Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, Kent

Situated in the Weald of Kent is Sissinghurst Castle, once a grand Elizabethan Manor House, now sadly only a fraction of its former size, but still surrounded by beautiful countryside. As Kent is so often referred to as 'the Garden of England', Sissinghurst is as equally renowed for its splendid gardens. The history of Sissinghurst Castle has always been very closely linked to the soil, and it was originally a medieval manor-farm.

Originally the land was owned by the De Saxingherstes, but by the middle of the 13th century the family line had come to an end. However, the Manor had established itself as being of local importance. Formerly moated - although only three sides still exist, two containing water and one side having been slightly raised to provide a grass walk - the house was sufficiently large and comfortable enough for King Edward I to stay during the 14th century, probably with the De Berham family. They owned Sissinghurst Castle for more than 200 years, until Henry de Berham decided to move to another manor, and sold his home to Thomas Baker.

It was Sir John Baker, one of Thomas's grandsons, who was responsible for the first major developments and, with his increasing wealth and power, he was able to demolish the medieval manor house, and replace it with a grand Tudor courtyard house. At a later date, he added the imposing archway and Gatehouse. A self-made man, he held positions of importance, and was to entertain Queen Mary at Sissinghurst Castle in 1557, just a year before he died. It has been suggested that Sir John was responsible for building the magnificent new Elizabethan mansion, but architectural considerations, and the fact that he was nearing the end of his life, make it much more likely to have been his son, Sir Richard Baker. He kept the western entrance range and added the tower, which survives almost intact today. In 1573, Queen Elizabeth I spent three nights at Sissinghurst, and knighted Richard shortly afterwards.

By 1661 Sissinghurst Castle had become neglected, and remained so for the next hundred years. During 1756, it was leased to the government for use as a prison during the Seven Years War. Captured French seamen were housed in the now dilapidated buildings of Sissinghurst, where conditions were absolutely terrible for both prisoners and guards alike. In fact, the reputation of Sissinghurst was so bad that discipline was maintained in other prisons by threatening to move any unruly inmates to this cruel, cold and overcrowded place. It was only during this period that the title of 'Castle' became linked to the estate. Only 15 years later, with much of the house and furniture destroyed by the Frenchmen for firewood, Sissinghurst and its future looked bleak. An earlier suggestion to turn it into a spa, so attracting London visitors, had failed and it was then used as a workhouse from 1794. A few years later much of the building was demolished, with the exception of the entrance range, the tower and a few of the outbuildings.

After the large Victorian farmhouse was built in 1855, Sissinghurst Castle once again went up for sale in 1928. It was to stay on the market for two years before Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, bought it for their home. She re-opened the entrance archway, now no longer needing to be blocked as a prison, but made few changes to the remaining buildings, other than carrying out some careful restoration. Both V.Sackville-West and her husband, however, completely transformed the grounds and, when they both died, they were content in the knowledge that they had succeeded in creating at Sissinghurst probably the most famous gardens in England.


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