In July I treated myself to an adventure I had long day-dreamed of taking: to see some of the great gardens of south-east England. It was a treat, a veritable sensory feast. England, and all of Great Britain of course, is a history and literary theme park. Every town and hamlet has old manor houses, historic churches, celebrated battle fields, ruined castles, and ancient abbeys. A lover of English literature I chose a tour that centered on the gardens of horticulturists, writers and artists. Everything about the trip was a highlight, but there were highlights of the highlights. Here are three:

Chartwell — the home of Winston and Clementine Churchill and their children. It is the second most visited site in Britain and redolent with history. It is a homey and comfortable house and the photographs tell the story as no book of potted TV series can, of the immense role this man and his wife played in shaping the destiny of our planet during the first half of the last century. The Weald welcomes one and from the terrace one can see for twenty miles across forests and fields. As I stood and gazed I am sure that I like many thousands of others couldn’t help but think of the famous men and women who had stood there too.

Hatfield House — home to Henry VIII’s three children including the future queen, Elizabeth. To see the Elizabethean knot garden in front of the ruins of the original house and wander in the ascension garden where Elizabeth first heard of her ascension to the throne of England is truly to walk in the footsteps of history.

There is Petworth with its original Chaucer manuscript of “The Canterbury Tales”. The idyllic hamlet of Bosham on the coast near Portsmouth, with a tiny church that reputedly was the place where King Canute worshipped, and which is featured on the Bayeaux tapestries. The gardens of reknown horticulturists Beth Catto and Christopher Lloyd. Charleston the farmhouse and gardens of Vanessa Bell (artist sister of Virginia Woolf) and keystone of the Bloombsbury circle.

And then there is the garden at Sissinghurst, the creation of diplomat Harold Nicholson and his literary wife Vita Sackville-West. There is nothing I can say about Sissinghurst that is not a superlative. Here are two photographs that speak for themselves, one a plant  astrantia major from Vita’s famous white garden and the other of “my pink tower” as she called the centuries old tower that houses her writing/sitting room filled everyday with fresh flowers, as if patiently anticipating her return. Magic. Like the entire two-week experience.

© 2010 Janet Levine, White Garden, Sissinghurst

© 2010 Janet Levine, Sissinghurst


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