Places of Inspiration Part 4: The White Garden at Sissinghurst and the Flambuoyant Spirit of Vita Sackville-West

The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent
The White Garden at Sissinghurst, Kent

 Near Sevenoaks in Kent we find the house formerly owned and occupied by writer Vita Sackville West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Now handed over to the safekeeping and care of the National Trust (something Vita once swore she would never do!) this house and its much beloved White Garden is a place which has inspired many. And I am among them.

Vita as depicted on the cover of "Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicolson
Vita as depicted on the cover of “Portrait of a Marriage” by Nigel Nicolson

I learned much of what I know about Vita from two books: “Portrait of a Marriage” written by her son Nigel Nicolson, and “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, in which the central character is based upon Vita, and which has been called “the longest love letter in literary history”.

Though Vita was herself a prolific writer, she is not considered among the great novelists or poets. Instead she is known for the profound influence she had on many who encountered her and became entranced by her bold and flambuoyant personality. The idea behind Orlando serves as a metaphor for Vita’s character: “an English nobleman who lives for hundreds of years before falling asleep and waking up as a woman”. 

Vita was a member of the early 20th century Bloomsbury Set, and courted controversy through her lesbian love affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. When my parents were young, Vita would have been well-established as a scandalous figure in the media – though I never took the opportunity to ask them what their views had been of her behaviour.

In many ways Vita’s character shines out to me through all that I have read of her. Snippets I remember are that her mother was a Spanish dancer (immortalised, by the way, in a Tussauds wax figure at the Edwardian Weekend House Party at Warwick Castle – she occupies the lace-festooned lady’s boudoir).

Vita's mother Pepita
Vita’s mother Pepita

Vita’s father was Lord Sackville West. Of her siblings, Vita was the one who most deeply loved and appreciated Knole House, her childhood home; yet she was prevented from inheriting it by the law of inheritance which demanded that it should go to the first son. This was the reason of course why she eventually bought the house at Sissinghurst.

Vita for me is an exhuberant, emotional, colourful character whose abundant imagination eventually found expression in the White Garden at Sissinghurst.

Harold and Vita were a perfect garden creation team. Harold was concerned with the overall design whereas Vita’s wild imagination led her to insist on planting in huge clusters. She hated regimented rows. She believed in great mass of each kind of plant, thus creating the life-enhancing White Garden.

Vita’s original idea was for pure white but she was eventually persuaded to include greys and light blues and light greens as well. This garden stands for her eccentric and individual character; one of the greatest memorials to her romantic spirit. 

Places of Inspiration Part 3: Ayers Rock/Uluru, Evidence of Spirit Ancestors

Here is an image of a famous landmark:

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How do you think of Ayers Rock (aboriginal name Uluru)? Do you think of it as that rock in the middle of Australia, which presents a climbing challenge to all tourists? Or do you think of it as a place sacred to the aborigines, a jewel at the heart of this great continent?

Two and a half years ago, I visited Uluru for the second time. As we stepped out onto the tarmac at Ayers Rock Airport at midday local time, the first thing that struck me was intense colour and light.  Glowing ochre earth, blue sky, pearl white ghost gums – and Uluru itself in the distance, dusky pink

Uluru, an iron-rich sandstone monolith arising from the heart of Australia, is sacred to the indigenous traditional owners, the Anangu.  It tells their stories, it shows the actions of the Spirit Ancestors in their violent conflicts during the Dreamtime, displaying evidence of their falls, their spear-thrusts, their lost shields.  Uluru itself has a strong, brooding presence, which you begin to feel as soon as you see it, and which grows as you approach and gaze. 

It speaks with its changing colours, amber, fiery red, deep brown, depending how the light falls upon it at different times of day, and its knife-edge shadows and fissures, flaking surfaces, indentations, pockmarks, wave-like effects, and most outstanding of all, the skull formation.

Skull Formation
Skull Formation

  On another level, it almost seems like a giant plasticine model which a giant has pressed his fingers into or dragged a comb down, or stippled and stabbed with a palette knife. 

For many visitors, this central icon of Australia is inextricably linked with the idea of climbing to the top.  “Go to Australia: climb Ayers Rock”. But, warn the signs at the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, “The Anangu ask that you respect our traditions and customs, and choose not to climb it.”

We caught the shuttle from the Yulara resort, planning to do the base walk.  On the 9.2 kilometre trail around the Rock, it was evident that the number of fenced-off sacred areas had been increased since my last visit, pushing the path further out.  And yet despite this, a walk around Uluru is full of marvels.  The trees and shrubs are all much greener than you might imagine – the wattles, the fig trees, the desert bottlebrush.  The aboriginal cave-paintings fill you with wonder, every experience defeats your expectations – none more so than the Mutitjulu Waterhole.  We came upon it unexpectedly, tranquil and mysterious, the Rock’s multi-dimensional character reflected in its quiet waters.

Uluru glowing at sunrise
Uluru glowing at sunrise

The feeling I brought away with me after walking round the Rock was almost that of walking round a great and beautiful cathedral, imprinted with the devotion of many centuries. I can well understand how the Anangu revere the Rock, which has taken on an awesome spiritual power from the thousands of years of sacred ceremonies and teaching and story-telling centred upon it. 

For me it is another of my places of inspiration: a vist here allowed me a deeper insight into the meaning of the aboriginal culture, enriching my own understanding. Have you ever visited Uluru? How did you find the experience? And if it has only ever been a picture in a brochure, or a news report, what has been your impression of the famous “Ayers Rock”?

Places of Inspiration Part 2: The Heavenly City: A View of London

London View
A poster of famous London landmarks (1989 Christopher Rogers)

What is your view of the city? Is it a place you work in, and suffer all the stress of commuting? Or perhaps it’s a place you live in? In my novel Zoe emails her sister with these words: Hi, you in crowded, stressed old London from me in the peaceful, perfect Cotswolds… But those words reflect only one biased view of the city; and this isn’t my own view of London, living, as I now do, 98 miles away from it.

I was  born and brought up in south London (Orpington in the borough of Bromley) and so London was a big part of my life as a child and a teenager. When I returned from university I moved to live in Bayswater, London W2, with my sister, & continued to live there for seven years. After that I moved away. But last year I decided to visit for an extended periods and visit many London attractions I hadn’t been to for a long time. And those two weeks fed my reflections upon why the image of a great city is so powerful for religious and spiritual writers.

Dr Johnson said, When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.  And certainly, London, with its rich history, cultural depth and vibrant life, is a source of inspiration to me.

In the Bible, we find the writer to the Hebrews saying this:For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11: 10)

The heavenly city is a city with everlasting foundations.  And a great city feeds us body, mind and spirit. From the BODY – the Tower of London – through the MIND – The Violent Universe show and the discoveries of Einstein at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to the SPIRIT – the Whispering Gallery and Holman Hunt’s painting The Light of the World at St Paul’s Cathedral, I was inspired, informed, amused, shocked, amazed, touched, and filled with wonder.

Living as I do in Warwickshire, I’m fortunate to have all the treasures of this great city so accessible, via the rail network (not that it’s that difficult to get to London from any major railway station in the UK!)  And in many ways, the life of London is encapsulated by the story of the Thames. As Edmund Spenser said in his poem ‘Prothalamion’,   Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song.

 While looking round the exhibition in the Thames Barrier Information Centre at Woolwich, I felt moved by the human imagination, ingenuity and skill which has worked together to tame the power of the river for the protection of a city and its people. One of my own forbears was a Thames Waterman (as evidenced from a 19th century marriage certificate.)  See My Family Background page in my website. My early life was strongly associated with the Thames; the toolmerchant’s business A.D. Skillman & Sons which my grandfather started in 1901 opposite the Woolwich Ferry traded for over 100 years until my brother, who inherited it, finally had to close down in 2002. I remember being sent off to cross the Thames on the ferry to North Woolwich and back again on my own when I was about ten years old, and how much of an adventure it was for me.

 But what of that other river – the river of life flowing through the holy city, Jerusalem – a powerful symbol in the Bible?  We are told by the writer of Revelation that this river rises up from the throne of God and the Lamb and surges crystal-clear down the middle of the city street. On either side of the river grow the trees of life. This holy city is of pure gold transparent as glass, with a wall of diamond, and foundations faced with precious stones; and the 12 gates are 12 pearls. The city has no temple since God and the Lamb are themselves the temple; it does not need the sun or the moon for light as it is lit by the radiant glory of God.

 Why is this biblical image of heaven as a great city so powerful? I suggest it is because, here on earth, all the ingenuity, folly, genius, wickedness, nobility, inspiration, despair, joy and creativity of which we human beings are capable is encapsulated in a great city.  In heaven all will be made perfect. And here on earth, just as the city teems with life, so it will be in that holy city.  And that is why the image of holy city is so appropriate for heaven.

Places of Inspiration Part 1: Exotic Marigolds, Mystical Mountains and Memories of India

I recently watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and found it a movie full of insight, humour and hope.  I vividly recalled my own arrival at Delhi Airport several years ago for a visit to Northern India, and the noise, the brilliant jewel-like saris, the garlands of marigolds placed around our necks. The images flooded in on me:  colour, chaos, begging children, families camping and cooking in the middle of the central reservation in major roads in Delhi. I relived the shock of seeing leprous beggars, the pity I felt on meeting girls who appeared to be only about 10 years old, carrying tiny babies on their backs, holding out their hands for free offerings of food or money; the disease and poverty, and also the spirituality, the beauty and the profound joy of India.

In ‘the Land of the Gods’ the Garhwal Himalayas – I journeyed in a minibus up a perilous mountain road, our final destination being Badrinath, place of Hindu pilgrimage, just before the Tibetan border. The road was lined with signs saying things like “Yours Hurry is Another’s Worry”.  We reached the mountain village of Joshimath late in the afternoon. As I inhaled the fragrance of a syringa bush there, I realised a local resident stood beside me. He remarked: “the might of God is all around” in a very casual way, reflecting what I was thinking and feeling at the time. And I thought: This wouldn’t happen in England. And if it did it would have a very different cultural context!

Our journey ultimately led to Badrinath. We arrived as dusk fell and there before us was the peak of Neel Kanth, luminous in the full moon. It was a sight I would never forget.  Since then I’ve seen a number of images on Google of Neel Kanth, and yet none comes near capturing the impact this mystical mountain had on me that night as I arrived in Badrinath.

There too, on the mountain path above Badrinath, I met a Sadhu – India holy man who lived in a cave. See my recent post for a photo of this holy man, whose tranquil expression made a lasting impression on me.

So to sum up my reflections on India: there may be squalor, social injustice, and dysfunctional public services, but this is a country of extremes, and I felt a visit here should also have a profound spiritual impact, as it did for the characters in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, transforming the lives of each one of them, bringing all of them clarity and moments of radical decision.

This is a personal reflection on India, and I know there will be many visitors who feel differently about it. Have you visited India? And what are your thoughts on this country of extremes?

The Archetypal Appeal of the Vista

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These are two images of the Syon Vista – one of the three great vistas in Kew Gardens which together form a triangle between Pagoda, Palm House and riverside viewpoint. And as I stood there a few days ago, I was reminded of why we love a long, straight vista. The vista, or avenue, draws the spectator forwards along it, to the central vanishing point. It represents our dearest wish: that life may be like that. And perhaps it may be – in our dreams. Instead, in reality, our lives twist and turn and diverge and backtrack. The path has many confusing cul-de-sacs. We fall down potholes. The path leads through marshy ground, and we nearly sink beneath the surface. The path may be a perilous mountain track, or it may be piled with jagged boulders.

But a grand vista is none of these things. Instead, it progresses smoothly into a secure, warm, welcoming future.  We find it comforting, reassuring, uplifiting. Avenues represent human control over the landscape, imposing order on a chaotic world. And since imposing control on the landscape is a major, expensive task, the grand avenue is the province of the wealthy and the powerful. Capability Brown  demonstrated his ability to create dreams from landscape – at a cost. His clients found the grand vista a perfect way to reassure themselves of their status.

Windsor Great Park boasts a vista – the Long Walk, first set out by Charles II. And as it was developed in time, it became an ideal route for ceremonial rides. George IV reaped the benefit of the vista, however, not merely by public display although he was indeed very fond of that. No – in addition he had between 20 and 30 miles of neatly planted avenues to ride along, from which the public was wholly excluded.

I suggest that a vista means many things to us – and foremost among them, hope, dreams, clarity, destiny, goals, the future, focus, direction, drive, ambition, vision. All those things we either long for, or are told we must have, or we aspire to.

On the straight vista through life there are no snakes, no ladders, no forks, no bogs, no potholes, no detours. The goal, our destiny, is always in sight; and we are always progressing smoothly towards it. Nevertheless, alongside our love of grand avenues and vistas, we also respond to great stories full of twists and turns. And the reason, I suspect, is that  both play their part in our understanding of life. Dreams and reality intermingle; the ideal and the real guide each other.

SC Skillman

Water, Rock, Moon and Ancient Stone

Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire
Morton Bagot Church, Warwickshire

Imagine the Warwickshire countryside in silence and darkness. A rabbit running from the headlights. Imagine a radiant moon and bright stars. The fresh rich smell of silage in the night. A tiny ancient church on a hill, lit only by candles within. Imagine rocks, water, Celtic prayers and songs – and you’ll know what I was doing last night.

Within the church with its rough stone walls are tall candlesticks and centuries-old choir stalls and pews. And a small group of people  with torches.

We were there with our leader, Annie Heppenstall , to commemorate the life of St Non, Celtic saint – the mother of St David, patron saint of Wales. St David’s Day is 1st March, and St Non’s Day is 3rd March. To celebrate the highlights of the Celtic calendar in a special place like the church at Morton Bagot recalls the Celtic idea of “a thin place” – a place where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. I’ve written of this before in my blog post about Sacred Spaces. Many of us can name special places throughout the British Isles which we have felt to be “a thin place.” And this tiny church on the hill is one of them.

St Non of Wales presents, in common with many saints, an example of a life which encountered trauma yet overcame. She was an educated woman who chose to devote herself to life as a nun; raped by a prince of the region, she gave birth alone  on a clifftop in a raging storm. When the child she bore grew old enough she entrusted him to the church for his upbringing as many did in those days and resumed her life as a nun. Her son grew to become a holy man himself, and we know him as St David.

For us today, the example of St Non is one of a woman who suffered, lived through trauma and crisis, and triumphed over a bad situation,  coming out the other side, working faithfully with her changed circumstances and then courageously taking up her path again. On the site in Pembrokeshire where Non gave birth, to this day, a pure spring of water flows out from the bedrock where many have come to pray for healing.

SC Skillman