An unexpectedly sunny morning saw us heading off to Sissinghurst. Like Rye and Bodiam it’s only 15 minutes from Waters Edge, so travelling this week has hardly been arduous.
Sissinghurst isn’t really a castle. It started life as a Saxon pig farm, but it prospered and a manor house was built. Only part of a moat from the original structure survives today. By the late 16th century wealthy owners had built the existing tower and a magnificent Renaissance courtyard house with 38 fireplaces and a vaulted gallery 40 yards long.
Deterioration took place when the building was leased to the government during the Seven Years War (1756-63). It was used as a prison camp for over 1000 captured French sailors. They called it Chateau de Sissingherst or Sissinghurst Castle.
After the French sailors had wrecked the courtyard house, much of the building was demolished, but from the 1800’s a series of owners carried out repairs on many of the remaining structures, and used the fertile land to great advantage in the production of a wide variety of crops.
However, the photos from the time when Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson bought the place in 1932 show that its condition was very far from the pristine sight that greets the viewer from the top of the tower in these days of comparative affluence.
Harold and Vita got to grips with the building and the garden, and left a fine legacy to the National Trust, with their grandson still involved with the estate.
The gardens will be brilliant in the summer, but even now certain sections are in fine fettle, keeping a team of nine gardeners fully occupied.
After our usual picnic lunch we hopped back into the car for a few minutes before parking up at the small town of Tenterden. Although the town dates from early times, the oldest building these days is thought to be a 15/16th century gatehouse cottage on the main street. There’s lots of interest in the town, but time permits only a snippet just now… (slide show later, perhaps).
This ‘snippet’ is the old Miller’s/Chandler’s Warehouse, a three storey 18th century building. Looking up to the roof you can see the doors and a pulley, clues to its former use. It is edged with white wood quoins and clad with ‘mathematical tiles’, so called because, made geometrically and laid flush, they present the appearance of sophisticated brickwork. Many buildings from around 1770 to 1800+ used this technique of laying tiles on old timber frames to produce a new brick like appearance. The illusion was impossible to disguise at the corners, hence the use of the vertical timber quoins to finish the edges and assist in weatherproofing.
A couple of miles down the road, Smallhythe Place, another National Trust property, houses many interesting artefacts and possessions of a leading actress in her day, Ellen Terry. One of her notebooks shows that she cleared over £300 profit in one week for a performance around 1900. She was one of the wealthiest women of her times, and clearly very influential in the world of theatre. The rickety-floored timber framed house in which she lived in later life seems to be held together by a series of metal bars. Like many such places, it has probably seen a huge number of changes in its long life. In the garden, a theatre in a thatched barn occasionally draws today’s leading actors to perform short programmes in honour of the great lady and of old traditions.
It was only a ten minute drive back home from this interesting spot where there were some very helpful and informative National Trust guides.
But Ellen Terry’s death mask was a bit disconcerting. Would you like to think your descendants will remember you for ever as they view your death mask displayed in a cabinet in their front room!?