Sissinghurst Garden Design and Management

Photogaph Philippe Leroyer

Photogaph Philippe Leroyer

BBC4 is showing a series of programmes about Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Here is a link to the first episode on the iPlayer – the link will not be active for long and there is a link to a BBC Sissinghurst webpage.  Adam Nicholson and Sarah Raven live in the family house, because Adam is Vita’s grandson, but Adam’s father (Nigel Nicholson) gave the property to the National Trust. The programme presents Adam and Sarah as enlightened visionaries able to understand the past and present. But the National Trust staff are presented as obstinate blockheads able to say little more than ‘This is the way we do it because this is the way we have always done it and this it the way we will continue to do it’.  Since the series runs to 8 episodes one can’t help wondering it the editing has been done for dramatic effect. Unless the National Trust  Blockheads are going to be seduced by sweet reason, the series is going to end up portraying the Trust as a disorganised rabble which leaves decisions to junior staff.

Sissinghurst gives me the impression of being too commercial and of having too many visitors. It this is what the National Trust wants, they should avoid the cowpats Adam wants to bring back as an aspect of traditional farming. The BBC slipped in the titbit that Vita had over 50 lesbian lovers and the Independent (28.2.09) refers to ‘the site’s fascination for today’s educated lesbians’. Adam predicts that ‘By Easter, there will be rivers of lesbians coming through the gates’.  It would be useful to know whether the return of traditional farming practices (‘cowpats’) would attract or repel the lesbians, and where Adam stands on the lesbian issue.  I look forward to Sissinghurst holding its first Gay Pride day. As they say, ‘history repeats itself as farce’.

16 thoughts on “Sissinghurst Garden Design and Management

  1. Pete

    do you really think its presents Raven and Nicholson as enlightened visionaries? She comes across as rather obnoxious I thought! I’m hoping the Nat Trust staff win 😀

    Too many visitors? well they need the money. damned if they do damned if they don’t/

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I really meant that the producers of the programme seem to be on the side of Adam and Sarah. But I do not think the NT should be a money-making organization. Their job is hold places and things in trust for the nation. They should not be ‘developers’. I am hoping the appointment of Simon Jenkins will change things for the better but I suppose its like the captain of the Titanic yelling ‘man the pumps’.

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    Another episode, broadcast on 8th March 2009, gave more airtime to Adam Nicholson’s big idea. He really does want Sissinghurst to become ‘The Lesbian Capital of England’. There was no mention of re-enactments in the bushes but one could read between the lines!

  4. Pete

    well they have to make money. if they don’t they can’t reinvest it in the properties can they? they run a difficult balancing act. which i guess is why they are so conservative.

    Jenkins will be interesting given what he has written in the past.

  5. Peter Lacey (Devon)

    It seems to me that Adam Nicholson is far more interested in Lesbian activity than creating a farming environment. He talks with relish about his Grandmothers sex life and even made comment that his Grandfather was also a voracious homosexual. What he needs to remember is that probably the vast majority of visitors to Sissinghurt go there to see the house and gardens for reasons other than being reminded by Adam of his Grandparents perverse sex lives. Strange as it may seem to some people in this day and age, there are millions of us out there who still find the whole concept of Homosexuality quite abhorrent. As for Sarah Raven, I fail to see why anything that goes into the running of Sissinghust should have anything to do with her or Adam for that matter. Most of what she would have the paying customers eat, looks nothing short of what one might feed to ones pet Rabbit. They just happen to live there because of Adam’s father giving the place over to the National Trust in return for continual accommodation for the donor family. Sarah’s attitude in her pursuit of what she thinks the place needs is quite alarming and one senses most of the staff, both in the restaurant and in the gardens resent her persistent interference. They would both be well advised to channel their ideas and ideology in projects outside of Sissinghurst. I believe their participation in this programme could have an adverse affect on visitor numbers.

  6. Karen

    The NT is not a “money making organisation” .. It is a charity which relies upon membership, donations etc to continue the fantastic work it does of preserving out heritage. The programme appears to be extremely one sided.
    As a member of NT staff who works at a property in which the doner family throw their weight around, I can assure anyone watching this programme that the National Trust ALWAYS puts the property first. Decisions are made very carefully on the basis of them being for the benifit of a property.
    Many of the doner families would not be at the properties at all were it not for the trust as many were handed over due to heavy debts and the families live there rent free.

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    As Alan Watts (a famous writer, author and podcaster on Eastern philosophy) remarks ALL organizations tend to give priority to the interests of their own staff. We have recently seen this in bankers as we once saw it in the monasteries. Classification of the National Trust as a charity has no consequences for this fact. So we need to ask: ‘What are the interests of National Trust staff?’ Of course they want to conserve their properties, but Trust staff have the same concerns as other people: having something interesting to do, making changes to the world, getting praise from the public and their bosses, getting promoted, earning more for their organization, getting paid more themselves. All these things tempt staff into what I regard as PROPERTY DEVELOPMENT.

  8. Karen

    Well, Tom Turner, I am laughing at the suggestion that NT staff get praise from the public and are interested in getting paid more money. As in any service industry front facing staff come in for a lot of abuse from visitors .. however, they are outweighed by the lovely ones so on that i’ll give you half a point BUT as for the money, well, we are very poorly paid and most people who work for the Trust do so because they love the property they work at or have a general love of historic buildings, countryside etc. Also many NT workers are voluntary.
    Without such ‘property developers’ much of our heritage would simply disappear.

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    I much appreciate the work done by volunteers – and prefer low wages to high wages – but please can I have your opinion on the following question: would the conservation of Sissinghurst be best served by more visitors or by fewer visitors? And does it now have more or fewer gardeners than in the days of Vita and Harold? – I think it should be the same.

  10. Karen

    A double edged sword I think Tom. I’m sure the conservaton of Sissinghurst would benefit fom less visitors, however, it is not that simple as the revenue required to keep it as it is, is clearly better served by a higher footfall. It would be pointless for the NT to conserve and preserve for the nation and then not allow people to see such wonderful places.
    As for the amount of gardeners at Sissinghurst I am not certain but would hazard a guess that there a far more gardeners, both staff and volunteers, than in the day of Vita and Harold. The public are very unforgiving and what would have been acceptable in previous years, overgrown paths, hanging branches etc, cannot be so now as we have to contend with health and safety issues as well as making properties accessible for disables visitors.

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    But conservation is conservation! Here are some examples (1) Watercolours have to be kept from the light, whatever the public wants (2) Katsura has strictly limited numbers (3) Chauvet Cave could be one of the world’s foremost tourist attractions but only research workers are allowed to enter and ‘The fieldwork is conducted during two, 15 day, campaigns per year, plus two additional week-long campaigns for the geologists and floor specialists…In the field, usually only half of the team works in the cave each day, in addition to a few specialists who participate only intermittently. This equals around 8 or 9 persons per day for approximately 6 to 7 hours. Analyses of micro-climates have shown that to respect the equilibrium of the cave, human presence should be limited to 12 persons per day, during 8 hours, for 15 days.’ Contrast this with crowds who are allowed into the tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Clearly there is a range of possibilities and I think the present Sissinghurst policy of increasing footfall is mistaken. It is not what Harold and Vita would be doing if they were still in residence – and nor do I think it is what they would have wanted to happen. Amongst other things, they were snobs.

  12. Mary Anne Morel

    Re the March 27th comments by Tom Turner, he makes a reasonable case for truncating the numbers of visitors to Sissinghurst (and, presumably, other over-used tourist venues). Such a decision would be fraught with complications, though, as the world’s garden lovers come to blows while fighting over scarce seasonal entry tickets. Perhaps a lottery? But sites like Katsura and the Chauvet Cave do not equate to the gardens at Sissinghurst, which are neither immensely old, archaeologically important (at least, not yet) nor environmentally degraded: they are a renewable living space and as such meant to be seen and admired, even by those who are not garden designers or historians. If the National Trust is merely to perpetuate its properties not showcase them, why are the families of some of these houses given free permanent accommodation and the NT (and its donors) left to foot the bill for preserving and maintaining them? It would seem there really is a free lunch! I for one would be happy to join the National Trust and contribute to the continuance of British heritage, but not necessarily to help former owners regain their long-lost glory.

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    Re the donors, the National Trust has often been described (as has the Empire, by John Bright and the army, by Bernard Shaw) as ‘a system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy’ and it is a system which needs to be kept under review. I see it as being like the old idea of paying a hermit to occupy a hermitage in a rich man’s park – and so the donor families ought to be on public view from time to time.
    But the points re Sissinghurst are (1) it should not be continuously promoted to attract ever more visitors, as was done with the 2009 TV series (2) its quality and atmosphere are seriously degraded by excessive visitor numbers.
    One possibility would be to have a Coach Party Day. It would be the only day on which coach parties were allowed and they would have to follow a prescribed route through the gardens, as is done at the President’s Garden in New Delhi.

  14. Julian Dodd

    Re donor families. i have been appalled by the attitudes of donor families in recent programmes – sissinghurst and the bodnant garden in snowdonia. these families ‘give’ their gardens and/or houses to the national trust because cannot afford to maintain them and wish to live rent free at the expense of ordinary members of the public who buy their membership every year. it is clear to me that the national trust should not enter into any more of these arrangements, it should be a case of donate if you want to but move out and leave the running to the trust. sarah raven and her pompous husband should not have any involvement in the running of the house or estate and the donor of bodnant should be prevented from arrogantly strolling around ‘her’ garden cutting flowers and telling visitors that they are not allowed to do so as they do not live there, if i were a member i would certainly take some secateurs with me to collect a few of my flowers!! as for her son generously giving up his time for free to manage the garden it was evident that he is controlling what happens in order to keep the garden how he and his mother want it, the times gardening correspondent was refreshingly honest in his appraisal of the role of the donor family.

  15. Tom Turner Post author

    As a compromise, they could limit the period of occupation by ‘donor’ families eg ‘the lifetime of the donor’ or ‘the lifetime of the donor and the donor’s children’ or ’30 years’ or ‘3 years’.


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