Restoring the heart of Sissinghurst

Adam Nicolson

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: A lot of the conversations that people are having about how to live a more sustainable life revolve around food. Grow it locally know what you're getting -- it'll be better for you and for the planet. Sometimes that means making small changes. Sometimes quite big ones. Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England, has been a popular tourist destination for decades. Its formal gardens have been the main draw designed by the Bloomsbury poet Vita Sackville-West back in the 1930s. For her grandson, though, Adam Nicolson, Sissinghurst was always much more...

Adam Nicolson: You have this very beautiful ruined Elizabethan mansion and then around the gardens, when I was a boy, there was a wonderful farm. A mix farm with dairy cattle, hop gardens and beautiful, ancient, Kentish woods -- and a feeling that you had the whole world just a hand, there was a really beautiful world just outside your back door.

Life and its obligations took Adam Nicolson away from Sissinghurst for more than 30 years. When he returned, after his father died, Sissinghurst, he says, had lost its soul. The farm was gone -- the cows, the chickens, the orchards. But he had a plan.

Nicolson: You know, a lot of people coming to Sissinghurst -- 150,000 a year and maybe about a 115,000 would have lunch. But everything that they ate in the restaurant came in by van. The answer that I came up with was that if we could grow these people's lunch, if we could actually grow the meats, the eggs, the fruits, then we could actually remake the place, or a version of the place as I'd once known it.

Ryssdal: You had the plan, but you didn't have the ability, because Sissinghurst no longer belongs to your family. It's part of the National Trust and they run it, in essence, as part of Britain's heritage and as a tourism operation, yes? So how did you convince them that this was going to work?

Nicolson: What I said to them was that they lost sight of the heart of Sissinghurst. They'd made it incredibly perfectly beautiful in the garden. They'd made it very profitable; I mean, it had always made money. But in doing that, they had abandoned the connections between this lovely garden and the world that I remembered surrounding it. And so I said to them, "What you've really made here is a Titian in a car park," that was the knife I used to stab them with. What you really want to do is to capture the money, essentially, of the people who now believe in authentic places that really are what they claim to be. And one thing that you do and shouldn't do is bring in all this food from heaven knows where and sell it, as if somehow it was all kind of local product. And they believed me.

Ryssdal: They believed you after a series of studies and rejections. It was not...

Nicolson: It was a pretty damn difficult sell. This idea, intense localization, is very expensive. The vegetables that the restaurant was serving, before my ideas, were costing about a little over 30,000 pounds a year. There is no way that we could grow the equivalent quantity of vegetables for less than 90,000 pounds a year, so triple. I persuaded them to get consultants in from the Soil Association, which is the big organic organization in this country, and they produced a scheme that worked. But then we had another anti-organic set of consultants to rip that apart. And it was only by endless banging on tables, combined with sweet, soothing seduction, that they changed their mind, and they did.

Ryssdal: Is it working now? Are you in the black, to get vulgar about it?

Nicolson: Something approaching 1.5 million pounds has been spent on changing the way the farm works -- new kit, new buildings, 4.5 acre new vegetable-and-herb garden, new hay meadows, new woods, new wetlands. But as a result of doing this and talking a lot about it in this country, last year, the number of visitors went up from 150,000 to very nearly, just short of 200,000. So, we well covered extra running costs and started clawing back some of the capital costs.

Ryssdal: Are you finished with Sissinghurst yet?

Nicolson: No. I want them to spend so much money. I think that they should triple the size of the orchard, and we should certainly have wood fuel heating and hot water everywhere. I think that the more the Sissinghurst can become a place that looks like it values its own soil, the better. And we've got miles to go on that.

Ryssdal: Sissinghurst is the family home of Adam Nicolson, and originally, his grandmother Vita Sackville-West. It now belongs to the National Trust over in the U.K. His book about it is called "Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History." Adam Nicolson, thanks so much for your time.

Nicolson: Lovely to talk to you.

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