My mother and I went to Sissinghurst, and made it back from Sissinghurst, with the only thundery shower happening just after we had gone inside the vast garden centre just off the M25 where the coach stopped for an early lunch and comfort break, and we were extremely lucky with the traffic, so the logistics of the visit worked much better than I was afraid they might.
Sissinghurst looked just like it does in all the books and magazine articles and TV articles that have been devoted to it, except that there were other people in it, which there never are when Monty Don features it as one of his eighty gardens of the world, or Marcus Harpur gets up at four in the morning to photograph it. But there were not nearly as many people as I thought there would be.
What can anybody say about Sissinghurst that hasn't been said already? It is one of the most famous gardens in England, which probably makes it one of the most famous in the world, gardens being one of the things the English are renowned for being peculiarly good at. The planting is still lavish, the yew hedges enclosing the internal paths are slightly too close together. It is not quite as it was in Harold and Vita's day, partly because it has to accommodate so many more visitors, 198,255 in 2016 according to the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, and partly because gardens refuse to stand still. The soil along the nut walk became primrose sick and primulas could not be grown there any more, and that was that.
If you want to know about the famous (and much copied) white garden or the hot coloured cottage garden, the internet is already awash with descriptions and photographs of them. I did not take any pictures, preferring to pay attention to the experience of actually being there, but my mother and I were in the minority not walking about with our phones held out in front of us. Nowadays I refuse to shuffle out of the way when a stranger wielding a phone steps into my personal space. In the old days if somebody had bothered to bring a camera, especially one with a big lens on the front, I used to feel obliged not to interfere with their shot when they had gone to so much trouble and were taking it so seriously, but mere possession of a phone does not entitle you to barge other people out of the way.
There are lots of roses, and lots of clematis, and I was reminded again how much I like each of them and how well they go together. Apart from that I noted a few plants in my little black garden visiting notebook. The first was Ammi majus, which I have read about but not knowingly seen growing. It is an umbellifer, an annual which has to be sown from fresh seed, and is better sown where it is to flower (although I see Crocus do offer plugs). Thanks to these requirements I have never managed to get round to trying to grow it. Derry Watkins of Special Plants sells fresh seed in autumn of Ammi and other species, many umbelliferous, that need to be sown at once, so in principle I could buy the seed, but with the crowded nature of the garden and the Strulch I'm not sure where to sow it. Having seen Ammi in the flesh I am more convinced that it would be worth the effort to try and find the space and organise the soil to its liking. To call it a refined cow parsley is to understate its charms, and I say that as somebody who likes cow parsley. Ammi positively shines in all its parts, leaves, stems and luminously white flowers.
Another name I wrote down was Asphodeline liburnica. It did have a label buried deep beneath the clump, which was pointed out to me by the kind gardener who also told me the name of the Ammi. I had guessed the Asphodeline part of the name, but it was useful to have the whole confirmed. It was growing in the cottage garden, and had airy spikes of individually dainty flowers in a good but bright shade of yellow, on top of stems with slender, whorled, greyish leaves. I liked the poise of the plant, and thought it looked as though it would be drought tolerant, and the fact that it was flowering now when the Asphodeline lutea that I already grow has finished would be handy. Looking online I see that Beth Chatto would sell me some, though I was discouraged to see that it required rich soil, but all the other mentions I looked at before supper made it sound tougher than that. Apparently the flowers only open in the afternoons, which was when we saw it. I would not order any without further research, but it could be a good one for the garden at home.
The kindly gardener, who was very polite about being interrupted just as she was trying to spray a lupin, did not know the full name of the little pink climbing thing I had noticed at the foot of the tower, beyond confirming that it looked like some sort of convolvulus because it was. My initial Google search for pink flowered convolvulus produced lots of entries for Convolvulus cneorum, which does not even have pink flowers but lots of people want to sell them, and common bindweed. Once I changed my search terms to pink convolvulus sissinghurst tower it was up there near the top of the first page in somebody else's blog entry, nestling by the base of the tower, Convolvulus altheoides ssp tenuissimus. It had the most delightful grey divided leaves, and I liked it very much, though at this moment I still have three unanswered questions. Is is hardy? Is it as invasive as common bindweed? And is it available in commerce if the answers to the first two questions should be Yes and No?
So Sissinghurst was far less crowded than I expected, and I am very glad to have finally seen it given it is so historic, and I liked it, but with the caveat that rather like Hidcote it has lost its original essence. Once gardens have to carry that many visitors, and the original creating minds are no longer present, they change. Kiftsgate just down the lane from Hidcote is still in the same family, and is still alive. The brilliant little town garden we visited in Richmond was bursting with its own essence, and the private garden near Haverhill I saw with the garden club. Great Dixter retains its vitality under Fergus Garrett's direction, but he worked with Christopher Lloyd for many years. Sissinghurst is very pretty, but in some way I can't quite put my finger on it feels like a pastiche of itself. Maybe if I could wander around it alone in the early morning it would come fully to life.