Secateurs at dawn at Sissinghurst

Ignore the idyllic facade: Sissinghurst, the country house made famous by Vita Sackville-West, has been rocked by a row between the writer's family and the National Trust.
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The Independent Online

Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, a country mansion with one of the most beautiful gardens in Britain, draws lesbians from across the world seeking intellectual inspiration. It has become an unlikely battle ground in the class war, although this is not class war as Marx or Lenin knew it. It is fought over issues such as the absence of tablecloths, or whether lanes should be without mud and cowpats – and everyone on either side is as polite as the English can possibly be.

On one end of the battlefield are ranged staff and volunteers from the National Trust, which have owned Sissinghurst since it was given to them by its wealthy inhabitants, the Nicolson family, more than half a century ago. On the other side, is the Nicolson family itself, living in a property it no longer owns, with very definite ideas about how it ought to be run.

Sissinghurst is rich with history. The original medieval building was allowed to go to ruin by its Elizabethan owners, who replaced it with a magnificent manor house, one of the oldest brick mansions in Kent.

But what draws hundreds of thousands to Sissinghurst is its links with the group of early 20th-century English intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group, distinguished by the brilliance of their minds and the laxity of their sexual habits.

The group's central figure was the novelist Virginia Woolf, along with the love of her life, Vita Sackville-West, to whom she dedicated the novel Orlando. Vita herself wrote about 50 books, and had about that number of Sapphic love affairs. Hence the site's fascination for today's educated lesbians. Vita was pedigree aristocracy. Had she been a boy, she would have inherited Knole, a vast mansion near Sevenoaks, where she grew up and which Woolf used as the setting for Orlando. But she was not, and in 1930 she and her son Nigel Nicolson turned up at Sissinghurst looking for a run-down house where she could recreate some of Knole's grandeur, including a magnificent garden.

Vita fell in love with it, and somehow persuaded her husband, Harold Nicolson – who was also gay – that they should make it their home. It was Vita who created Sissinghurst's astonishing garden. Her study is kept exactly as she left it, its shelves still crammed with her book collection.

After she died, their son handed the place over to the National Trust, with an agreement that the family could continue to live there. Since then, the Trust has run the site with exemplary efficiency, drawing hordes of visitors. The restaurant alone caters for 100,000 customers a year, generating an annual turnover of £500,000. Eight professional gardeners, headed by a tough-looking woman named Alexei, keep the grounds in near-perfect condition, but it is too clean and perfect for Sissinghurst's current inhabitants.

Adam Nicolson, Nigel's son, now lives there with his wife, Sarah Raven, and their two children. He complains that everything now is too clean. He wants to bring back the animals that used to be reared on the site, and to see tracks covered with good, authentic rural mud and cowpats. However, he frets, "the National Trust hates mud."

The resulting war of wills has been recorded in a series of documentaries by the independent film-maker KEO to be broadcast each Sunday night on BBC4. In the first film, last Sunday, Mr Nicolson was heard complaining: "We have this lovely privilege of living here, but we're not in control." Nor will they ever be, if Steve, the head chef, has his way. His succinct view is that "too many cooks fuck everything up."

While Mr Nicolson has been campaigning to bring back mud and animal dirt, his wife, an outstanding gardener and gourmet, has been waging war on the canteen menu. National Trust rules say food served there must be British: plenty of protein, with vegetables on the side. Sarah Raven thinks this is out of keeping with the estate. The couple want the fields around the house set to work again, until the restaurant serves nothing but food produced on the estate. She would also like the restaurant at least to have flowers and tablecloths on every table, and she wants Italian dishes on the menu, in line with Vita Sackville-West's known love of Italy. She has tried to persuade the head chef to put olive oil and red-wine vinegar on every table, but her suggestions have left Steve distinctly unimpressed. "If you try to introduce weird and wonderful produce with weird and wonderful names, that's all very well for London," he said. "People in London – they're conned all the time. Here, we're not running that sort of setup."

Charles Moore, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, has known Adam Nicolson since they were both at Eton and – regretfully – thinks the couple are fated to lose the battle to make their home more "real". "There is nothing 'real', in a global economy, about a castle less than 50 miles from London which tries self-sufficiency," he said. "The Nicolsons love filth and mild decay. The stalwart staff at Sissinghurst hate mess, they worry about how to run the place efficiently, and feel unappreciated by the couple. It is a hopeless, soul-destroying quest to try to own what you cannot."

The series shows that the Nicolsons have occasionally found allies in the National Trust's senior management, who are receptive to Adam Nicolson's suggestions for setting the unused farmland to work. But the next episode will show him being defeated over his vision for another section of the site, in what he calls "the victory of the pedant."

Despite all these arguments, Adam Nicolson says he enjoys seeing the early visitors arriving when Sissinghurst opens to the public. "They are like the spring flowers. They just sort of emerge. Leaves come, so do the people," he said.

And, he forecasts laughingly: "By Easter there will be rivers of lesbians coming through the gate."

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