As a student gardener, and relatively new addition to the gardening team at Sissinghurst, one of my first projects was to research the corner of the Lower Courtyard known as ‘The Sunk Garden’. My inquiries revealed an intriguing history of a pond built within the ruins of an Elizabethan basement, an early contender as a white garden, and the eventual transformation into the cool, green oasis that is the present day Sunk Garden. I hope you find it as fascinating as I did…..
The Lion Pond
When Vita and Harold bought Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, work on the garden began immediately. By the first Christmas, a pond had been built within the southwest corner of the ruined Elizabethan mansion, most likely making use of an existing structure thought to have been a basement. This pond was later to become the Sunk Garden.
Harold records the completion date as December 21st, 1930. There is little written by Vita and Harold about the pond, but photographs show a classical design of a square brick-built pond with a semi-circular mouth into which water appears to flow from a lion’s head on the wall above. The pond is edged on all sides by a stone path and Harold’s records state that water lilies were planted in the pond on May 17th, 1931. It is in Harold’s notes that the first reference to ‘The Lion Pond’ can be found.
The Early Sunken Garden
With Jack Vass’ appointment as head gardener in 1939 came the draining of the Lion Pond. It had always failed to hold water and so the decision was made to fill it in and turn it into a sunken garden. Vita’s initial ideas were for a colour scheme of white with a touch of pink: ‘The Lion Pond is being drained’ she wrote to Harold. ‘I have got what I hope will be a really lovely scheme for it: white flowers, with some clumps of very pale pink. White clematis, white lavender, white agapanthus, white double primroses, white anemones, white camellias, white lilies including giganteum in one corner, and the pale peach-coloured Primula pulverulenta.’ For reasons we can only guess at, the scheme was not implemented, possibly due to the outbreak of war. What was planted in this new sunken garden is somewhat of a mystery as Vita’s diaries and notebooks record very little from this time. However, records made by head gardener, Pam Schwerdt, in 1985 note that Hosta fortunei aurea and Darmera peltata were present in the old Lion Pond bed on her arrival in 1959, with Macleaya microcarpa ‘Coral Plume’, Alstroemeria Ligtu Hybrids and Campanula portenschlagiana being present in the two surrounding beds.
The Present Day Sunk Garden
The Sunk Garden today is dominated by the moisture loving plants Darmera peltata, Iris pseudacorus ‘Variegata’ and Osmunda regalis, reflecting the moist, sheltered micro-climate of this corner. Clematis montana var. rubens ‘Tetrarose’ and Clematis ‘Bill MacKenzie’ clothe the wall while the self-seeding Erigeron karvinskianus has taken up residence on the ledge beneath the window. Other plants have been and gone – Primula pulverulenta and the pure blue poppy, Meconopsis grandis, were grown here in the past but did not enjoy the conditions (the Lion Pond bed is prone to flooding in the winter months and losses have been incurred over the years….)
The Future of the Sunken Garden
So, what does the future hold for this quiet, somewhat overlooked, corner of the garden? Will it remain a small green oasis in a sea of colour? Could we see a return to the Lion Pond, perhaps, with water lilies and all? Or maybe even a white garden as Vita first intended? For now, let’s just enjoy this space for what it is – a calm, cool spot to catch your breath and relax for a moment or two.