GARDENING / A Poet's Garden: At large in Sitwell's sancutary: Edith Sitwell found refuge from repressive parents in the garden that became her muse. In the first part of a new series on poetic plots, Helen Chappell visits the family seat, Renishaw Hall

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THERE are tantalising glimpses of the garden as we stumble over dried mud and piles of timber. But our guide, Sir Reresby Sitwell, has his own promotional agenda today. Before we are to be permitted to set eyes on the greensward, he insists on taking us - that is to say me, his yapping dachshund Toby and an unexplained elderly couple from Bakewell - on a tour of the stable block. This, he explains, imitating the local accents of his workmen with music hall jollity, is in the process of being transformed into a new tea room and museum of Sitwelliana.

The memory of his famous aunt, the poet Edith Sitwell, and her literary siblings, Osbert and Sacheverell, still draws the tourists here to Renishaw Hall. Sir Reresby (Sacheverell's son) used to work in public relations. I can't help remembering what the straight-backed critic F R Leavis said in 1932: 'The Sitwells belong to the history of publicity rather than that of poetry.'

Horribly unfair, of course. Edith's glittering jazz-age verse at least deserves attention and respect. And anyone seeking clues to her poetic vision and eccentric personality could do a lot worse than to pay a visit to this Italianate garden marooned in the industrialised Derbyshire coutryside. She grew up inside its artificial borders, loved it and was profoundly influenced by it all her life:

All day within the sweet and ancient gardens

He had my childish self for audience -

Whose body flat and strange, whose pale straight hair

Made me appear as though I had been drowned

('Colonel Fantock', 1924)

As her biographer, Victoria Glendinning, points out in Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions (Phoenix, pounds 7.99), 'the enchanted garden is never far away from Edith's poetry . . . her poems are made of leaves, flowers, fruit, beasts, trees, fur and feather . . . a source for fantasy, sound and symbol.' All of which makes investigation of the garden at Renishaw an enticing prospect.

Finally, there are signs that our tour of the building works is reaching an end. Sir Reresby has shown us round the new gentlemen's urinals, taken us for a ride in the family coach (propelled by himself) and has now led us to the lawn at the back of the house. He bobs inside and re-emerges with a large handbell which he rings violently. A few minutes pass before Alfred Chambers, the head gardener, pops up from behind the shrubbery. At this point, Sir Reresby disappears inside the house.

Quite unfazed by his strident summons, Mr Chambers gestures at the pyramids of clipped yew in front of us. 'Those had grown completely out of shape when I arrived,' he says, 'so we had to cut them all right back.' They certainly lend an air of surrealism to the garden with their slightly irregular angles and sudden curves. Even the formality here - terraces, topiary, marble statues, straight lines - seems oddly unpredictable. 'It takes three of us three weeks to keep it trimmed,' reveals our guide. Then there is the problem of blackspot on the roses, now that the sooty air pollution of the local mining industry (a source of the Sitwell fortune) has been swept away.

Descending a level to the lower lawn, past the naked statues of Diana and Neptune by the sculptor Caligari, we arrive at the water garden. Ramparts of dense hedging enclose something secret here, surrounded by a moat of water, water lilies and goldfish. 'No one knows the source of the water for the canals and pools in this garden,' says Mr Chambers. It's a mystery which must have appealed to the bizarre mind of Edith's father, Sir George Sitwell, when he created this formal but romantic garden at the turn of the century. Inside the 'island' the secret turns out to be a bed of shrub roses and Eucryphia glutinosa bushes. These are escapees from Sir George's fierce ban on the brightly coloured flowers that would detract from the architectural lines of his grand design. Nature was never to be allowed to challenge his artificial kingdom. Osbert Sitwell recalls in his memoirs how, as a child, he would deadhead the most fluorescent of the rhododendrons to encourage it to flower the next year and so thwart his domineering and eccentric father.

We move on to the 'swimming pool' - a rectangular pond recently enlivened by the addition of a modern fountain. The couple from Bakewell pause to admire a border filled with peonies, Echinops ritro, brooms, philadelphus and a Magnolia stellata in voluptuous bloom. Mr Chambers gazes benignly on an outbreak of molehills on the lawn. No, he doesn't hold with exterminating the 'little velvety moles' which perpetrated them. He doesn't even mind if visitors sneak a few plant cuttings into handbag or briefcase. Such humanitarian horticulture might not have pleased Sir George Sitwell, but it would have delighted - and surprised - his daughter, Edith. She grew up at Renishaw without much in the way of kindness from her insensitive and repressive parents.

When not being publicly criticised for her unappealing looks by her mother, bolted into a metal body cage to correct her posture or bored silly by her father's lectures on medieval genealogy, Edith could at least escape into the garden. Here she could play with her two adoring brothers and escape the adult world:

But Dagobert and Peregrine and I

Were children then; we walked like shy gazelles

Among the music of the trim flower bells

. . . I was always a little outside life -

And so the things we touch could comfort me

At the top of a flight of stone steps, the woodland walk looms into view. We are engulfed by massive and ancient trees - beech, oak and chestnuts underplanted with hollies and rhododendrons. On the way we have taken in the gothick temple, built as an aviary for the poetically named Sir Sitwell Sitwell in about 1806. We have examined the oak tree planted to celebrate the victory at Waterloo and the pink marble Veronese fountains. We are now standing on a reclaimed part of the old bluebell wood, the wild area of the garden which young Edith never dared to enter. In a poem written late in life, Sacheverell links it to her lifelong virginal state and fear of sexual urges. 'Your poetry,' he says, 'is your nunnery,' and describes how she could never be coaxed more than a foot or two into the bluebells.

In the view of Victoria Glendinning: 'No one in all Edith's life took the trouble to lead or coax her more than a foot or two into the bluebell wood. It was not her brothers' business to do so. And no other man loved her quite enough.' Instead she channelled her sensual energies into her poetry. The most cheerful image of her that springs to mind is the ebullient rendition of her Facade poems in 1922, Edith bawling at the audience through mask and megaphone:

Tra la la la -

See me dance the polka

Said Mr Wagg like a bear,

With my top hat

And my whiskers that -

(Tra la la la) trap the Fair

Even in this poem, she cannot resist using a gardening image in the shape of Mrs Marigold's jacket, 'bright as a seedsman's packet'.

Garden tour over, I am eagerly awaiting my interview with Sir Reresby Sitwell about the garden and its influence on his famous forebears. The interview does not go well. Sir Reresby seems uneasy with the idea of personal reminiscence. He sits stonily by the fire, reciting lists of past head gardeners and quotations from Uncle Osbert's memoirs. When pressed, he recalls Sir George as a 'very tall old gent, immaculately dressed in wing collar and wide-brimmed hats'. He was 'a difficult character, but I was very fond of him'.

I also learn that more money is spent today on maintaining the garden than the house and that Sir Reresby's favourite flower is the rhododendron, while Lady Sitwell prefers camellias. I make a terrible faux pas by addressing Lady Sitwell as 'Lady Penelope' and Sir Reresby loses his temper, tells me off and leaves the room. Utterly defeated, I sit limply while Lady Sitwell conducts a benign interrogation into my family background and Toby the dachshund sniffs and snaps at my ankles. Escaping to the lavatory, I find a ring of barbed wire playfully embedded in the loo seat.

Outside in the garden, I can finally empathise with Edith Sitwell, who used it as a fantasy refuge from her strange and stifling childhood. It's tempting to imagine that some of Sir George's singular spirit lives on in Sir Reresby Sitwell. It certainly lives on in the garden, an austerely beautiful creation, enclosed by secretive walls against the pylons and housing estates of the real world outside. 'Beware of Mr Sitwell's Snakes' warns a notice board as my taxi negotiates the drive. Needless to say, these snakes are just a figment of the imagination.

Renishaw Hall, Eckington, Derbyshire. Tel: 0246 432042. Open: Bank Holidays 29 and 30 May, 28 and 29 August; also open every Friday, Saturday, Sunday in June, July, August and the first two weeks of September, 10am to 4.30pm.

(Photographs omitted)