A day at Long Barn, Sissinghurst’s little sister

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I wonder how many people have heard of Long Barn? I’m guessing not half as many who know about Sissinghurst, just up the road. But Long Barn is the house Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson moved into in 1915, living here for fifteen years and trying out many of the garden ideas that became so famous in their next garden.

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The garden at Long Barn was partially overgrown fields when Harold and Vita moved in, so they structured the garden with a number of terraces which still exist today. I loved the description of Long Barn by Harold Nicolson that I found, “This house just comes out and jumps all over you like a spaniel.”

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Huge thanks to Long Barn’s owners, Lars and Rebecca Lemonius for letting us walk round, and we were lucky to have a talk by garden historian and designer, Marian Boswall. Here she is with Rebecca Lemonius and Louise Piper who organised the event on behalf of The Haller Charity.

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Marian explained how Harold and Vita had learnt to garden at Long Barn, and how moving from Knole (with its 365 rooms) would have created the urge to create garden rooms. I had never thought about the two together before, and this is something you can obviously see at Sissinghurst but also at Long Barn. Marian read some extraordinary extracts from Vita’s writing. It was so moving to listen to her words while looking out at the garden she was writing about. For example, we were actually looking out at these flowers and thinking just how right she was when she wrote: “The flowers of Magnolia grandiflora look like great white pigeons settling among dark leaves”. I’ll never be able to look at them in the same way again – a gift!

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The couple extended the house considerably by using an old barn that had stood below the house to turn it into the L-shaped property it is now.

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The original house is much older, of course, with parts dating bak to the mid 14th century. I loved the story that it is supposed to be the birthplace of William Caxton, the first English printer, and then not only the home for Vita Sackville-West, but also visited by writers such as Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and E M Forster, amongst many. Another visitor was Charlie Chaplin. Can’t you imagine him trip-trip-tripping down these lawns?

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I had been asked to read my poem, Leaving Paradise, about how, when Vita Sackville-West had to leave her family home, Knole, she was given a small key so she could visit the grounds any time she wanted. The story goes that she visited only once, by moonlight, and I loved how beautiful the garden Long Barn must look in the moonlight and imagining Vita looking out towards Knole from there. Anyway, after I had read, Rebecca told me that Vita had apparently lost the key mentioned in the poem at Long Barn. It sent shivers down my back!

But it was another resident, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who sparked my interest. She moved to Long Barn in 1936 (renting from the Nicholsons who were by then at Sissinghurst), together with her aviator husband, Charles, and son. They had come to England to escape the media frenzy caused by the kidnap and murder of their baby son, Charles. Long Barn offered them the necessary privacy, and also a sanctuary at such a difficult time. In her book of letters and journal entries, The Flower and the Nettle, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote about an evening in May 1936:

I look up at the poplars and at the house, red brown, now covered with vines, the pink clematis trailing below our window. A blackbird sitting on the roof. Jon’s closed curtains, musty brown and blue through the windows.
I am very quiet and a thrush comes back to the lawn in front of me – triumph!
The cuckoos are going, and some trains in the distance.
I think I must keep this place in my mind always, part of the web of me, even when we leave it – a mark of permanent peace and beauty. As people are marks too in your life even when they are not there, or you have them no longer – permanent values.
I think how small this place would be looked down at from the air – how small to hold so much happiness, such worlds of happiness.

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During their three years at Long Barn, they had another son, and I was fascinated to find this little boy was called Land. The name is after Charles Lindbergh’s maternal family, but there’s a happy connection with Vita Sackville-West’s poem, The Land, there too. Here she is reading it. Amazing voice:

Impossible to follow, but this is the poem I wrote when I was there, trying – impossibly – to imagine how the garden must have felt for someone suffering such a loss and slowly coming back to life. It was another reason to feel lucky to have been there to support the charity, <a href=”http://haller.org.uk/Haller who do such wonderful work for parents and children.

Climbing like Questions
A poem for Long Barn

English lawns lush green on grey clay,
a magic carpet for when morning rises
over borrowed views… who would borrow,
say, a child in the same way, to never
think of giving back?

Past the straight hedges swaddling
secret corners, the rosa mundi climbing
like a question mark… was it your fault,
did you spend too much time in the air,
try to climb too high?

And from your window, arms outsretched
to almost catch the wax flowers roosting
like Vita’s pigeon’s… to stand on the edge
and be so alone, the sheer drop of
a heart falling.

Deep roots match rising winds
until the leaves dance like words
you can’t quite catch… how can anything
make sense because are you still
a mother if?

Some comfort in that guard of yews,
a row of straight and shadowy soldiers
by the classical grove… something shifts
deep inside, still, a change in the air.

All horizons green on green, hydrangeas
turn from green to pink and back
to green… kindness softens like wild
flowers growing in the space between stones.

PLEASE NOTE that Long Barn is not open to the public, although special provision can be made for group visits by arrangement.

Garden Visiting with a Five Year Old…

As with Tudeley, most of my garden visits are taken either by myself or with other ‘adults’. Yesterday, however, I was lucky enough to get to walk round Knole Gardens (different from the park and only open on Tuesdays) with a five year old girl. She very kindly took the photographs for this post for me too….

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There are massive advantages to a smaller-sized garden companion, such as playing I Spy and spotting all those usual things to be found in a garden: T for Trees, G for Grass, S for Sky, O for Octopus…

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And then there’s the fashion side of it. Lovely as my normal garden peeps are, they don’t wear sparkly skirts and sandals with stars on. And nor do I. However, garden visiting, I’ve learnt, is more colourful with a little bit of glitter…

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Forget about walking slowly down paths. Skipping or running as fast as you can gives you a completely different view…

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… especially when you stop DEAD ON THE SPOT because you’ve seen something interesting…

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… and then of course there is the essential ice cream after. During which I learnt that my friend has recently got one of my favourite childhood books, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Her mum is going to read it at bedtime to her. Ah…. the joy of that book. I’m not sure whether it awakened most in me a love of gardens or a love of food – all those little iced biscuits and descriptions of meals inside.

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So here is a poem for you (and for my lovely friend yesterday) not about gardens this time, but about my food memories from the books I loved as a child…

Eating my way through the children’s classics

Maybe this is where it began? A wish
for iced biscuits to eat in bed, mysterious
Marmaduke Scarlet’s plumcake, parkin,
Devonshire splits, cream horns, gingerbread…

so Mum, sighing at my sighs, added lashings
of lemonade and boiled eggs to our picnics
(but where was the cold-tongue-cold-
ham-cold-beef-pickled-onions-salad

-french-bread-spotted-meat … enough, Ratty!)
A tea in front of a blazing fire instead
with little-friend-Susan, toasting muffins
on forks, eating bread and strawberry jam

as red as the ‘raspberry’ cordial that Dinah
drank with Anne Shirley as the gables
shook, overcome by ‘a tendency to laughter’
even more unholy than William’s liqrish water

until finally, not even Pippi throwing eggs
for pirate pancakes could compete with Jo,
wrapped in a blanket, crunching her way
through apples and the most delicious books.

Yes, that was the start. This quiet hunger
for words, as timeless as marmalade
sandwiches hidden in a small bear’s
suitcase and now always wanted on voyage.

Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent. Website here.
Garden visited: 20th August 2013