In the beginning of the last century Sissinghurst was a thriving farm, with hops, fruit and cattle. When Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West bought Sissinghurst in 1930 this farming aspect was one of the big assets for Vita. Of course she loved the romantic buildings, the Tower – which reminded her of her treasured childhood home Knole – and the garden they could create between the walls and hedges. But her romantic nature stretched further and owning land and a farm in her cherished Weald of Kent appealed greatly to her. Within the walls the Nicolsons made their fabulous garden; outside the farm prevailed. The outbuildings were used as stables, farm tracks surrounded the garden and the Plain was still a calves field, as it had been for centuries.
When Sissinghurst became a National Trust property in 1967, the farming aspect gradually ceased. The farm buildings were transformed into visitor facilities. The Plain and other outside spaces changed into neatly mown lawns and the farm pond was filled in. We would love to bring back the rural atmosphere outside the garden again, thus re-establishing the spirit of Sissinghurst ‘a romantic garden in a rural landscape’.
The fact that there was a farm pond, became obvious with the discovery of an old postcard of the beginning of the 1900s. To re-instate this pond would be a big addition to the ruralness of the front of the castle. Further research brought to light that the well next to the pond was already in situ as early as 1760.
But there is no real evidence that the pond was there at the same time too. The only unclear indication would be a slight depression right of the well.
The pond is definitely visible on The First Edition Ordnance Survey Map of 1868, next to the well, although it is not the clearest of maps. Because it is the first map of its kinds, the pond could have been there much earlier. Luckily they made a much better map in 1898, so that we can perceive the pond’s shape.
When the Nicolsons purchased Sissinghurst in 1930 the pond was separated from the farm lane by a post and rail fence, with a gate on the west side and an opening on the east where the pump stood. Soon after the Nicolsons bought Sissinghurst the fence disappeared, which was replaced several years later with a dogwood hedge. Harold and Vita’s son, Nigel kept a notebook, by which we know the exact date that the hedge was planted. On the 5th of March 1937 he wrote “Dogwood planted round the front pond”.
Sadly there are not many photographs of the front area of the house. On an aerial view of 1965 one cannot actually see if the pond is still there. But it was certainly filled in by 1973, when Graham Stuart Thomas, Garden Advisor of the National Trust, wrote in his minutes of a meeting “Fill up area behind cornus hedge with more cornus”. Another aerial view of 1983 shows that part of the soil where the pond had been, was still bare.
We would love to bring back the rural feel at Sissinghurst again, and our wish to re-instate the farm pond is one of the first tasks to realise this. The pond will get its original form, steepness of banks and depth back and it will be surrounded by wild meadow grass. It will be once again accompanied by a lovely tree, which once stood near its south bank, and the post and rail will come back. Recently we made a trial hole to assess the water table and to investigate the archaeological importance of the excavated material.
Luckily the hole filled immediately with water which gives us high hopes that you will soon be able to enjoy our lovely restored farm pond again and that it will be as lovely as in 1900.
I would like to thank our marvellous volunteers who brought in some lovely photographs and Adam Nicolson for his permission to use the family images.