We have had the ‘National Trust’ card for the best part of a year. Mariaan got it as a gift months ago and it has been lying dormant in a drawer somewhere during the dark months, like some hibernating animal. But is only when the invigorating colours, sounds and smells of spring exploded around us that we started to take notice of the destinations on offer. Sissinghurst Castle Garden was one name we somehow remembered and then Scotney Castle was recommended by someone. Both these destinations are situated in or near the quiet villages of a more rural part of Kent, where small neighbourhood stores still do good business. As we drove through the colourful villages with their ubiquitous local sandstone churches and traditional brick and flintstone cottages, a sense of peace and tranquillity came over us and we first had to stop for a casual coffee in the delightful village of Biddenden, near Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Biddenden is well-known for the Biddenden Maids, a pair of conjoined twins, who were supposedly born in the village in the year 1100.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden has a fascinating history. It was originally a Saxon pig farm, called ‘Saxenhurst’; then later the Tudor buildings were used as a prison to house French sailors captured in the Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763. These prisoners were kept in appalling, filthy conditions for months at a time, with little access to fresh air, adequate food or clean water. After that it was used as a poorhouse for the able-bodied. During the Victorian era, Sissinghurst was deemed to be ideal for ‘high farming’.
In the early 1930s the farm was acquired by the eccentric Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Mary Sackville West, known as Vita, was a prolific fiction writer, a prize-winning poet and a passionate gardener. Her husband Harold Nicolson, born in Tehran, was also a diplomat, politician and important diarist. Vita was born at Knole, as the only daughter of Lionel and Victoria Sackville-West. As a young girl Vita loved showing visitors around Knole and she always expressed a deep attachment to the estate. Sadly, as a woman in that era, she could not inherit her ancestral home.
A week later we set off for Scotney Castle, which is situated in the same classy part of Kent. The gardens are not as elaborate, but there is a lovely tranquil and rugged feel to the estate.
Scotney Castle consists of both an old castle surrounded by water and a ‘new castle’ that was built on the top of the hill. The earliest records of the estate go back to 1137, but construction on the original castle started in 1378.
The Hussey family occupied the castle until 1970, when it was left to the National Trust. It was not public knowledge at the time, but Margaret Thatcher had an apartment here for more than 10 years, when she was in office. In 1979 a film called Yanks starring Richard Gere was made here.
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