Please do not visit Sissinghurst Castle Garden

The Sissinghurst White Garden (right)

The Sissinghurst White Garden (right)

In the interests of conservation, please do not visit Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Unless of course,  you are a garden designer, owner-designer or historian:  in which case you have no alternative and should see our page on Sissinghurst garden visits.
Sissinghurst Garden should never have been marketed as a destination for coach parties, not even for the good ladies of the Gateshead Woman’s Rural Institute. I reached this elitist conclusion in the course of a visit to Sissinghurst Garden on 10th July 2009. At 10.55 am there was a traffic jam in Sissinghurst Village and it then took 15 minutes to negotiate the single-track road from the ‘turn-off’ (double entendre intended) to the Alton Towers-ish car parks. Luckily, an electric float was available for transfers to the Sissinghurst Ticket Office. We had to join a long queue for timed tickets to enter the garden and were given a ticket with a 30 minute wait for the 12 noon entry. Then we spent 20 of those 30 minutes queuing for coffee. There was no timed ticket system for the toilets but it was necessary to queue again, even for the urinals. It was not quite like visiting Bluewater Shopping Centre on the last Saturday before Christmas, but there were similarities.
Inside at last, poor old Sissinghurst Garden looked over-crowded and rather tired. The main show of white in the famous White Garden was sweaty T-shirts and some tasteless muts were dressed in reds, yellows, blues and other colours too. I asked an employee if it was often as busy as this. She said we were lucky to be here on a quiet day.
Remembering Adam Nicholson’s plea for Sissinghurst, to change and to become the World Lesbian Capital.  I remarked to my wife that if she encountered any hot lesbian action in the undergrowth, my blog would benefit from a few good nipple shots. Escaping from the crush, we went to see Adam Nicholson’s new vegetable garden. It is no re-creation of Young Adam’s boyhood rural idyll, or his teenage fantasies. It is a high-tech production facility for the restaurant. We ‘invested’ in 2 coffees and 2 slices of cake, paying £10.80 for them and remembering the bargain eats we have so often enjoyed in motorway service stations.
It all makes me wonder if Sissinghurst should become a Theme Park, managed, like Warwick Castle, by Madame Tussaud’s. Phases 11 and 12 of the Sissinghurst International Development Programme (SIDP) are going to involve cows and pigs. Why not have tended by yokels in smocks with pretty milkmaids in Tess of the d’Urbervilles outfits? Just think of the merchandising opportunities. Later phases of the SIDP are expected to include:
13. The Sissinghurst Blue Garden (over-18s only)
14. The Sissinghurst Trump Hotel
15. The Sissinghurst Resort Spa and Conference Centre
16. The Sissinghurst Golf Course
17. The Sissinghurst International Airport
18. Sissinghurst Eurostar Station
19. The M2-Sissinghurst Link Road
20. The Sissinghurst range of Gay and Lesbian Sex Toys

56 thoughts on “Please do not visit Sissinghurst Castle Garden

  1. Adam Hodge

    I think you have a vocation as a comedian Tom..Hilarious blog and I quite understand and concur with your sentiment.

  2. Robert Holden

    All gardens change and ultimately disappear. Gardening is an artform which deals with change more than most. There is a an interesting treatment of this issue (a too popular garden) in Tom Wright in John Watkins and Tom Wright Managment and Maintenance of Historic Parks, Gardens and Landscapes, p.61: in 1991 visitor numbers were 190,000 with the introduction of timed visits and control of visitors total numbers tdropped to 135,000 by 2001 but what I have not been able to find is the current visitor numbers. I have not been able to find current visitor numbers does anyone know them?

    Clearly a private garden cannot accept large numbers of visitors without total change.

  3. Benz

    I imagine this to be a bit like Monet’s Garden at Giverney. Hell if you get the timing wrong, wonderful if you get there before the crowds arrive.

  4. Charlotte

    Absolutely agree with you Tom and that’s why I wouldn’t dream of featuring it on my blog!! I went once last year and that was 15 minutes before closing – it was the only way I could get a parking space, but of course then I had the problem of going against the flow as the exiting tourists tried to trample me! This experience was worse than trying to get a seat during an EasyJet stampede. I advise all visitors to go elsewhere and just be satisfied with the pictures of Sissinghurst. And… by the way, Giverny is just as bad!!!

  5. Andrew Cairns

    This sort of sneering and rather obvious humour is all very well, but we expect more constructive comment from you.

  6. Karen Offutt

    Sissinghurst has gained the reputation of being one of the garden highlights of England. I venture to say that most of the tourists visiting are very interested in gardens otherwise they would be at the Tower of London or the Changing of the Guards. In the interest of preserving this magnificent testimony to two of the most highly skilled garden artists, I suggest the National Trust triple the cost of admission and reduce by half the number of admissions allowed each day. Of course I say this having visited twice on my four Garden Tours of England, last June being the fourth. I too was taken back by the crowd, but so be it. Quaint is quickly disappearing all over England. Karen, from Baltimore

  7. roger

    Amusing article Tom, agree with you; as every all season visitor will attest if you should try to visit Mottisfont Abbey Garden during rose week in June, or Kew during their Orchid festival!!! But I’d be delighted to learn how you differentiate ‘Gay and Lesbian’ sex toys from ‘heterosexual’ ones …?! I didn’t think sex toys were discriminatory in their use!? Consider yourself scolded (… and spanked).

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Karen: you have a good suggestion. Another alternative would be to get people to book in advance, with a limited number of tickets available on the day. This works well for Katsura Imperial Villa and not quite so well for the Nasrid Palace at the Alhambra, because they still let too many people in.
    Roger: you have revealed my ignorance of sex toys!
    Charlotte: there is a serious point underlying my jesting.

  9. Linsey Evans

    I’m a garden designer and know I should visit the great gardens, but I have never got to Sissinghurst because I’ve heard its really busy. It’s such a shame, but inevitable that it’s become so commercialised. I’ve put a link to this blog from my blog – hope you don’t mind.

  10. Marian

    Tom, your blog should include the fact that if you are down this way it’s better to go to Dixter -where many pathways are still too narrow for lots of large visitors – but the planting is alive and vibrant and Christopher Lloyd and Fergus Garrett’s atmosphere of creative camaraderie lives on.

    In Sissinghurst’s defence they do have a couple of open evenings, June 21 being one, which pre-tv series were quite under subscribed, so a joy for those who went. The light is much better at that time of day too. As it is early morning – they also have early morning photography ‘courses’ and Painters in the Garden days, no need to be able to paint well, just take a sketch pad and gaze in relative solitude!

  11. Marian

    Re your comment on tastless mutts in coloured tee shirts, a great friend of mine always said that when one visits a beautiful place, one should try not to be the ugliest thing there..

  12. Tom Turner Post author

    Linsey: you are welcome to link.
    Marian: I agree about Great Dixter. A painter’s day at Sissinghurst sounds fun but I am worried the results might compare with our local sketch club’s visit to a windmill (surprisingly high technical quality + surprisingly low artistic judgment)

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    Well. I read that “The Megamogs are a meddlesome, muddlesome mob of moggies. When their owner, Miss Marbletop, goes off in her sports car one day, the Megamogs set about improving her house in extraordinary ways.” Could they make Sissinghurst as popular as Hogwarts?
    PS If Sissinghurst is as big a money-spinner as it appears to be, one has to say that the National Trust carries out some really excellent countryside management projects – for which it must need funds.

  14. Mary

    Just back from Sissinghurst, decided to Google disappointing Sissinghurst to see if anyone agreed with me. I expected a lovely day out and a beautiful garden but instead found a garden that looked tired and past its sell by date. Trying to give it the benefit of the doubt, I thought perhaps I should have visited earlier in the season but now I think not. The crowds were terrible and the lines for the toilets, the food and the flowers were just not worth the wait.

  15. Tom Turner Post author

    I’m sorry Mary! Sissinghurst has quite an important place in garden history so one should go there if one must but, apart from this necessity, it is a disappointment – like Westminster Abbey.

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  18. Peter Fletcher

    I think that you should expect crowds, as it’s a very popular, especially at this time of the year. Fantastic gardens.
    The food is another matter, catering for the crowds you would expect quality. Our experience was not what I would expect from such an establishment. Dry, not very fresh bread to accompany soup. Meat pie that could not be eaten, due to the tough, sinewy chunks of very cheap meat. We always thought that the National Trust could be relied upon to give quality, which is what have always expected. The catering has lost the plot.

  19. Imogen

    I have visited Sissinghurst many times since I was a tiny tot taken there by my parents. Mostly I wandered aimlessly around no doubt adding to the wear & tear. Last year, as a landcape student, I visited as part of a group shown around by our very knoweable tutor. His input totally transformed the experience. As for food we took our own including a birthaday cake!

  20. Tom Turner Post author

    My grandfather used to go there on quiet sunday afternoons and was delighted to be able to ask Vita and Harold about the names of the plants they grew. I guess this was in the 1950s. But it now needs to be managed as treat for those with discerning eyes, not as a commercial honeypot. One simple measure would be to remove all parking for coaches. Then it could be put in a special category so that you have to apply in advance for a ticket. There could also be a special charge, even for National Trust members.

  21. Imogen

    It’s the ‘commercial honeypot’ aspect that interests me. Are these gardens so short of money that they have to risk all to obtain it? Their marketing seems to have overtaken their management responsibilities as they become too successful.

  22. Tom Turner Post author

    I think Sissinghurst is treated as a ‘flagship/honeypot’, if not a ‘loss leader’. I do not think they make a big profit because more visitors necessitates more staff. They probably have more people running the car park than used to run the gardens. But I do not think they should do it. They are a national body and the national policy should be to spread the visitors around Kent gardens, encouraging new entrants to the ‘business’ of visiting public gardens.

  23. Marian

    Sissinghurst is definitely a flagship – I hear that National Trust visitors are up around 15% due to the ‘Staycationing’ trend this summer, but Sissinghurst’s numbers are up over 30%, no doubt due to the tv programme that was referred to by a journalist friend as ‘Adam and Madam’!

    When asked if the telly programme was worth the bother one of the staff told me that it was great to have the visitors, but they all now feel a bit like the autumn grass. They are quieter now too, so a good time to visit..

  24. jill hollis-graves

    Having had wonderful visits to Sissinghurst in the last few years, very dismayed to read people’s adverse comments this summer about the jaded gardens & inferior catering – were thinking of going (setting off at 6a.m.) this Saturday 3rd as our only real holiday/treat/anniversary trip this year – worth it or not?? Please advise, or shall we simply go to ou local favourite Blickling Hall?

    Speedy advice appreciated!

    9a.m. Friday 2nd October

  25. Tom Turner Post author

    It is probably quieter at this time of year and it is, of course, a wonderful garden: so you should go – and then please tell us what you thought of the visit!

  26. Marian

    I was there this week and it is looking lovely, although like the rest of Kent very dry. A big hole in the long purple border due to cut-down cardoon, but some wonderful salvias and still plenty of interest. Take time to walk around the lakes beyond the moat if you go, and I think the best time is the end of the day around 5.30pm when the light is good and you can have the place to yourself.

  27. c. barton

    I have read much on the life of V. Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson… Vita was somewhat of a recluse. She would have a fit if she were alive to see people milling around in her gardens…Sorry, I live in the U.S. and cannot see it for myself…Such a shame!

  28. Elena

    Hi Tom,

    I”ve just come back from my trip to Sissinghurst and I have to admit I agree with you completely. I’m a landscape architect trained in the UK, so to see Sissinghurst was a sort of “must to do before I die” thing; my boyfriend, who’s an engineer, came to: he was looking forward to seeing the garden whose process of development he followed on the BBC. … The garden is marvellous, though the end of may is probably not the best time of the year if you want to see the famous White Garden & Co. On the other hand, this helped us to have a very quiet day: there were not so many people around but the place looked already over-crowded: I cannot imagine how it must have been in July.
    I came back with some questions in my mind: Would Vita have been happy to have such a manicured garden? Is Harold trying to get out of his grave to throw all of us out? Has Sissinghurst lost is soul? At the end, it is the garden of the Bloomsbury Set elite but I couldn’t see any other elite but the one from the National Trust.

  29. Tom Turner Post author

    I’m glad you had a good day at Sissinghurst – it can be a beautiful place.
    The National Trust manages large tracts of countryside very well – and with no entry charges. So one has to wonder which National Trust properties are self-funding and which are funded non-revenue-generating properties. I have heard that Sissinghurst covers its costs but if it is not making fat profits then one has to wonder why not.

  30. Linda Chase

    I had the great pleasure of visiting Sissinghurst in June of 2001 and did not encounter what you now describe. There were visitors, but it was not crowded, and there was plenty of space for contemplation. The white garden was unforgettable. Perhaps I will just hold on to that lovely memory!

  31. Jennifer Britt

    Speaking as one of the hoi polloi, I loved my high summer visit to Sissinghurst. I had avoided visiting for years because I had heard how crowded it could be. Finally went this Friday and although it was busy, it was not unbearably so… despite some coach parties. One thought about the parking. Instead of targeting coaches to reduce numbers, how about removing all parking for cars. That should do the trick!

  32. Chartreuse

    I never made it to Sissinghurst during a year I spent in England on a Fellowship. I have always regretted that, having read so much about the making of the garden. Now I think I’m pleased not to have gone. At least I expected the Chelsea Flower Show to be a circus, but it was a delightful circus to me. I would not have wanted that atmosphere at Sissinghurst. (Australian garden lover)

  33. Tom Turner Post author

    It IS possible to have a good day at Sissinghurst – but you have to be lucky. I think the solution may be to run it like Katsura Palace Garden ie with visitors having to apply in writing and a quite a long time before the time of the visit. Quality matters more than quantity.

  34. Edward Baker

    I am an ancestor of the Baker line. I would be interested in visiting the buildings due to family heritage, rather than the gardens per se. When would it be best to visit Sissinghurst to view the buildings and learn more about the Baker clan without having to fight the crowds? I live in America.


  35. Susanna Clymo

    Living nearby for 20 years, I used Sissinghurst as my back garden, and my children learned to walk there in the 60s and early 70s, and my choir sang on open evenings. We could buy an annual pass for £1 and sit about reading in peace, and fish for tadpoles in the moat.

    It is utterly different now. To answer Edward Baker, I suggest staying in the Bed and Breakfast next door to the castle (my children used to work there – it’s now under new management but still exists). That would give you a chance to prowl round the outer buildings in the early morning and late evening, and be among the first to buy a ticket to get closer to the buildings.

  36. Jennifer Carpenter

    My husband and I went to Sissinghurst this time last year on a Thursday afternoon, arriving at 2 p.m. It was not busy at all ! There were no queues for the loo, we saw everything easily, but were very disappointed by the badly kept vegetable garden.

  37. Susanna Clymo

    Well, I took foreign visitors there last week, mainly because I was very keen to see the vegetable garden after all the problems Adam and Sarah had in persuading the National Trust to establish it.

    I agree with Jennifer Carpenter – we went on 12th July and saw the rather sad vegetable garden, masses of weeds, tiny starved veg, lots of rabbit damage, the only successful plants were heavily protected by netting. I was very taken by their best red lettuce – “Roger” – and a cheerful gardener told me where to buy seeds:


    which I have now obtained and sown. My own allotments are weed ridden, but I expected more from Sissinghurst….

    Big contrast when we moved on to the Castle gardens – well watered and weeded and mown and absolutely perfect.

    I have to say that I was quite annoyed with the ticket buying system. As a member of the NT I had to stand in line for the “free” tickets, then join another longer line for our guests’ tickets. It was really buzzing by 10.30, and took a lot of time.

    I still love it because my children grew up there, and I have watched that garden since 1968.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you for the comments. One has to love Sissinghurst! It is strange that they have not got the vegetable management right. I visited Audley End recently. It is managed by English Heritage and they are making a wonderful job of the vegetables.
      A friend, who works for the National Trust, gave me the opinion that they treat gardens as profit centres – in the sense that they make fat profits from gardens and spend the money on other pet projects. I think what happens is that only the money collected from non-NT-members, who pay to visit a garden, goes to the garden management. The garden management teams do not get a share of the membership income. Not sure about this: can anyone say if it is correct?

  38. C cooper

    I live not that far from it and we dont go at all now, queue queue queue. I thought it had really gone down hill, the latest custodians should be removed they are doing more harm than good.

  39. Sissinghurst Village Shop

    Regarding the “sad” vegetable garden – Amy (the Head Vegetable Gardner) does a sterling job with very few resources -please realise the main garden has 8 full time gardeners and a Head Gardener – Amy has only 1 full time assistant and two part time seasonal only assistants.

    Regarding the profit of Sissinghurst, it is well known as a “cash cow” and makes far more money than it spends on its own upkeep – this is so that it can subsidise other less profitable National Trust properties. Hopefully this year (2012) the newly re-designed restaurant will speed things up but prices will always be high.

    May i suggest a trip to the Sissinghurst Village Shop in Sissinghurst Village, which makes excellent fresh sandwiches and cakes on a daily basis, sells all manner of comestibles which one can then picnic with at the Castle in one of the many picturesque areas of the Estate.

  40. Marian

    Last week was my first visit this year to see the superbly pruned roses – an art in itself and the best time to see it is now before leaves and flowers cover the architecture. Of course no visit to Sissinghurst could be complete without a visit to the lovely Sissinghurst Village Shop!

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I love the gardener’s art as much as the gardens they make. But do you think the roses were ‘superbly’ pruned in Vita’s day? I have a hunch there was a slapdash streak in her nature, though I can imagine that this not extend to the work of those she supervised.

  41. Susanna Clymo

    It was I who commented on the rather “sad” vegetable area just over a year ago. I dropped in today, as I was passing, and the transformation is absolutely amazing. I especially admired the rows and rows of beautiful lettuces and other salad leaves, immaculately weeded and spaced and showing touching evidence of being picked leaf by leaf for the restaurant and for sale to the public in generously sized bags along with nasturtium flowers. Beautifully maintained wide grass paths between the beds.

    An immense new asparagus area was planted up this spring, and although gappy and with quite a few weeds, it is going to be very productive in the future.

    A large area is given over to herbs, planted out in grid patterns, and again this must be a useful source for the cafes.

    There is an area of allotments for Sissinghurst village residents – variably successful, but a good idea.

    I don’t remember any leek plantings, not many climbing beans, some stunted dwarf beans and mildewed rows of peas….but overall it is a very impressive and successful field compared to only 13 months ago. Not to mention the new orchard at the far end of the car park.

    Looking at the vegetables on sale in the shop, they seemed to be mainly courgettes and marrows of various sizes, and the salad leaves. Beans, peas, sweetcorn, beetroot, potatoes, onions, spring onions, spinach, chard, garlic, all absent. Why?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Thank you for some very good news. Organizations do not like being criticised, understandably, but well-founded criticism can often lead to improvements.
      Re courgettes, they are easy to grow and easy to harvest and they ripen at this time of year. So do beetroot and potatoes but the former take a lot weeding and the latter take a lot of land in relation to their selling price. Chard is easy but it tends to wilt after being harvested.

  42. Peter Dixon

    We pop into Sissinghurst several times a year and have rarely been bothered by too many visitors. If you always find crowds then you need to give some thought on why it is you have that problem and avoid those days that will inevitably be busy.

    The “vegetable garden” was a daffy idea foisted onto the NT by Sarah Raven without any sensible consideration by her of how it would be maintained or the costs involved. As it is, it’s of less interest to visitors than most allotments and has no chance of being commercially viable in competition with professional market gardeners and growers.

  43. Robin

    I was sent here by The Galloping Gardener. I’m going to Sissighurst this w/e, having avoided it so far but finally giving in. I’ve been watching the BBC series so sort of know what to expect. What time of day is best to visit? First thing or last thing?

  44. Robin

    Thank you. We visited at about 2pm on Easter Saturday and given the cool weather the garden was very quiet. We plan to go back for Spring Bank so will definitely go later.

  45. Alexander

    I am lying in Sissinghurst garden as I type, having gone onto the web to find out the cause of Vita S-Ws demise. Its great. There are flowers and trees and birds and all sorts of green objects that I do not see in Balham. Just wondering if I would be allowed through the gate if the blog ran the place. I am not Turkish but I went to Istanbul once. Thta was lovy too but I dont recall anybody telling me I should not be allowed in because I was not fluent in Turkish art and literature.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      My thought is that if any place has too many visitors then visitor numbers need to be restricted, as they are for the Chelsea Flower Show. So who should be allowed in? Suggestions welcome!

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  47. Jaz

    I visited the gardens recently and encountered none of the issues mentioned in the article – thoroughly enjoyable day in one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen.


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