2017-05-09 10:58:02
The Bloomsbury Bohemians in the British Countryside

In the early decades of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf and her friends, the artists, intellectuals and writers known as the Bloomsbury Group, left London and went — to work, to spend summers, to wait out the German bombing raids and to conduct their tangled romances — into the bucolic countryside of Sussex and Kent, now two hours by car southeast of the city. Quite a few of these brilliant bohemians were avid gardeners, and in the spring, when this gorgeous region bursts into flower, one can visit the houses they decorated, the gardens they planted and the homes of the artists and celebrated horticulturists who lived nearby, with whom they exchanged ideas about art and landscape design.

Perhaps the most famous of these gardens is the one at Sissinghurst Castle, home of the writer and diplomat Harold Nicolson and his wife, the dramatic Vita Sackville-West, an excellent writer and the inspiration for the gender-shifting protagonist of Woolf’s novel “Orlando.” I had wanted to go to Sissinghurst Castle for decades, ever since my first editor, Harry Ford, proudly gave me a copy of a memoir he was publishing, by the son of Sackville-West and Nicolson. In the 1973 book, “Portrait of a Marriage,” Nigel Nicolson described his parents’ union (long, loving and harmonious though both partners had same-sex affairs).

The story of their marriage was fascinating, but what snagged my attention were the descriptions of Sissinghurst, the castle in Kent where the couple created their hugely ambitious garden. In a collection of gardening columns she wrote for The Observer, Sackville-West, who died in 1962, suggested in a passage that each guest, after dinner, should be given a pair of silver scissors and sent outside to deadhead the roses, eliminating spent blossoms to preserve the health of the plant.

Every year, in the late spring, when I knew that Sissinghurst would be at its height, I considered going there. The problem was that with each passing summer, I myself had become more of an obsessed gardener. It always seemed like exactly the wrong moment to abandon my Hudson Valley, N.Y., flowers and vegetables to the woodchucks, chipmunks and weeds to see someone else’s plantings, however sublime.

The decision was made when I was invited to speak at a literary festival held annually at Charleston, the former home in East Sussex of Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, who lived there with her husband, Clive Bell, and her lover, Duncan Grant. They were all pivotal members of the Bloomsbury Group, whose attitudes toward love and marriage were as unconventional and as ahead of their time as their ideas about modern painting, literature and design. The offer from the Charleston Festival — which hosts readings and talks by dozens of respected writers from Britain, the United States and elsewhere (May 19 to 29 this year) — was irresistible. Not only is Charleston less than an hour from Sissinghurst, but it is also near Woolf’s home, Monk’s House, and a number of famous Kent and Sussex gardens. The ghosts of Bloomsbury, the British countryside at the height of spring: What could be more idyllic?

My husband, Howie, and I flew to Heathrow Airport near London, rented a car, survived the perils of driving on the left side of the road (a British friend warned us, half-jokingly, about how many Americans get into accidents while leaving the rental car lot) and spent our first night in Royal Tunbridge Wells, a charming town in the southern county of Kent, that, in its heyday, was a spa where people came for the waters at a local spring. We ate a terrific meal at Thackeray’s, a restaurant in the house where William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of “Vanity Fair,” stayed in 1860 — and where the French-inspired, market-driven menu is a bargain at lunch. We passed the afternoon browsing the shops that line a gleaming white Georgian colonnade known as the Pantiles, in the town’s historic center.

The next day after breakfast, we set off for Sissinghurst, which I had feared might be crowded, given that May (when the garden is in full flower) is one of the most popular months. But the six-acre garden has been so ingeniously designed — divided into sections, each of which feels like a separate room enclosed by hedges or tall plantings — that I never felt as if I were part of a mob trudging along the well-worn landscaped paths. The golden azaleas and the bluebells on both sides of the Moat Walk were in bloom; so was the White Garden, perhaps the most famous “room” in Sissinghurst, a dazzling show of pale colors provided by stands of white wisteria, delphinium, clematis and spires of white veronica.

I had assumed that Sissinghurst would be the most exciting part of our trip, which would have meant that the next four days were, if not a letdown, then at least a second act. But one of the joys of travel is surprise: finding out how easy it is to be wrong, in the best possible way. The two gardens we visited after Sissinghurst — Nymans and Great Dixter — were not only very different but also as fully beautiful as Sackville-West’s. I was reminded that each garden, like each person, has a personality determined by the landscape designers, the gardeners, the location and the climate or microclimate. Happily for Nicolson and Sackville-West, Sissinghurst Castle, which was in ruins when they bought it, and then restored, was in proximity to the Bloomsbury crowd (of which they were slightly peripheral members) and to accomplished landscape designers who had been in the area for a while.

Nymans was founded in the late 19th century, when Ludwig Messel, a German émigré, purchased the 650-acre estate to help secure his position in British society. Much of the house, part Regency manor, part faux-medieval castle, burned down in 1947. Part of the house is intact, and the ruins are a romantic backdrop for the landscape. Generations of the Messel family stocked the garden with exotic plants from around the world. During our visit, the pergola was draped with fragrant wisteria blossoms. Lawns were divided by hedges of yew and rhododendron and paths bordered by brilliant flowers, specimen magnolias, cypresses and conifers.

Though Nymans is surrounded by acres of forest, its gardens are highly manicured. A different spirit prevails at Great Dixter, the home of the distinguished gardener and garden writer Christopher Lloyd, who lived there until he died in 2006. Since then, the garden has been maintained and developed by Mr. Lloyd’s friend and colleague, Fergus Garrett.

What is most startling about this more compact garden is its relative (compared with Sissinghurst and Nymans) wildness, the daring originality with which wildflowers have been encouraged to grow alongside delicate specimens, the nerviness with which cultivated areas and meticulous topiary (curved yew hedges and plantings in the shape of animals) alternate with fields that have been left unmown.

One enters the garden (much of it the work of the celebrated architect and landscape designer Edwin Lutyens) along a path bisecting a meadow in which bright flowers stand out amid the tall grasses. Each area, some unruly and some orderly, seems to be designed with a slightly different and perpetually surprising notion of what constitutes natural beauty. For a gardener, Great Dixter is pure inspiration: I kept noticing plants (I still don’t know their names) that I had been weeding out of my garden for years, but that looked marvelous near flowers and foliage that made these “weeds” look spectacular. As Mr. Lloyd wrote: “I see no point in segregating plants of differing habit or habits. They can all help one another. So you’ll see shrubs, climbers, hardy and tender perennials, annuals and biennials, all growing together and contributing to the overall tapestry.”

He also wrote, “Many plants in this garden are self-sown and they often provide me with excellent ideas.”

The walled garden at the Bell-Grant residence in Charleston is lovely but modest compared with others in the region. The house, which the garden enhances, is the great attraction here. Beginning in 1916, it was the home of Vanessa and Clive Bell, their two sons, and a colorful, revolving cast of artists, writers and political thinkers. Among them were the economist John Maynard Keynes, the art critic Roger Fry, the biographer Lytton Strachey and, most importantly, Grant, the painter with whom Vanessa Bell fell in love, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, and with whom she lived at Charleston until her death in 1961. After Grant died in 1978, the house was neglected; the Charleston Trust was formed to support the house’s restoration, and the historic site began hosting visitors in 1986.

Energetic and creative, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted murals, decorated the walls and window frames, the fireplaces, doors and tabletops. They filled the house with their paintings and with the art of friends, and designed the ceramics, the fabrics, and the rugs that brightened their home.

The knowledgeable Darren Clarke, head of curatorial services, took us around the house, explaining the provenance of the canvases and portraits hung everywhere — and patiently answering our questions. The house seems oddly quiet, even tranquil despite the riot of color and the vibrant patterns on nearly every surface, and that sense of calm persisted despite the fact that on the weekend we were there, hundreds of visitors arrived to attend the lively readings staged by the Charleston Festival.

I could never have visited the area without making a literary pilgrimage to Monk’s House, Woolf’s last home, where she spent summers beginning in 1919, where she lived full time after her house in London was bombed in 1940, and where she drowned herself in the nearby River Ouse in March 1941. Located in the tiny village of Rodmell, it’s a short drive from Charleston. Michael Cunningham, who came here in connection with his novel “The Hours,” in which Virginia Woolf is a principal character, said that Woolf’s house looks like a graduate student’s apartment compared with her sister’s home. Monk’s House is lovely, but smaller, more restrained, almost spartan in comparison to the exuberance of Charleston. At the bottom of the garden at Monk’s House is the writing studio where Woolf worked, and which is set up to recreate the objects she liked to have around her and the atmosphere in which she wrote.

There was one more trip that I wanted to make, to Farley Farm House, also a short drive from Charleston. This was the home where the great American photographer Lee Miller lived with her husband, Sir Roland Penrose, the British Surrealist painter, and their son. It was a vacation place and party house for Max Ernst, Miró, Picasso, Man Ray, Saul Steinberg, Dorothea Tanning and Dylan Thomas. Born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the strikingly beautiful Miller was a fashion model before departing for Paris where she lived with, and learned from, Man Ray. She became an intrepid war correspondent and was among the first photojournalists to document the Allies’ entry into Nazi concentration camps. Her photographs were initially published in Vogue magazine.

It was sheer good luck that our last free afternoon in that part of Sussex happened to fall on the day (the last Sunday of each month) that Farley Farm House is open to visitors. Miller and Mr. Penrose’s son, Antony Penrose, graciously took us around a place that is a working farm, a living memorial, a handsome dwelling and an astonishing small museum. Like Charleston, its walls are covered with art and decorated with murals, and scattered throughout the rooms are stunning examples of art from Asia and Africa. He pointed out the iconic photograph of Miller taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub, taken by her wartime colleague David Scherman, after the liberation of Munich.

Documents, mementos, sketches, paintings and photographs illustrate the art-historic guest list. In the last decades of her life, Lee Miller became a hugely ambitious cook; Antony Penrose’s book “The Home of the Surrealists” includes photographs of dishes that his mother made, among them, two cauliflowers tinted and made to look like a pair of pink breasts surrounded by deviled eggs resembling eyes, a creation that demonstrated her fondness for making Surrealist sculptures of food. Miller’s handsome, functional kitchen at Farley Farm House has been left exactly as it was.

In the corridor is a glass case containing, among other objects, a dried lizard that Antony Penrose bought in a Mexico City market while he was staying with the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington. She had been horrified by its potential for dark magic and called in a local shaman to avert the destructive spell that she believed the lizard had the power to cast.

That final note of magic seemed perfect for the last day of our visit to this enchanted region so full of spirits and ghosts, of the illustrious dead and of the living who continue to restore, cultivate and tend the legacies of the plantings, the houses, the art and literature that these writers, artists and gardeners left to us, their grateful posthumous house guests.

We traveled to Kent and Sussex by car from London. The drive takes about two hours.

HOTELS

Ockenden Manor Hotel and Spa

A pleasant country hotel, with an excellent restaurant, nearby to all the Sussex gardens. Double rooms from $200; Ockenden Lane, Cuckfield, West Sussex; 44-1444-416111; hshotels.co.uk/ockenden-manor.

RESTAURANTS

Thackeray’s

A pleasant spot for lunch or dinner; 85 London Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent; 44-1892-511921; reservations@thackerays-restaurant.co.uk. Lunch from £18, or about $23, per person, dinner from £55, or about $71, per person.

GARDENS

The websites for the gardens mentioned are listed below. Hours vary according to the season and day of the week, so check before going.

Great Dixter, Northiam, Rye, East Sussex; greatdixter.co.uk

Charleston, Firle, Lewes, East Sussex; charleston.org.uk.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Biddenden Road, Cranbrook, Kent; 44-1580-710701; nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden.

Nymans, Staplefield Lane, Handcross, West Sussex; 44-1444-405250; nationaltrust.org.uk/nymans.