Sissinghurst. An Unfinished History, Adam Nicolson 2008
My Garden World, Monty Don 2020
Adam Nicolson and Monty Don are almost exact contemporaries (Nicolson describes Don as a friend since university days) and they have a lot in common. Both are keen on the environment and on sustainability. Both have fond memories of the countryside of their childhoods, which has vanished. The difference is that Monty Don lives in a house (or two) which he bought, whereas Nicolson inherited Sissinghurst. Well, sort of. The National Trust began as an idealistic venture to preserve the countryside for the whole nation. Increasingly, and especially after the Second World War, owners of grand houses were persuaded (usually by snobby old James Lees-Milne) to give their inheritance to the Trust. Not only did they thus save millions in inheritance tax but as ‘donor families’, they were allowed to live in their ancestral homes. This has always seemed to me a strange anomaly. What happens when, as described in this book, the donor doesn’t like the way the Trust administers things?
Sissinghurst has only been in the Nicolson family for ninety years, so hardly counts as ancestral in the way that Knole would, had Vita Sackville West been able to inherit it. The first part of Adam Nicolson’s book is a lyrical and beautiful description of his childhood exploring the Kentish countryside around Sissinghurst, with small farms, hop harvests and great characters. When he moves on to a detailed history of Sissinghurst he is less successful, in my view, because some of his ‘history’ seems to me to be purely speculative. Nicolson’s father, Nigel, adored Sissinghurst and when he died, Adam continued the tradition. But he was dissatisfied. Where was the holistic (as he saw it) use of the countryside? The connection of the house to the land? He wanted to reintroduce farming and to grow organic vegetables to feed the hordes of visitors. This set the cat amongst the pigeons all right. I did see some of the television programme about this and I could see how he and his wife Sarah Raven might get up the noses of people who’d been (as they saw it, successfully) doing things a certain way for years.
At one of the many meetings, Simon Jenkins, then Chairman of the Trust, said, ‘Adam has an agrarian vision, wants to return Sissinghurst to the conditions of his childhood in the 1960s. Why should the National Trust do that? Other people, who work there are just as attached to the highly successful Sissinghurst of the 1980s or the 1990s. Why should Adam’s vision of a dream world have priority over any other? Why is his childhood important?’
Harsh but fair, I think, although I was shocked, reading the book, by just how rude some people were to the Nicolsons. The battle has been partly won and vegetables are grown for the restaurant. It remains to be seen how many more battles Adam Nicolson will win and what his son will do when his turn comes.
By the way, I have never visited Sissinghurst and I don’t want to because the garden is too perfect. The only place for a perfect garden is at the Chelsea Flower Show, in my opinion. I’d much rather visit a garden featured in the Yellow Book, worked in by its owners. I wouldn’t mind the weeds.
Monty Don’s book is quite different; well written without being literary and much shorter. It’s really a series of nature notes on what he sees around his garden at Longmeadow and the farm he owns in Wales, which is run by his son. Here’s a couple of quotes I liked.
A peregrine circling above the farm. A pair of crows divert to escort it away like fighter jets scrambled to see off a plane that has crossed a national frontier. The peregrine … is lazy, unhurried, but rippling with latent power. Then it picks up a gear and skims across the face of the hillside at tree height, disappearing from view. The crows turn away, threat over.
On lily beetles:
It has been claimed that the beetles utter a distinctly audible squeak when picked up although I have yet to hear it – but then I am growing deaf. For all I know, their shrieks ring round the garden.
Quite amusing, then. Like Nicolson, Monty Don reminisces about the countryside of his childhood but he’s realistic. He knows you can’t turn back the clock, just try to do things better in future. Although he loves the natural world, he is unsentimental about it, knowing that nature is red in tooth and claw and that you just have to accept it, even when it’s your own cats which act murderously. I really can’t keep all the books I buy as I no longer have room for them. Of these two books, I would pick Monty’s to keep because it follows a typical year like a diary, and each month contains brief descriptions of what to see then. This makes it a perfect bedside book.
The adventures of Napoleon will resume tomorrow.