Sissinghurst after the ghosts have gone to bed

The Lime Walk at Sissinghurst Castle

For the past many weeks, I have been chained (or at least bound with a fragile and only too easily broken string) at my desk trying to meet my book deadline. So I apologize for my infrequent posts. I will have so many great gardens and imagery from my book to show you in 2010.

My book is on sustainable design in the smaller garden. The topic of this post, as you can see, is a grandly famous Kentish garden that is neither small nor probably very sustainable. Sissinghurst comes out of another age. But while searching for some reference for my writing, I came across these photographs I took there several years ago. Thinking they were lost to the digital ether, I was very happy to find them. They so vividly remind me of a wonderful visit, gracious hosts and the interesting things that happened to me during my brief hours there and I wanted to share them with you.

The view through the tower gate

I was working for Domino Magazine at the time (do you remember magazines? weren't they nice?) Deborah, my editor, suggested that while on a London shoot that I should visit Sarah Raven, one of our magazine contributors and friends. Sarah is an author of several wonderful cooking and gardening books and she is married to author Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West who famously created the gardens there. I was thrilled when Adam and Sarah invited me to stay with them for a night before I went back to New York.

We had a wonderful day. Sarah picked me up at the train station and we went buzzing around buying things to cook together. Adam gave me an evening tour of the fantastic garden, which I had never visited before. Dinner was simple and delicious. I learned that boiled quail eggs rolled in celery salt make a great appetizer. We talked for a long time afterwards in front of an ancient fireplace so huge that Sarah could actually sit under its mantel on a stool. Tired and a little drunk from several whiskies I went up to my bedroom quite late.

The view from my bedroom at dawn

I was awakened in the middle of the night by voices, several loud voices seemingly coming through my open window from the direction of the courtyard. I half-consciously thought they were produced by some deranged family next door and rolled over to sleep. Even Sissinghurst can't pick its neighbors I thought ruefully.

Shortly before sunrise, which came early there around 4:45 am, I heard the shouters again. This time, annoyed, I stumbled out of bed to see who could possibly be so noisy and running around outside at that hour.

Just as I stuck my head out of the window the shouting stopped, almost leaving an echo to bounce between the various buildings. I was trying to imagine what I had heard. It sounded so realistic, like two or three people hailing each other between distant parts of the garden. I waited to hear more but nothing came, so I started to head back under the covers. Just then I was struck by the beautiful view of the golden light starting to come over the horizon and into the misty garden. Bolstered by a dawn chorus of birds I thought to myself, "You dummy, don't go back to sleep get your camera and go see the garden."

The sunken Moat Walk

I splashed water on my face and tried as silently as possible to get dressed and head outside. A marvelously unpopulated Sissinghurst greeted me tinted by that radiant English light that we garden editors dream about and so rarely get. Wandering alone, I could see how the garden had been planted among the foundations of the Elizabethan castle and sense how it might have been for Adam and his siblings to grow up there in a place where the roles of indoor and outdoors seem to have been reversed. Here the garden is the centerpiece to a collection of former outbuildings turned into one unconventional collective "house". Adam writes beautifully about his life there and the long history of the place in a new book Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History. It's available now at and will be published here by Viking in May 2010. Pre-order it here.

Several hours later, I was rushing to Heathrow still in a state of stunned amazement. Thank you Adam and Sarah for your hospitality and continued friendship.

The hot colors of the Cottage Garden (above and below)

Surprising long views open up at every turn

Early summer beds in the Rose Garden

Looking back at the Tower from the Rose Garden (above and below)

Remnants of the old castle walls divide the garden

My bedroom window was the open one on the left

The good kind of gladiolas

The Courtyard where the voices were heard

The Herb Garden

The Vestal Virgin in the White Garden

The white garden not at its seasonal peak but still lovely

Most every garden room has a tantalizing view to another space

The old Moat


FP said...

These are beautiful and my most favorite story

Joan said...

I'm loving the recently found photographs! (A hundred times better than the "lost footage" from the Real Housewives of Atlanta.)
You've truly got a great eye, Steve!

ChristieO said...


Paul said...

Beautiful, especially your shot from the bedroom at dawn.

Adam Nicolson said...

How wonderful to hear all this Steve! And BEAUTIFUL photographs. It makes me resolve to get up early next summer...

Stephen Orr said...

And thank you Adam. It is certainly worth the early alarm clock!

Anonymous said...


Germi said...

I am DEAD.
I overdosed on English Garden Beauty.
You are a total Garden Beauty Dealer.
Kill me again!

Barry Parker said...

I never get tired of seeing pictures of Sissinghurst. But yours are a very special and personal view of this wonderful garden. After seeing your post I looked again at 'The Gardener's Album' a 1954 compilation of garden writers. The piece by Vita is illustrated with photographs by Edwin Smith and fascinating to see how the garden looked in her time.

Stephen Orr said...

Thanks Barry. How interesting! I will look for that book to see those photographs.

Stephen Orr said...

Hey Germi! I know how to get you Californians where it hurts... heh heh heh

Francine Gardner said...

My first garden book was about Sissinghurst.....and i am yet to visit this beautiful garden. I have been inspired throughout the years by Vita's magnificent white border and my perenial borders here in Connecticut only feature white or green flowers and shrubs. Your pictures are so beautiful and poetic, I am aching for spring....

Stephen Orr said...

Thank you Francine. Yes it is such a wonderful place with such a great sense of history. I can't wait for spring either...its too cold this winter so far!

Deborah at Kilbourne Grove said...

Fascinating, did you every find out what (and who) the shouting was all about?

Stephen Orr said...

Hello Deborah.
No I never did! Very mysterious

Dee/reddirtramblings said...

Lovely photos and mysterious too. I'm reading The White Garden, by Stephanie Barron. Totally made up, but I wanted to see the little virgin. Thank you for the photo.~~Dee

french said...

Beautiful photographs! Perhaps the shouting was Harold and Vita trying to wake you up to see their garden in that lovely morning light. :)

Stephen Orr said...

@ French.
I wondered that myself!

Madge Mc said...

Oh, you are so very lucky to have stayed at Sissinghurst! It's one of my dream trips -- to visit and have plenty of time to explore it fully. Truly lovely photos, especially the ones taken at dawn. It's finally spring here in Minneapolis and I can't wait to get out and get digging.

Michael Creighton said...

Steven, I loved this and was wondering if I could use your photo of the Irish Yews in The Cottage Garden on my own site? It is very early days for my site which will become a guide to the gardens I am building at The Drip in Mudgee, Australia. Vita's work was the inspiration for my modest efforts here and the first tree we planted here was an olive on March 9, 1992, the one hundredth anniversary of Vita's birthday. My longstanding fondness for Sissinghurst has recently been reactivated by the discovery that Vita Sackville-West and I apparently share a common ancestor in the nineteenth century. Quite odd really. My website can be found at http;//