The National Trust took over the whole of Sissinghurst, its garden, farm and buildings, in 1967. The garden epitomises the English garden of the mid-20th century.
This internationally renowned garden was developed by Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson around the surviving parts of an Elizabethan mansion. It comprises small enclosed compartments, with colour throughout the season, resulting in an intimate and romantic atmosphere (the garden is more peaceful after 4). The new vegetable garden, now fully productive, supplies fresh vegetables and fruit to the licensed restaurant. The surrounding Wealden landscape, along with the property’s accompanying farm, were central to Vita and Harold’s love and overall vision for Sissinghurst
Sissinghurst originally called Saxenherst, lies in a secluded position near one of the many feeders of the river Rother, among the woods near Cranbrook, on the S. borders of the county. There is a mention of one Stephen de Saxingherst about the year 1180, and a charter of 1255 is witnessed by Galfridus de Saxingherst.
The manor passed by a female heir into the name of Berham, and Richard, son of Henry de Berham, resided here in the fifteenth century ; afterwards the property was possessed by his descendants till the end of the reign of Henry VII., when a portion of Sissinghurst was alienated to one Thomas Baker. Little is known about the place, but there must have been a manor-house, of which the moat, which still exists, is a relic. The situation is low, as being the better adapted for water defences.
After the sale a mansion was built here by the grandson of the purchaser, namely, Sir John Baker, who was Speaker of the House of Commons and Attorney-General ; he was ambassador to Denmark from 1526 to 1530 (Sir Samuel Baker, the discoverer of the lake Albert Nyanza, was a lineal descendant of the brother of this man.). He acquired the whole manor, and erected a splendid house of brick, the extensive ruins of which remain. (In Hasted’s “Kent” is given a view of it, as in 1551.) The plan of it was a huge block of buildings, enclosing a quadrangular courtyard, into which the principal rooms looked. The front of it is a highly ornamented fagade, with four gables, bay windows, and a handsome porch, and there are wings to match. There were towers facing the centre. Horace Walpole speaks of being there in the year 1752 ; he says : “The park is in ruins, and the house in ten times greater ruins. The court is perfect and very beautiful ; a good apartment, and a fine gallery, 120 feet by 18. The back of the house is nothing but lath and plaster.” Hence its speedy decay.
Queen Mary loaded Sir John with wealth, giving him the manor of High Haider, forfeited by the Duke of Northumberland. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Sir Richard, who had the honour of entertaining here Queen Elizabeth on her return from Rye in 1573. His nephew, another Sir Richard, was the author of Baker’s Chronicle, and died in 1645. Upon the death of Sir John, in 1661, his estates were divided between his four daughters, but at the beginning of this century they were once more united in the property of Sir Horace Mann, Bart.
Long uninhabited, the house was during the war at the end of the last century acquired for the purpose of holding French prisoners of war, and thus it obtained the name of Sissinghurst Castle. The greater part has since been pulled down, and part has been fitted up as a parish poor-house.
It is now the property of Countess Amherst, who inherited it from her father, Earl Cornwallis. The great entrance remains, together with a few fragments of the buildings. (Castles Of England, Sir James D. Mackenzie, 1896)