“[I]n and out of these decaying halls I move…”
Vita Sackville-West and Sissinghurst Castle
When Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson purchased the sprawling Sissinghurst estate in 1930, the castle and grounds were derelict and unkempt; so much so the couple were forced to sleep in the Elizabethan Tower that would later form Vita’s study, with doves and pigeons flying through the glassless windows above their heads.
These days, Sissinghurst Castle is famous for its beautiful gardens, imagined and created by Sackville-West and now maintained to a high standard by the National Trust. Visitors can adore the bright beauty of the Rose Garden or get lost in the wilds of The Orchard, all of which are described in detail on the National Trust’s website for the Castle & Grounds and about which Vita wrote the poem ‘Sissinghurst’, from which the title to this post is taken:
“A tired swimmer in the waves of time
I throw my hands up: let the surface close:
Sink down through centuries to another clime,
And buried find the castle and the rose.
Buried in time and sleep,
So drowsy, overgrown,
That here the moss is green upon the stone,
And lichen stains the keep.”
Sissinghurst’s literary heritage, and thus the importance of the site to the cultural history of Kent is, however, less well known. After a diplomatic career, Harold wrote books, book reviews as well as a weekly column for The Spectator. Vita wrote seventeen novels, as well as several collections of poetry, translations and other works. Many of the texts the couple reviewed together remain in the library at Sissinghurst Castle, forming a fascinating and vital collection which is currently being catalogued and restored.
Wandering up the spiral stairs of the Tower, and glancing into a wide white room, visitors might be confused by a strange contraption with a large flywheel and lots of wheels and cogs. This, for me, is the hidden treasure of Sissinghurst:
The machine is the Hogarth Press, (a Cropper Minerva Platen press, probably built towards the end of the nineteenth century). It belonged to Virginia Woolf, a close friend of Vita’s, and is the very press upon which several of the most important works of twentieth century literature were printed. These include the UK first edition of T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (1924), as well as Virginia Woolf’s Monday or Tuesday (1921), Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939), and several of Vita Sackville-West’s own texts. It’s incredible to think that the very machine which turned these into the texts we know today, is sitting close by in a Kentish castle.
So it’s safe to say Sissinghurst is worth a visit. Enjoy a cream tea, smell the roses, but don’t forget to explore a bit deeper — to climb the winding stairs and seek out an important piece of our literary heritage, all the while imagining Vita and Virginia discussing life and literature stood at the side of the beautiful Hogarth Press.
I’ll finish with another couple of lines of Vita’s poem, which express perfectly the history and appeal of Sissinghurst Castle:
“Beauty, and use, and beauty once again
Link up my scattered heart, and shape a scheme
Commensurate with a frustrated dream.”
Canterbury Christ Church University is currently exploring a project with the National Trust to reproduce a hand-set letterpress version of the poem ‘Sissinghurst’.
Victoria Adams is a PhD student in English Literature, exploring how the typewriter, printing press and other print technologies impacted the novel between 1890 & 1940. In her spare time she rescues, restores and prints with all kinds of letterpress printing platens, blogging about this at frostinmay.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter as @kentpterodactyl.