A Vita Weekend

This weekend one of my dearest friends came to visit, all the way from Washington D.C. Emily and I met at university when she was on her Junior Year Abroad from the amazingly beautiful Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts (which I later visited), and we soon bonded over our ridiculous sense of humour and mutual love of literature, book shops and drinking too much cheap wine. Our friendship has had to be long distance since we were 20, and we only really see each other about once a year thanks to the considerable expense of flying across the Atlantic. When I was living in New York I saw her every couple of months, which was wonderful, but it’s now been exactly a year since I last saw her, so picking her up from the station on Friday was an occasion of much jumping and hugging and laughing and talking excitedly over one another with big silly grins on our faces.

Emily is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, so it’s very handy that I now live in the same town as Vita Sackville-West’s childhood home, Knole, and a fairly short drive from Sissinghurst, her adult home that she shared with her husband and children and where she created her famous gardens. On Saturday morning the sun was shining and the sky was a glorious blue, and so we set off to explore Sissinghurst, which I have been meaning to visit for years. The drive out there took us through miles of winding country lanes offering glorious views across the landscape and glimpses of a range of lovely traditional, historic villages. After about forty minutes we arrived at Sissinghurst, the tower of which we spotted when we were still a few minutes away. It is a truly magnificent place that took my breath away. A partly ruined red brick castle largely built in the 18th century, it is situated in the middle of acres and acres of unspoiled, rolling countryside and surrounded by beautiful formal gardens. You can climb all the way to the top of the central tower and take in the incredible views that reveal the beauty of Kent, as well as being able to stop in several of the tower rooms as you ascend to read of the Castle’s history as a prison for 3,000 French soldiers in the 18th century – you can still touch the graffiti they scored into the walls – and poke your head into Vita’s private study that is in the exact layout she left it in.

Either side of the tower are two wings, one of which houses Vita and Harold Nicolson’s study. A gloriously cosy, long room with a huge fireplace, it has several lovely relics from Knole displayed in it, the famous de Laszlo portrait of Vita as a teenager, and bookshelves aplenty. I managed to spot quite a few of my favourites; The Diary of a Provincial Lady, Enid Bagnold’s The Squire, F M Mayor’s The Rector’s Daughter, Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier…I think she would have been a fan of Virago press if she was alive today. We could have stayed in there browsing the shelves for hours, but the gardens and the sunshine beckoned. We wandered through the lovely rose garden and courtyards, before stopping for a picnic lunch on the lawn at the front of the house, where we had a lovely view of the Castle’s old oast houses and barns. After lunch, we went for a walk around the estate, enjoying the views across the fields and exploring the vegetable garden that the National Trust has planted. We then popped into the barn to see what was in there, and good job we did, because inside is the genuine HOGARTH PRESS. Yes, sitting in the middle of an old barn is the original printing press Virginia and Leonard Woolf used to print their books. We were in raptures! What a find! I think it says quite a lot, however, that no one else was in the barn and that there was no signage pointing people to the press; perhaps the Woolfs are no longer well known enough amongst the general populace to warrant special attention?

After spending a good few hours at the castle, we got back in the car for the return journey, taking a slightly different route so that Emily could see a little more of the surrounding area. As we passed through an idyllically beautiful village, we saw a lovely church with a sign ‘Tower open’ propped outside the front. Never ones to miss an opportunity for an adventure, we parked up and headed in. We paid our £2 and then climbed up a very steep, winding stone staircase to the castellated tower of this 19th century church that offered breathtakingly lovely views across the Weald of Kent, with its wooded hills, patchwork fields and huddles of clay rooved and thatched  cottages. With the help of binoculars, we could even see the tower of Sissinghurst peeking above the trees. Perfect!

Not content with one day of Vita, today we headed off to Knole after eating a good old fashioned British fry up. I haven’t been in the house for a long while, and it is currently in the process of being renovated and much adapted to both make much needed repairs to the fabric of the house and provide increased access and interpretation for visitors. This offered a fantastic new perspective, especially as there is a brand new visitor centre that does a much better job of explaining the history and significance of the house before you go in for a tour. Knole is one of Britain’s oldest and most impressive stately homes, situated in one of the last remaining ancient royal deer parks. Originally built for the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 15th century, it has been in the hands of the Sackville, later Sackville-West family, for over 400 years. As the Sackvilles were consistently popular and influential members of the court throughout their history, Knole has a huge collection of royal furniture and could be a museum in its own right. With 365 rooms and 52 staircases, it is a calendar house and a veritable rabbit warren; it positively oozes history and every room has something to surprise and delight. In the main entrance hall is the manuscript of Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s novel inspired by her love affair with Vita Sackville-West, who grew up at Knole and loved it with a passion. She was devastated when the house was passed to a male relative on her father’s death, and apparently never got over the loss of the remarkable, beautiful, ancient, labyrinthine house that had inspired her imagination from a very young age. Today only half of the house is lived in by the Sackville-Wests; the whole estate was left to the National Trust in the 1940s and can be enjoyed by everyone. I have a feeling that Vita would have hated that, but nonetheless, it was a magical experience for us to get to walk through the rooms, look into the eyes of illustrious men and women long dead, marvel at the intricate decorations, lavish tapestries, plush furniture and glinting silver and soak up the atmosphere of a house that has harboured men and women who have made British history since the reign of the Tudors. I highly recommend it for a visit; unlike Sissinghurst, it’s very easy to access as it’s only a twenty minute walk from Sevenoaks station, which is half an hour from London.

After two days of Vita, I now want to read more of her work. I’ve just ordered a copy of The Heir and will be looking forward to getting stuck in when it arrives. If anyone hasn’t read any Vita, I highly recommend All Passion Spent; it’s a truly beautiful novel that has just been republished in a very nice new edition. And, if you’ve been intrigued by Knole, her also very excellent novel The Edwardians is set there.

31 comments

  1. How I enjoyed reading about your visit to Sissinghurst. I went there in the 1990’s and it remains one of the highlights of my tourist treks. Such a stunning place. The huge white climbing rose was in full bloom rambling over its pergola. i do wonder about the addition of the vegetable gardens. What did you think? One branch of my family left from nearby Cranbrook to emigrate to new Zealand in the 1840’s which made them early pioneers in that far off land.I do wish i had known that when i visited Kent and I doubt I shall get back there. So thank you for reviving such beautiful memories. One of my favourite books is “Portrait of a marriage” written by Vita and Harold’s son. I also found the collection of her gardening colums quite enchanting. Moira from New Zealand

    1. I’m glad you were able to visit when you came over, Moira! The vegetable garden is also planted with a huge variety of beautiful wildflowers, and it’s lovely – it’s not in the actual gardens but outside the courtyards and immediate castle grounds, a short walk away into the surrounding fields. You have Kentish blood in you! So it’s wonderful that you have stepped onto its soil! Thank you for that book recommendation – I shall track it down one of these days!

  2. One day I will make it to both these places when they are open (having travelled from Oxford to see both when, oops, they were closed) – but delighted to see you’ve ordered The Heir, as it is wholly brilliant.

    1. Oh no, Simon!! It’s always a bit of a nightmare with the National Trust isn’t it? That’s happened to me loads of times! I hope you’ll come back – you can always come and stay with me! Great – I can’t wait to read it!🙂

  3. Sounds like a wonderful weekend but where are all the pictures of the gardens, Rachel!?! Sissinghurst is almost at the top of my list of gardens to visit next time I’m in the UK. Vita-the-novelist and Vita-the-friend-of-Virginia I’m not much interested in but Vita-the-gardener I adore.

    1. Sorry Claire! I was so busy admiring I didn’t take that many pictures in the gardens, but they are lovely!🙂 I did think of you when I was there and how much you’d adore it!

  4. Only two weeks ago, I went to Sissinghurst – how nice to see and hear about it here now! The trip from London by train was a little adventure in itself. I decided against renting a car, and even if I had to admit my enthusiasm dwindled a bit on the way – especially when discovering at Staplehurst that the bus to Sissinghurst leaves once an hour – it was the best experience of my whole stay. Especially the last 30 minutes by foot from Sissinghurst to the castle. Walking through bramble hedges, seeing the pink tower as a signpost in front of me, I really had the feeling of having arrived in picture-prefect England. (Must sound so silly to you, Rachel!!)
    After having returned, I started to read “Family History” and found some quotes about going to Sissinghurst by train in 1932 which amused me greatly. I think the National Trust should include one on it’s website, especially since it is from dear Vita herself:
    “She began to think that the castle was a surprisingly long way from the station.”
    Indeed!
    I devoured “Family HIstory” in three days and recommend it. There is a description of a July full moon over the garden of Sissinghurst which is just beautiful.

    1. Your visit sounds magical, and no I don’t think you sound silly at all! I’m so pleased you had such a wonderful time. I’m very upset that Family History was one of my books that I ended up getting rid of when I moved – I shall buy another copy post haste to enjoy as you have made it sound irresistible!

  5. Lovely read Rachel. I walked past Knole, whilst visiting a friend in the holidays, & was tempted to go in but not enough time. I think I’m due to a revisit & see how much I remember from GCSE History Country House.
    Ps Went to see Anna Karenina yesterday & wondered if you’d been tempted to see it?

    1. Thanks Rachel! You must go back – it’s the perfect time to go as it’s got so much to see just at the moment. And it looks so lovely in autumn! GCSE History Country House?! I wish I’d done that! Yes – I’m going on Friday with my sister, can’t wait!

  6. What a lovely post and what a great time you had! I saw a lovely National Trust documentary on Sissinghurst recently and it really made me want to visit. Maybe next summer…..

  7. And also – on Vita’s books – I started All Passion Spent recently and was most impressed. I think she’s too often remembered either for gardens or her affair with VW whereas she should be regarded as a remarkable author in her own right.

    1. Oh it’s marvellous isn’t it? I quite agree – Vita was a very talented novelist and it’s a shame that her work seems to be all but forgotten these days. I think she is a brilliant writer and I am looking forward to reading more now I’ve been inspired by visiting her home!

      1. I am just discovering Vita and enjoy her writing immensely. She clearly is an underrated novelist today. She has that rare ability to be very readable, to entertain in an elegant and witty way and to leave you with an important message and lots to think about – I am thinking of “All Passion Spent”. Also, she seems so near and alive like a good friend talking to you. Recently, I read the beginning of “Passenger to Tehran” in which she muses about letters and travelling (about passing her hometown on the way from London to Dover – you should read that, Rachel, as you know the very fields!) – I think I was smiling all the time, it was just so enjoyable and funny.
        And her beautiful poems! But that’s a different chapter altogether. She called herself an “outmoded poet”, but at last there are poems I understand!!

  8. I loved our visit to Sissinghurst in 1990 and have a recording of Vita’s gardening columns on tape. I also loved Charlston and Virginia Woolf’s. It is so exciting to visit these homes and then all you want to do is read all about them I loved A Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nichloson and also enjoyed All Passion Spent. On the way to Sissinghurst I remember a lovely small church with stained glass windows by Chagall _ Tudely church The Great East Window, 1967, a memorial tribute to Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid.

    1. Glad you got to visit Sissinghurst Enid – I am desperate to get to Charleston and will definitely go soon! Oh no I meant to go to Tudeley and then totally forgot! Another day – those windows are supposed to be marvellous!

  9. Sounds like a fantastic trip! The photos alone are thrillingly beautiful! It’s pretty amazing to think that little villages like that still exist, I’m so glad that they do!

    Sorry I haven’t commented for a while Rachel – I’ve been settling in having moved to California. I’ll be taking the Nottingham MA program by distance from here so I won’t be going to England after all!!! I was quite heartbroken (there was a technicality type problem with my visa, so silly!), but California is quite a lovely plan B😉

    I’m looking forward to reading all of your entries properly now🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed the photos!

      Oh no, Lucy, how disappointing for you. I know what a pain visas are. Though you know what? I think you got a better deal in California! Sunshine, sea, beautiful scenery…you’ve got it all! You don’t need England!

      I look forward to seeing you around again, you’ve been missed!🙂

  10. Oh to nose around those bookshelves for an hour or two! It must have been just the best day out for you and your friend and I laughed at the image of you two all in amazement at THE press. True bibliophiles!
    I’m flying back over towards the end of October, UKBA has cancelled the post study work visa for most, if not all, international students, so I am going to take a closer look at Knole as a place to visit. The Edwardians has been languishing on my shelves so any excuse!

    1. Oh how exciting, Darlene, do please let me know when you’re coming! Oh no, does that mean Taylor can’t stay? That’s so upsetting for her. You must come and visit Knole and I will give you a personal tour! I’d also be more than happy to drive you to Sissinghurst, just say the word!

      1. We will definitely have to plan something so you can fill me in on all the details of your new career, Rachel! Yeah, the situation is unfortunate as Taylor would have worked very hard and been a productive citizen but there are plenty who wouldn’t and we don’t blame the government for putting a stop to immigration fraud and imposing stricter limits. Still, she’s young and anything can happen in the future as you can well attest! I’ll keep you posted on my travel plans, see you next month if you’re not too busy.

      2. That’s such a shame for Taylor, Darlene, though us UK citizens can get work visas for Canada so maybe there is another way? Fingers crossed.
        I will always have time for you, Darlene! Please let me know when you’re here – I can’t have you so close and then not see you!!

  11. What a delight to read your post about Knole. Ay present it is shrouded in scaffolding and plastic sheeting to enable them to get on with the badly need restoration. So mmany of the room are in a terrible state which while a pity does at least mean it is more or less in its original state – something a lot of old houses cannot claim. The NT have a very inteesting blog following the work being done and it is being kept up to date. Thank you again

  12. It’s intresting I am 75 . And back in the war years I was bombed out in London .i always rememerd the name ..long barn nursery.. It was opened by vita and she set it up as a nursary. For bomed out babies I have only recently found this out through searching on the internet.. I came across a link to a postcard . On sale on eBay .there is a photo of the children with the nurses in the garden .wearing there little smocks .i am sure I am there. I have a photo of me and my brother with my mum who was visiting us we are both wearing the smocks. The post card is the nostalger series .and it mentions vita giving her home for sheltering the war babies also the house was rented to other well known people.. Such as Charlie chaplin..lindburgh.. Caxton ..I have a feeling of great gratituid to vita as this was I believe my first of many homes I was to be in up to the age of 16..I remember being in a attic room and the water system use to frites me at night and the blackouts on the window ..and being carrid down to the kitchen and we all huddled under a large kitchen table until the all clear was heard. We used go for walks holding hands and being told not to pick up anything .there would be tinsel on the ground wich I now know was dropped by the Germans before an air raid to scramble the radar …and now having a post card .infact I have two they were both on eBay at the same time but different locations..I feel that I have found my early childhood..I am going to visit sissinghurst and long barn this summer ..if anyone would like to get in touch please send me an ..email ..to frederick.clarke1@btopenworld.com. Thanks for reading..

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