House Love: The Seduction and Destruction

I’m currently re-listening to an audiobook of a very light-weight novel about a late-teen in the mid 1950’s who’s family owns a massive house dating back to Medieval times, with a huge extension by Inigo Jones.

The original motivation for listening was simply to deal with insomnia, but I was immediately engaged, given the parallels with the ridiculous privilege I had 25 years back of spending a summer living at Great Dixter (home of garden writer Christopher Lloyd), which happens to be a Medieval manor extended by another British architectural hero, Edwin Lutyens.

The Lutyens extension, 1912ish
The Lutyens extension, 1912ish

Amongst all the embarrassing teenage angst in the novel, there were a couple of profound  ‘light-bulb’ moments for me. The first is when a friend recommends that the main character get out of the house, on the understanding that ownership/custodianship of such a house must kind of mess with your head.  The first time I listened, this point struck me like a thud on the skull with a paving mallet. I had a sudden revelation of the burden that Christopher Lloyd must have carried for most of his life, to keep the house in the state in which he had inherited it.

Christopher Lloyd in his post-prandial ritual of a coffee and a snooze on a blanket by the horse-pond, here with Tulipa, the dachsund
Christopher Lloyd in his post-prandial ritual of a coffee and a snooze on a blanket by the horse-pond, here with Tulipa, the dachsund

The tyranny of it all struck me deeply – navigating a path through a genuine love for such a house and the inescapability of responsibility to it.  And trying to reconcile the understanding that the house defines who you are, and the gratefulness you’d feel for been given such a distinction, with the opposite need to carve your own self-definition, fueled by a suspicion that to it’s not quite valid – that it’s kind of lame – to be defined by a building, and one that has defined your family for generations.

The roof - taken from the roof - showing those incredible swept valleys, in which the tiles are slid into a very lightweight mortar made from ash from steam-trains, in order to avoid valley guttering where the roof changes direction
The roof – taken from the roof – showing those incredible swept valleys, in which the tiles are slid into a very lightweight mortar made from ash from steam-trains, in order to avoid valley guttering where the roof changes direction

I can witness directly to the phenomenal seductiveness of custodianship of such a building.  On my last day of that first period with Christopher Lloyd, he and I were sitting outside his favourite fish-supplier in Hastings discussing the future of Great Dixter.  He told me that what he’d really love is for it to remain a family home – for my wife and I (for instance) to take up residence and raise a family there, but that it simply wasn’t a possibility, given the large amount his own money required to keep the house going.  I fully confess, in the interest of the argument, to feeling a bit like Bilbo Baggins who, in the first movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, sees his precious ring again, and momentarily turns into a monster who’s long, greedy fingers lunge forward, totally possessed by a lust for ownership.

But after this recent revelation I’ve come to wonder whether custodianship of such a wonderful old house is a blessing or a curse. It’s perhaps therefore not surprising that the main character in my novel has recurring dreams of the house burning down.  This lead to the second light-bulb moment (though after a significant delay).

To save you reading the book, the house eventually does burn down.

The upper courtyard from the tower
The upper courtyard from the tower

Several years later I picked up Adam Nicolson’s book ‘Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History’ (the author being the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and the family member with current rights to reside in the now National Trust-owned, and world-renowned, property), and was astonished to find that the very first sentence of chapter one reads ‘I have often dreamed of Sissinghurst on fire’.  He goes on to say ‘As I see it burning, I am sure I am dreaming of the framework of my life rotting in the heat…. Sissinghurst is the shape of what I am’

The coincidence was too great, and I couldn’t help but pester the author for more info.  I emailed him wondering if the ‘love’ between Christopher Lloyd and Great Dixter may have been “…akin to the love between he and his mother – that of mutual, but manipulative, affirmation.  Certainly it’s a love without any freedom of escape.”

Approaching the entrance to Sissinghurst
Approaching the entrance to Sissinghurst

In his reply, he explained that for him “The house is like a third parent: loved, resented, rebelled against, nurtured, despised, adored. The secret I think is not to be trapped by it, to let it be the loving parent not a vengeful one. It is the most perfect example of the poisoned nipple: you drink in the toxins with the milk. And who can separate those?”

I guess that’s one life-complication I’ll never now have to face.  But by golly I crave the connectedness to place that both my main character, Christopher Lloyd and Adam Nicolson have had the privilege of knowing.  Come to think of it, that’s largely why I garden.

Me (far right) looking very young and feeling dangerously comfortable and happy at Great Dixter.  Working left from me is Christopher Lloyd, Ed Flint, Otto Fauser, Beth Chatto and David Ward (Beth's head propagator)
Me (far right) looking very young and feeling dangerously comfortable and happy at Great Dixter. Working left from me is Christopher Lloyd, Ed Flint, Otto Fauser, Beth Chatto and David Ward (Beth’s head propagator)

(The audiobook I was listening to was The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. Don’t bother reading (or listening to) it unless, like me, you’re a total Dixter tragic, and like to splice it into the narrative of the book, just for the sake of indulging your passion…)


  1. Gosh, this is a wonderfully reflective post that as always, makes one ask even more questions. Michael, what a truly incredible honour & experience it must have been for you! When visiting GD three years ago, a gorgeous lady inside the house (perhaps a volunteer for the Charitable Trust, not sure) told me about the sense of weight and privilege that came with the custodianship of this special place. To have this weight and privilege as an individual must have an overwhelming personal influence. Thinking now how many places in our own country that may potentially define their custodians? Or going on a real random tangent more about the garden here – are some of us creating elaborate private gardens for ourselves that may discourage future custodians?

    1. I’m glad I was less aware of the honour and privilege then than I am now. With each passing year, I’m more and more grateful for the outrageous opportunity that that was, and more and more astonished by how it came about….
      As for your last question – we had direct experience of this. I created a garden and wrote a book about it, back at the end of the last millenium. When I went to sell, we were warned that the garden might be a hindrance to its sale. I didn’t really care what became of the garden – I’d had fulfilled its purposes as far as I was concerned, and I even considered simplifying it. It sat for months with no one interested, then on the day we decided we’d take it off the market, three buyers emerged and started to compete for it. The successful buyer said that the garden was pivotal to their decision to buy.
      Ten years and two owners later, the garden no longer exists. I couldn’t care less. It was my thing, and for me. Once I’d left, it either had to move on, or fold.

  2. Some powerfully deep thinking there Michael.
    Gardening provides many opportunities to ponder “stuff”. I often quip that it is cheaper than therapy (having tried both…). Humans have an intrinsic need to leave a legacy of some kind, to be remembered by something, however large or small, after we are gone. Buildings, and gardens, can scratch that particular itch for some.
    I am currently reading Christopher’s book “The Well-Tempered Garden” – it is utterly delightful and fascinating reading. Quite apart from his masterful command of the English language, his musings and opinions are thought-provoking and illuminating.

    1. The Well-Tempered Garden must be one of the all-time garden classics. About twenty years ago a British garden mag asked a few key players in the hort. world which single book would they want with them on a desert island. The W-T’d Garden won the comp, from memory.

  3. My thoughts exactly – how lucky you are. I am completely mesmerized by both Great Dixter and Sissinghurst, buildings and gardens. I adore that very special connection with history. I have just finished a Masters assignment on Sissinghurst, with the kind help of Troy Scott Smith – I could choose any amenity garden to base it on and I really wanted to pick both Great Dixter and Sissinghurst. They are such special places and I quite lost myself in my research. For me, I dream of having a teeny tiny, old stone cottage one day, on a nice plot of land. The history without the burden. A gate house would suit me perfectly! And you are quite right about elaborate gardens, Jenni, but I don’t think we should let that stop us for one minute.

    1. mesmerized is the perfect work, Janna. What is it about those two places?… I can only think that it’s the combination of history and currency, and that their most recent owners loved them so deeply..
      Would love to read your work on Sissinghurst. Being at Dixter for an extended period in 1991 allowed me to visit five times over as many months. This was just after Pam and Sybille had left, and it was mind-blowingly good – as high an achievement of intense horticulture as I ever expect to see in my lifetime. On another occasion I was in the white garden, at its very peak of bloom, after closing time one summer evening, as the clock in the tower struck 9 pm – a ridiculous privilege.
      But garden writer Sarah Guest (wrote for many years of The Age in Melb) visited it when Harold was still alive (mid 60’s, after Vita had died), and she describes having to push stuff out of the way as you walked. In her thinking, all of the horticultural intensity achieved during the reign of Pam and Sybille (and since) was totally at the expense of the romance that Vita loved more than anything else. I’d have loved to have seen it both ways.

    2. I think the past owners loving them so deeply is a really significant point. You want to absorb and bottle up a bit of that passion and take it with you. Much has been written about both gardens, which allows you to understand and connect with them in some way; much more so than for Hidcote, for example, which didn’t have the same impact on me at all.
      It is interesting that decades of ‘improvement’ by Pam and Sybille caused the original, quite unique to the time, romance to be largely lost. Should they have pursued the ultimate in planting combinations or should they have kept the garden as a museum? So many factors influence that answer; I feel it is individual to each site and may even vary over time. Troy wants to get Sissinghurst back closer to the 50s look, but there are so many barriers. It is almost as though momentum carries a garden in a certain direction and psychologically it is too difficult for people to cope with reversal. It is hard to give up the planting aesthetics people now know and love, however great the (more authentic?) alternative may be. I agree with Sarah Guest that it is almost impossible to have both – by definition, romance is not ‘perfection’. I’ll email my assignment to you.

  4. I’ve just returned from a Tassie trip where I stayed at Brickendon and also Panshanger, in the Longford area south of Launceston. Both are extensive farms with historic houses, large gardens, and attached B&Bs. Brickendon (settled in the 1830s) is soon to pass to the 7th generation of the Archer family, and Panshanger to its next generation (the Mills family bought it from another Archer family branch just over 100 years ago). The succession plans of both families are fascinating to learn about and the sense of custodianship very strong. But there were several men whose preferred love eg engineering had to be abandoned for the ‘greater family good’ of holding on to the property for future generations. As each new generation takes control, the previous one has to make way and move out of the main house, and the ‘generation in waiting’ must stay contentedly in an adjoining wing or smaller cottage in the grounds. I’d never come across anything like it in Australia before.

    1. Golly. Imagine trying to make changes to the family garden with the dowager mother-in-law lurking in the background. As Adam Nicolson points out, it’s such a case of the poisoned nipple..

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