tend to be open in the afternoon and, at 2 p.m. sharp, we were in the Buckinghamshire village of Cuddleton, near Oxford. There, five gardens were open, all within walking distance of one another. As we wandered from one garden to another, we had a strange feeling that we had seen this village before. A closer reading of the Yellow Book told us that this village, and at least one of the gardens we were seeing, was the backdrop for "Midsomer Murders", the BBC series that airs in America on A&E. We had tea and cakes in the village hall and thoroughly enjoyed talking with fellow gardeners.

We left for home the next morning, tired but sated; with lists of plants and sketches of flower beds filling notebooks and multiple rolls of exposed film. In all, we logged just over a thousand miles in nine exhilarating days.

Out of the trip came a realization that ought to be obvious to every traveler, but which is all too frequently forgotten in the pell-mell rush to plan an efficient vacation: an itinerary should never be thought of an anything other than a starting point. We left America with a detailed list of what we ought to do based on our preconceived notions of the kinds of gardens that would interest us. When reality intervened, we were fortunate to have the flexibility to scrap the old itinerary and invent a new one.

The same should be true whether your vacation is planned around seeing the theme parks of Orlando, the castles of the Rhine Valley, or New York City for the first time. Don't be a slave to an itinerary. If something feels good, do more of it. It something isn't right, do something else.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:01 AM
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Hey neal,

What a great trip, serendipity and all.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:08 AM
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A wonderful report, Neal. Thanks so much.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:16 AM
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Hi Neal,

What a wonderful time you had! You've just made me add another area to my already too long trip wish list. Thanks for posting this delightful report.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:26 AM
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what a wonderful and informative posting about gardens in England.
Seeing the Chelsea show and seeing Sissinghurst are two goals of mine.
I'm a Sackville-West aficionada anyway, have read several biographies, and
it seems her garden work was a very important part of her life.

thanks for the posting, Neal.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:29 AM
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Hi Neal.

I remember your hilarious posting about how choosing hotels had become so much more complicated with each passing trip.

I was interested to hear your comments about Sissinghurst. I've been intrigued by Sackville-West ever since I read the Diaries and Letters of Harold Nicolson (and also Portrait of a Marriage by their son, Nigel Nicolson.) Now, that was an interesting marriage.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:29 AM
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Well done, Neal - up to your usual standard. Thanks so much.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:31 AM
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Sue, you made me smile.
"Interesting" marriage, indeed.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:39 AM
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Elaine

What makes it all the more interesting is that I read the books back when I was a teenager. At least where I grew up, Portrait of a Marriage caused a sensation when it was first published (back in 1968, although I didn't read it till the early seventies).
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:39 AM
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Sue, a quick note: one of the handful of additions to the property since Vita Sackville-West's death is a gazebo, built by Nigel Nicholson. The 1969 plaque on it pointedly dedicates the structure to the memory of his father, Harold. It spoke volumes, just as eloquently as "Portrait of a Marriage".
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 06:42 AM
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Neal, don't mean to hijack your thread, but if any Vita and Harold fans would like to watch a film rather than read, the film of "Portrait of a Marriage" made by the BBC about 10 years ago (and shown on PBS in the states, in an edited version) was a great intro to this couple, though it was mostly about one turbulent period in very long and successful marriage and careers.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 10:18 AM
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How much time would posters recommend a Sissinghurst visit be given? I'll be going with my sister in August (I know, not perhaps the best time to see it). Most of the info I've seen urges people to visit after 3 pm, thus avoiding a wait to get in. But my sis is worried that 3 - 6:30 (closing time) won't be enough time to do it justice. We are both garden lovers (I've worked in the industry) but we have lots to fit in on this trip and I'm trying to budget time accordingly.
Advice would be appreciated!
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 10:45 AM
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Neal, I very much enjoyed reading your account. We share similar interests, having followed the Yellow Book and having Hidcote and Sissinghurst as favorites. (We enjoy B&B's however, and while you wanted to steer clear of the chintz, you did fall under the four-poster.) Maybe next time you'll get to Wisley.

taggie, IMO your 3 hours at Sissinghurst should easily suffice, particularly if you otherwise have a tight schedule. It'll be a memorable afternoon!
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 11:44 AM
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Thanks Tuck. I thought that'd be enough time but my sister sounded disappointed. However she's the kind of girl who can spend 4 hours browsing in a grocery store! I will have to find a tactful way of suggesting she'll need to adjust her habits on this trip, given that there's so much to see in London itself. It'll be my 6th trip to the UK in as many years but only her 2nd in 15 (she was a teenager last time), and I want to kind of cater to her so she has a nice time, but there are limits! She's never been to Kew and I'm thinking of about 4 hours there, which has been enough for me in the past.
I wish I could get her to Hidcote, which I loved, but we are only able to take a day tour (via coach) to the Cotswolds on this trip (my husband quakes at the idea of me renting a car and driving anywhere, even though I navigate him around the UK just fine) and Hidcote is not on the agenda.

Neal, it was interesting to see what you had to say about Great Dixter... think we'll give it a miss.
But you must see Wisley on your next trip! Thanks for the account - I enjoyed it so much.
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 11:59 AM
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Taggie, we spent about three and a half hours at Sissinghurst, and would have spent longer if more of the house were open to see. However, only the library in the main house is open, plus the three rooms in the 'tower' in the garden (which are much more interesting). That three and a half hours also included lunch on the property.

Tuck, I plead ignorance. What's Wisley?
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 12:06 PM
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What a treat to read on a rainy afternoon!
Neal Sanders, this has been a dream of mine, to have the time to travel from garden to garden, home to home, especially Hidcote! I have one of those huge coffee table books called the Gardens of England that I use as inspiration for my own garden.
Thanks for writing this~
Scarlett
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Old Jun 4th, 2004, 12:35 PM
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Neal, Wisley is the "Flagship Garden of the Royal Horticulture Society", about 240 acres and located near Woking, Surrey. Here's a place to spend the whole day!

It's a huge "demonstration garden" beautifully laid out on gorgeous grounds and, quoting from the RHS Handbook, "...demonstrating the best in gardening practices...whatever the season, Wisley serves as a working encyclopedia for gardeners of all levels".
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