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.

Knole, Sevenoaks

Of course, if we were being pedantic it shouldn’t be Sevenoaks any more. Apparently it’s been Oneoaks ever since the 1987 Hurricane.

Knole though is still Knole, and I’m sure always will be…

… despite the threat from flying golf balls..

I wasn’t sure, to be honest, what I would write about Knole, but after the third of several brisk walks there, I knew it had to be something about the land. Who owned it? What is the relationship it has to our psyche? How does it get so deep into our bones?

And then again how heavily do we walk over and on it? And after a day spent in the expansiveness of Knole Park, why do we even bother to kid ourselves we can cope without the countryside?

But amongst such openness, there’s also the feeling of being shut out.The openness of our Sunday walk can only be temporary.

Perhaps it is the long-term fascination I’ve had with the story of Vita Sackville-West, and how she never quite got over not inheriting her childhood home of Knole because of her gender, that made me think this way, but when, in my researches, I came across a story about how she had been given a small key to the grounds and only used it very rarely but kept it with her at all times, I knew straight away what I wanted to write about. And on one walk where we came across a white stag, I had a vivid picture of her walking through the grounds by moonlight.

Here’s my piece – it’s still draft, so don’t be surprised if you come back to find it changed!

TEN WAYS TO LEAVE PARADISE

1. Stiff backed, stiff legged, each step working against gravity, head turned forward, chin lifted.

2. Without a backwards glance, knowing to do so would be to display emotion, to let down the house and all it stands for.

3. To feel in your pocket the weight of a key, a small lead key barely bigger than your thumbnail.

4. To put your trust in the English way.

5. In hotel rooms, from Monte Carlo to Teheran, to secrete the key under your pillow, to wake with the brand of home on your cheek.

6. To build your own paradise, plant by plant, your fingers plunging deep into the soil, caressing the roots, a goddess. For your most prized design to be a ghost garden, a white shadow of all you miss.

7. To leave the earth sometimes for a tower, the work of hands for the mind, to escape into dreams of a woman becoming a man, to stride through those gates again, to have no need of that key nestling even now in your pocket, the weight of it keeping you grounded.

8. To look up at the moon one night and think that just a few miles away the same moon is looking down on a doe you haven’t seen before.

9. And surely what happens at moonlight isn’t real, so you can’t be judged. The time of lunatics, werewolves, transformations, and so, with the wolfhound that’s the grandson of the one you buried there, doesn’t a dog deserve to see the bones of its family too, you use your key to walk along the moonlight path, for your feet to recognize home, the heft of it.

10 To take that once used key with you to your grave. To never speak of it again, in the English way.

And I was delighted just last week to find this quote about Vita Sackville-West in a letter written by Virginia Woolf – ‘Why she writes is a puzzle to me. If I were she, I should merely stride with 11 elk hounds behind me, through my ancestral woods.’