DIARY: It’s springtime and English woodlands are covered with great swaths of bluebells, like a blue stain under the trees with their nascent buds.
We have headed south from our nest in Yorkshire to warmer climes in Sussex, where my ancestors once farmed and where my 97-year-old mum still lives. The weather has been brilliant, thank goodness, as we have left our coats hanging in the hall closet before setting out. We may regret this omission as the unreliable long range forecast calls for cool blustery winds, but we awaken to another sunny spring day and head out on a spontaneous expedition.
The editorial in the good conservative newspaper, The Telegraph says: “It’s a good year for bluebells. They are early and sturdy and bright … everyone has their favourite bluebell wood … bluebell time is all the better for its limited season … bluebells give Britain its invaluable character.” So we head off for one of my favourite bluebell woods, while the rest of the country awaits the birth of a new royal, or the latest profundities of pundits or politicians in the lead up to the election.
Sissinghurst Castle is only an hour away along narrow country roads, hedges neatly clipped in East Sussex, round oast houses peeking above the farm buildings as we cross the border into Kent, through villages with names like Blackboys, Mark Cross and Five Ashes. The Sissinghurst website touts the glories of their spring gardens and the woods filled with 27 million bluebells. Actually, this is an estimate, they say, admitting they gave up counting after 26 million. With the sun shining, I can hardly wait.
The allegedly bisexual Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson, bought the ruined property in the 1930s and they spent the rest of their lives creating the wondrous garden it is today. The bones of the property were interesting when they arrived. It wasn’t a castle in the strict sense of the word: it had gained the name when it housed 3,000 French sailors imprisoned during the Seven Year’s War. What hadn’t been ruined by the time the sailors arrived, was definitely wrecked when they left. The couple had a central tower, a good stables, some farm outbuildings and cottages and a three sided moat to work with. Nicolson descendants still live on the property today, but the running has been in the hands of the National Trust since 1967.
Apart from the bluebells, we don’t have high expectations for today’s excursion. Past visits have all been in summer, when roses were in bloom, or the white garden was filled with white flowers and blossoms, or a thousand other floral delights. But this is early spring. The daffodils in Yorkshire were done, so we expect they’ll be gone here too. As we pull into the parking area, there’s no sign of what’s in store.
Diane chats with one of the gardeners, who’s busy planting some pretty blue flowers, not bluebells, in a bed which has just a few remaining double blossomed miniature daffs. He tells her about the wild flower meadows he’s responsible for, and the former lawn in front of the farm’s oast houses which is going wild. Since the war (that unpleasantness with the Germans), 97 per cent of wild flower meadows have been lost in Britain and he’s doing his bit to reverse the trend. Good news for the bees and butterflies.
Once through the archway under the tower one can see how the garden scheme develops. Each garden has a theme and is designed like a room, with interesting paths, gaps in hedges or hidden gaps in walls leading delightfully through to other garden rooms with different themes.
The first formal garden is being mown within an inch of its life by a gardener with a wonderful old-fashioned mower, creating strictly regimented diagonal stripes across the bright green expanse. The beds around the lawn are all sleeping, but pots of tulips and other spring bulbs brighten the space. Along one wall, warmed by the sun on its southern exposure, surprisingly has very early climbing white roses. Bees buzz around the flowers. Through a gap in the very formal tall hedge we glimpse another small space and then on into a long walk where spring flowers abound. In beds down each side of the walk profusions of spring flowers in a myriad of colours clamour for attention.
A keen photographer lies on the ground in front of a perfect pink miniature tulip. I hope his picture is worth the dirty trousers. On a trellis above us, a brutally pruned wisteria awaits warmer weather.
A herb garden is being weeded and planted by a team of lady gardeners, this room sheltered by an enclosing hedge. The perennials are starting to peek out, but it’s still early days here.
We stroll along the old moat, where bright green duck weed makes the pond’s surface look like an immaculate lawn, loop back through an orchard where bee hives sit in the middle of the meadow and paths have been mown through the daffodils for us intruders. Fruits trees bend with a profusion of blossoms, white and pink in every shade.
The famous white garden is almost empty, except for a busload of pensioners, but next to it an early rhododendron (or possibly azalea) is a cascade of purple. I’m posing for a photograph beside it, when I hear an amazing birdsong just inches away. It’s so loud I look around for a thrush or a bird of that size. Instead, perched on a branch just at eye level, is a tiny bird warbling his heart out. He’s so tiny he can only be a wren and his tail sticking cheekily up into the air confirms the sighting. I’m entranced. I’ve never seen one before, so rare are they, but seconds later two more fly past, really, really tiny things, no bigger than the end of my thumb.
That excitement over, and no sighting of bluebells yet, I have to ask for directions. Down past the lake and through the woods, I’m informed. And you can’t get back into the garden through the gate, so you’ll have to walk around to the café afterwards. Diane isn’t as keen on a ramble through the park and wisely heads for the gift shop for some retail therapy, while I head out along paths recently todden, to the herb garden gate and the promise of bluebells.
The landscape is truly bucolic, and the lakes are pretty, but the bluebells are still to come in their full glory. I find a few, but the millions and millions I’ve been promised are missing. Somewhat let down, I console myself with a coffee and the fact that Diane has only bought a souvenir tea towel.
The next day the weather has turned from warm spring sunshine, to gusty and gloomy, with a definite promise of rain. I can see the showers approaching across the South Downs from the window of my hotel room. Coatless, we head out to visit with friends who have a sheep farm and have invited us to see the newly born lambs. And they have a bluebell wood.
Clad in borrowed wellies and coats, we tromp through the flock of gambolling lambs. They are at their very cutest and Diane doesn’t like to think what will become of them in a few weeks. We leave that debate alone and head into the woods. A black lab leading the way, our farmer friend takes us through a gate and into several acres of private woodland. Now here’s a really worthy display. A week ago, she tells us, the ground was covered in white with the flowers of wild anemonies. Now, the ground is covered with a mass of bluebells, a truly spectacular display, stretching off as far as the eye can see in every direction. She tells us that the fact that bluebells grow here means this has always been woodland and never pasture.
The sun comes out and a shaft of light shines through the wood to illuminate the bluebells. It’s almost like a movie set, except if it was in one you’d never believe it was real. Our quest is complete.