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Down the garden path at Sissinghurst and Great Dixter

In the middle of June I took a two-day trip to Kent and East Sussex to visitSissinghurst and Great Dixter. It was a journey I made with my father on several memorable expeditions. We would drive over from Hampshire, often returning in silence, talked out, inspired and overwhelmed in equal measure. Retracing my steps several decades later I found myself in the privileged position of overnighting in both gardens. The two stays were pinch-yourself experiences that made me wonder how a gardening-obsessed boy came to be such a lucky man.

I spent the day with Troy Scott Smith, head gardener of Sissinghurst, and by evening, when Huw and the dog arrived, a muggy afternoon was threatening thunder. The rose garden hung heavy with first-opened blooms on our way to Vita Sackville-West’s house in the cottage garden. We huddled under the eaves at the castle gates as the thunder started and the poplars on the plain whipped in a storm that lasted just minutes.

The storm moved on, the rain subsiding as fast as it had started, to leave us alone in a dripping, still silence. The castle sat in soft focus, the smell of eglantine andRhododendron luteum lingering in the hollows. Bees droned in the gutters and bats worked the meadows. As the colour dimmed and the hedges darkened, night fell to throw a solitary shadow of the tower across the lawn in the moonlight.

Dan in the Rose Garden.
Dan in the Rose Garden. Photograph: Huw Morgan

I slept that night in a bed covered with an ancient pair of embroidered curtains with the windows wide open and the garden all around us sweeping up and over the walls and understanding as fully as I ever would what Vita and Harold Nicolson were trying to do here.

Next day we made the journey cross-country to Dixter, where my bed for the night would be the one Christopher Lloyd was born in. It was quite a weekend of treading in the wake of two writer-gardeners who shaped the way we see gardens today.

Dixter was looking spectacular, the meadows breaking the boundaries and nestling the cars in the car park. I have never seen the meadows in the garden at quite such a pitch, with swathes of common spotted orchid sitting proud and in their thousands. A tide of oxeye daisies swept up and out of the long grassland.Ferula communis ‘Glauca’ tapered from a froth of filigree foliage and darkly stemmed Peucedanum verticillare bolted skyward in the High Garden, an aptly named place that left us intoxicated.

A new magenta viscaria caught my eye, Lychnis coronaria blinked crimson through a froth of Orlaya grandiflora and Papaver ‘Ladybird’ burned so brightly it appeared to have a halo. This is a garden that has moved as Christopher Lloyd would have wanted, shifting bravely forward and full of spirit. It burst with energy and exuberance and the gardeners who work here live that energy. Go if you can. It is as good as ever, and is probably getting better.

Get growing

Always take a notebook with you on garden trips. Notes last longer than thoughts and often pin things down more articulately than a snapped photograph


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