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Gardener's Delight in Sissinghurst

A lovely, easy walk to the famous garden created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 33ft (10m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Well-marked field paths and woodland tracks

Landscape Gentle Kentish countryside dotted with oast houses

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 137 Ashford

Start/finish TQ 814409

Dog friendliness Excellent, though do keep on lead

Parking On street in Frittenden

Public toilets Sissinghurst

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1 With your back to Frittenden church turn right, then left down a pathway by the hall. Cross a stile and walk straight ahead over the field, through a gate and across another field. Go through a kissing gate then straight ahead again - it's clearly marked. At a gap in the hedge cross a little wooden bridge and make your way to a telegraph pole, where you branch left.

2 Nip over a stile, go across the next field, over another stile and on to a tarmac lane to turn right past Beale Farm Oast. At the next house, turn left and walk up the track until you pass an old barn. Turn right just after the barn, continue ahead over two more stiles and eventually cross a footbridge to the right of a clump of trees. Walk a few paces left, continue in the same direction up the edge of the field, then turn left again to cross another bridge. Scramble through some scrub and follow the path ahead to another stile and on to a road.

3 Turn right, then right again at the road junction. You pass Bettenham Manor, turn left up a bridleway, over a bridge, then pass Sissinghurst Castle (still home to Vita Sackville-West's heirs), keeping the building on the left. Walk up to the oast houses, then bear left around them, past the ticket office and up the driveway. Turn left, then right and walk by the side of the car parks to a stile. Cross into a field, then bear right in a few paces to cross a stile by some cottages.

4 Turn right, walk back past these cottages, and then bear left along the path through the trees. Continue ahead along a tree-lined track, cross a stream and keep following the bridleway. When you come to a road, cross over and walk up Sand Lane.

5 Eventually reach a stile on the left-hand side which you cross and then head diagonally across the field to another stile in the fence ahead of you. Continue diagonally, passing a dip in the field. Keep the spire of the church in front of you and walk ahead to cross another stile. The path is clear ahead, then veers to a telegraph pole where you go left, heading for the spire of Frittenden church. Cross a bridge and walk back into the village the way you left.

Eat your heart out Charlie Dimmock. Charlie's distinctive water features may be well known in Britain, but her fame is nothing compared to that other English gardener Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), whose horticultural flair led her to create the garden at Sissinghurst Castle, one of the most famous gardens in the world.

Vita moved to Sissinghurst in 1930 with her husband, Sir Harold Nicholson. She was born at Knole, the family seat in Kent, but although she was the only one in the family who really loved the place, she was unable to inherit because she was a woman. When she saw Sissinghurst she realised that this was an estate she could make her own; even though it was in such a terrible condition that it took five years before she and her husband had mains water or electricity.

Although styled as a castle, Sissinghurst was in fact an Elizabethan mansion owned by the Baker family (related by marriage to the Sackvilles). When the family fortune declined the house began to deteriorate, and in 1756 it became a prison camp for French prisoners of war. Conditions in the camp were appalling and at the end of the war the house was in such a state that much of it was demolished. The house continued to be neglected until the Nicholsons bought it and set about restoring it and creating the now famous garden.

The most striking part of the house is the tall brick tower that you see as you walk across the fields from Frittenden. Vita used it as her study and did all her writing here: poems, novels and gardening articles. One of the few visitors she allowed into this isolated place was Virginia Woolf. They met in 1922 in London and had a relationship that would have scandalised society, but of which both their husbands were understanding. Virginia wrote her novel Orlando (1928) as a tribute to Vita and her love for the family estate, Knole.

The house is interesting and still home to the Nicholson family. But it's the garden that people come to see, ten separate gardens in fact, all linked together. Harold Nicholson was a gifted garden designer and created the beds and enclosures at Sissinghurst, while Vita tended to concentrate on the planting, choosing old-fashioned roses, as well as herbs and clematis. The most famous garden is the White Garden, which Vita filled entirely with white flowers and pale foliage. If you do this walk early in July and visit Sissinghurst you should find that the magnificent white rose, at its centre, is in flower. Apparently family weddings are always held on the second Saturday in July to coincide with its blooming.

What to look for

The herb garden at Sissinghurst contains over 100 varieties of herbs, varying from kitchen herbs like oregano, coriander and rosemary to more unusual herbs like woad. Although the flowers of woad are yellow, the leaves of the plant can be made into a blue dye. It was once used by the ancient Britons to paint their faces.

While you're there

The nearby village of Cranbrook was the capital of the Kentish wool industry in the 15th century, and consequently was extremely prosperous. Many of the houses you can see today were the homes of the local weavers. The local church, St Dunstan's, sometimes called the 'Cathedral of the Weald', was built with money from the cloth trade.

Where to eat and drink

There's a tea room at Sissinghurst, which you conveniently reach about half-way round the walk. It serves cakes, scones and snacks. Otherwise, try the Bull Inn in the village of Sissinghurst, which serves everything from bar snacks to full meals. It also has a large garden.

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