We should have been in Provence for a glorious 12 days of sea, sun and relaxation. For the past few years we have stayed in the delightful Villa du Soleil with various friends, right on the beach of Lalonde les Maures. Thanks to CVOID quarantine restrictions this year it just ain’t gonna happen.
So here we are doing a series of staycations with Clare and JB who are the mainstays of the VdS hols. Our first stop is three nights at Sissinghurst Castle B&B, bang next-door to the famous garden and within easy reach of other gardens we wish to visit.
We arrive in brilliant sunshine and blue skies but, alas, that is not to last. Our first venture is to Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s home and garden in wild and windy Dungeness, recently acquired for the nation.
We arrive early and manage to have good walk around on the shingle, admiring his sculptural found objects interspersed with sea kale, sea holly, Nottingham catchfly, grasses and other dry garden/seaside survivors. The garden looks a bit unkempt and sad; the John Donne poem that once adorned the walls now looks forlorn with letters hanging off at jaunty angles. Here is the poem, it is so beautiful I couldn’t resist it.
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
In that the world’s contracted thus ;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere
We walk to the beach with its abandoned boats punctuating the barren landscape. The wind has really picked up and its as bleak a place I’ve been in a while. White cliffs shimmer in the murk to the west and gulls wheel around us. We have a delicious crab bap lunch at the fish shack further down the beach. Then a quick turnaround for our Sissinghurt appointment, where we meet some other friends.
Sissinghurt has suffered for lack of revenue due to being closed until recently with many of the staff furloughed. I know it’s really a spring and summer garden but it looks very down-at-heel, with only a few brave autumn plants showing their colour. Vey little deadheading or cutting back and it all seems rather sad, despite the £250k being spent on a new Dan Pearson revival of Vita’s Greek Delos garden (in the style of Derek Jarman I would say) – all rocks and shingle. Nevertheless the heleniums are stunning, and covered in bees, and the Japanese anemone a sultry cool pink
Due to early closures the restaurants have re-scheduled and our first dinner is set for 5.30 which seems ridiculous. Nevertheless The Smallholding near Goudhurst makes up for any doubts we may have entertained by serving us a surprise tasting menu all locally sourced, and mainly from the farm. Owned by two brothers and staffed by family and friends it is an outstanding experience.
The highlight of our mini-break is a visit to Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter garden. I remember hearing about him from my mum, whose cousins lived in Northiam, where Dixter is situated. Imagine my delight to meet the village historian who remembered my cousins well! The rain held off, despite it being rather damp and grey – but it simply served to emphasise the glorious splashes of colour that shout out at you in this profusion of plants fighting for their space surrounding the 1450s house, with its courtyards and topiary.
The one-way system meanders through the various hidey-holes of the inter-connected areas – the sunken garden with its dahlias, the front lawn with fabulous zinnias which screamed childhood memories of Africa, the electric pink Michaelmas daises contrasting with the purple salvias, the abundant vegetable garden with pumpkins tumbling out over the massive compost heap, the bumble bees enjoying the end of season nectar, the canopied maze (with banana trees) and walkways – all took my breath away.
Lunch in a country pub quaffing rosé with other friends who should have joined us completes a thrilling morning, followed by a visit to Fi’s mother who lives nearby, and another early supper complete the second and final full day in our comfortable B&B.
On our way back we visit other old Cambridge friends, Robin in his historic farmhouse and Cat with her newly renovated kitchen in Tunbridge Wells – and the sun finally comes out! Despite the weather it’s been the proverbial ‘change is as good as a rest’ and we have loved getting to know another part of England in more detail.