Kathleen took me to visit Knole, the ancestral home of Vita Sackville-West an author, poet and garden designer. She was such an interesting woman who was married to Harold Nicolson for 50 odd years, had two sons and several lesbian love affairs notably with Violet Keppel and Virginia Wolf. Her husband also had homosexual affairs yet when you read their letters to each other they are very loving. Fascinating characters.
Knole is situated within Kent’s last medieval deer park and there were many deer strolling the grounds. The home is huge, originally an archbishop’s palace, then in royal hands and finally into the Sackville family since the 1600s. It has 300 rooms and is almost a village in itself with extensive gardens. Too big to photograph! The panther was the symbol of the Sackvilles so they line the roof.
I loved the heater that was the most modern way to heat a room at the time.
Vita loved Knole but as a daughter she was not able to inherit the estate and it passed to her cousin Edward, who didn’t want it. Vita married Harold Nicolson a diplomat, to fulfil her conventional side, and they seemed happy but it didn’t stop her having an affair and some serious lesbian affairs.
She and her husband went on to lovingly create a magnificent garden at Sissinghurst Castle, which we visited after Knole. The gardens are glorious and full of fragrant roses. She had her room in the tower where she wrote at night after working in the garden during the day. Her husband had a miniature Oast house with windows looking across the Kent Downs. I would love a room like that!
The property had a house for the children! They had their house and own rooms plus a library, all connected by walls and garden courtyards. The library was converted from stables.Sissinghurst had been a notorious prison for French sailors and there is graffiti from their time on the walls which was discovered during a recent renovation of the tower. When Harold and Vita bought it, it was practically in ruins but after renovating the stables they started on the gardens (which now have 2 teams of rose de-headers that go through the garden twice a week!) Women had been head gardeners for the majority of the time Vita and Harold lived there but since the National trust now own it, they have the first male head gardener (in 50 years).
Although the garden is classically designed in squares or rooms, the planting is exuberant and lush with such a mixture of textures and flowers that it is a feast for the senses. Sissinghurst is also a working farm with cattle, sheep and pigs as well as home to rare species of wild flowers, insects and birds but we didn’t have time to walk around the fields as well. They have preserved the Oast houses that were used to dry hops. There are many of them in Kent and at Sissinghurst they are surrounded by wild daisies. My Australian roots surfaced when I saw the long grass and wild flowers. Good place for snakes!
Kathleen had the book of letters Vita and Harold exchanged over their married life which was published by her son Nigel. They are so interesting. I have read a few things by Vita but my curiosity has been stimulated now to explore a few more aspects of her work. She was reputedly the inspiration for the character in ‘ Orlando’ by Virginia Wolf. I will have to read a biography!
This was a stunning day for both weather and exploring.