If I knew something interesting had started with that greeting card (with my painting of Charleston on it) that I found in a shop the day before we travelled – see my last post Making Tracks – then I knew it more when the weather that delivered on the day of our visit to Charleston turned out to be nothing like what I had painted in my head. Heavy rain came rolling in during the morning (where we were at least able to duck and dive into St Michael & All Angels Church, Berwick and under trees in the churchyard) and held off while we were on the guided tour of the inside of Charleston Farmhouse…only to become a heavy deluge of water tipping by the bucket-full from the sky as we came back out to see the gardens. This was not what I had imagined at all; I had only ever seen Charleston in idyllic sunshine and had, of course, pictured the same again for our wedding anniversary re-visit. What had gone wrong with all my wishful thinking?
Yet, prompted by the reality that there was absolutely nothing we could do about it – we were here now, on this day, and this was what it had delivered – we made the best of it…put on the embarrassing waterproofs and did what we could to create a dry hideaway for our cameras at the front of our coats before setting off into that dripping wet garden with its constant overhang and overgrowth of saturated leaves wanting to brush against everything you had. An obvious benefit was that (rare for August) we had the entire place to ourselves while the teashop filled-up to the brim with gently steaming visitors holding their prized table for the length of many dawdling sips of lukewarm liquid so as not to have to go outside again; we considered that but prefered to be out in the garden….even with jeans so wet they were quickly leaden with water. There was nothing left to do but keep laughing!
And then, of course, everything glistened; the fruit, especially, glistened as though freshly varnished and the petals hugged droplets of water like glass teardrops perfectly poised. We got to marvel at the way the bees knew how to line up with their backs to the wind and hang upside down beneath the flower heads – one on each bloom – until the rainshower was over. We got that kind of light that is clear and crisp, not washed-out and without subtlety as on a typical summer’s day. The velvet reds “zinged” and the greens looked like freshly squeezed life-zest personified; vibrant and rejuvenating to receive with all the senses. One of the gifts was the unexpected juxtaposition of a dripping-wet female form peeking out through vivid wet leaves and abundantly ripe fruit; her wet face had something to tell me and it was nothing at all about tears. I loved this reinvention of Charleston’s landscape and they have turned out to be the best photos I ever took of the gardens; all of which you can see here.
Our onwards trip to Brighton saw, at last, the end of the rain but the follow-up of unseasonably high winds which, at least, helped to blow-dry us a little more than the fan in the car had so far managed to do. The golden light on the choppy sea delivered abundant gifts of silhouetted magic where the burnt-out pier might otherwise have been an old eyesore and I will never think again of that beach as a bland seaside destination of deckchairs and icecreams, having now experienced it with far more feist in its tail, whipping and whirling its force into hair-spiralling patterns while seagulls rooted themselves to the beach rather than risk the mayhem of attempting anything on the wing…this was a day for holding on to what kept you most grounded while enjoying the show. Again, our day was nothing but the unexpected, a theme which continued with our long-planned anniversary meal out (which is food for another story); not quite what we expected at all but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
Back to Berwick’s tiny painted church, which is where my day began…though the same church I visited five years ago, an openess to “what’s different, what do you want me to experience here” brought different themes to the fore to those that I most noticed the first time. What spoke to me most, this time, were the painted door panels to the altar, the yin and the yang of the full moon and the high sun reflected into the same gentle pool under a tree. (Having spent the previous evening under a full moon at St Leonard’s beach, where the moonlight led me to the waters edge and then “went out” succumbing me to almost pitch darkness as the seawater pulsed against my legs, the theme of moon and water and qualities of the light particularly spoke to me). I experienced the feminine aspect as being particularly close at hand in this space and the reminder that, where male and female meet, there may well be different qualities playing out but the underlying theme of tree, light and water remain constant was a timely one. I like also that this church interior was a literal collaboration of man and woman: Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the gender-crossed lovers of a lifetime’s love who whose long-running heartache (was I imagining it…did I feel it this time, weeping out of the walls?) was described to us so amply by the excellent guide at Charleston later. Vanessa was deeply in love with Duncan Grant for the whole of her life from the moment she met him but, since Grant was gay (and though they had a brief affair, resulting in the birth of a daughter, Angelica…who then had her own cross to bear when she finally uncovered all the convoluted secrecy around her parentage), Bell was subjected to many years of watching from the sidelines as he pursued relationships with same-gender lovers who stayed in the house where they all lived together at Charleston. In the union of their art and their friendship, this place (St Michael & All Angels’s church) had drawn a gender criss-cross into its space – much like other churches I have been to where dragon lines cross – exploding vivid colour onto all of its walls through the genius of their paintbrushes. Yet, as a meeting place of yin and yang, I was detecting an imbalance and, perhaps, a feeling of unfinished business in the air; a sadness that left me feeling something was left unresolved by their tangled relationship antics; the church was as lovely as ever but I wanted to be outside where the yew trees stood near an ancient mound and those endless though rain-misted views. If I’m honest, this time around, I was a little put off from my art-appreciation by a bearded male God on his throne…I just kept coming back to that sun and moon, tree and water as own truth captured as their nearest earthly essence.
Perhaps the Bloomsbury set had got very close to realising something in the open-house approach to love and creation that they adopted and yet (was this why I now felt ready to graduate from this culture, to not hold them in high reverence so much as regarding them as a useful stepping stone to my own realisation of something closer to harmonious and without the perpetual sting in its tail) I felt almost like I was here to say goodbye to the place and what it represented this time. While I initially declared myself surprised at this impulse, I suddenly realised I had known this all along, from the very moment I arranged the trip. I couldn’t help wondering if too much immersion in the feminine had been the undoing of them; the place lacked balance in the real, collaborative, meet-in-the middle sense that I am constantly feeling for…the male aspect felt marginalised and, when it forced its way in (as Bell’s estranged husband did when he decided he wanted to live there, claiming all the best rooms in the house for his own use because he had the money to call all the shots) things got ugly. Bell lost her great love to all his other male lovers and, of course, that other great love of her life, her son Julian, to the Spanish Civil war even though he was meant to be safely driving ambulances rather than immersed in the fighting, which is what she persuaded him to do. It feels like she never really made her peace with the masculine aspects of her world; they just seem to come claiming whatever was most important to her and whisking it away and there was something in the very air of the place, this time, that felt left irrevocably saddened by the experience of their bohemian experiement, like an soufflé that had gone flat and had used up more than its quota of eggs in the making. I decided to put the Bloomsbury experience down as an interesting experiment to consider, something to chalk up on the wall…for them and (for the last 30 years) for me.
Berwick was still the exquisitely lovely church that I had remembered it as and, like the first time, I loved it a little better for having the blown-out windows (a so-called casualty – I think, improvement – of Word War II) that allowed Nature to come inside and meet with the brickwork and the unadulterated light of day to dance and collaborate with the colours. The tangible presence of the sacred feminine was so obviously there for me this time especially in the corner by the twin pair of clear-glass windows overlooking the rear churchyard view of trees adjacent to the ancient mound of far greater antiquity than the church that I was determined to step upon, even in the rain. I was mindful of the fact that, not far away from here…passed on the road we had taken, the Long Man of Wilmington is carved out of the chalky hillside; a far more meaningful landmark for me, this time, than before as I realised recently that it forms the eastern base corner of a pyramid of sacred landscapes that have been the power-node hotspots of my life, all pivoting on where I now live; a “map” I drew up one day for the fun of it and was astonished by the accuracy of its synchronicities. And those sticks he holds…people speculate what they are all but, to me now, they are so obviously the male and female telluric energy forces that I suspect cross over in that spot just two miles from St Michael’s church door. So, perhaps it is telling me, this church…the people associated with it…are getting very close but are still a little way off from an actual, equal, crossing point of the male and female aspects; a small distortion still evident in their particular skew on things and the distinct feeling I took away with me when we travelled on to Charleston Farmhouse. I was also left wondering whether what Bell and Grant represented in terms of a male and female collaboration “worked” in the sheltered circumstance of a church where pristine ideals are upheld by the very brickwork and tradition of the place but was far more challenging to realise “outside” in the real world where things can get messy; and the kind of balance that I seek for myself is something I expect to be able to take with me wherever I go and through all of life’s situations…but then, I don’t believe you need a church in order to communicate with the source of all you are. At Charleston, they had tried to instigate rules to protect themselves and, like the rules for spirituality that churches like to enforce, these had not proved sufficient to cushion or enlighten them in matters of the heart; and only love that meets equally in the middle can make such rules obsolete.
The house tour at Charleston was the best one so far out of three visits (my first taking place in 1989…not long after the house was rescued for posterity after the death of the last of its long-time artistic inhabitants; about whom there is a plethora of information to be found so I won’t bother to go there). Our guide, who was full of interesting anecdotes about the unusual relationships that took place under that roof (to paraphrase the oft-used quote, alluded to in an earlier post , the Bloomsbury group lived in squares [they met in Bloomsbury Square], painted in circles [Vanessa Bell’s trademark] and loved in triangles…) seemed to pick up where my parting feelings at Berwick’s church left off. There was a tangible air of unresolved grief in the walls of this place that I was far less aware of before and which, it occurred to me, I was no longer inclined to gloss over or pretend was a palatable part of this so-called halcyon way of living for art and for friendship just so long as they were all free to do as they pleased. The people who lived here were a fairly messed-up bunch and I was left feeling unamused by some of the anecdotes of how they walked over each other in the name of the friendships that were considered sacrosanct through thick and thin and all manner of shoddy behaviour. It seems to me, a lot of love went out the window in the name of this pursuit of freedom and Angelica Garnett, the daughter of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, alludes to this in the title of her autobiography “Deceived with kindness”. When she tried to live here after the death of Grant in 1978, she found she was able to stomach it for only a very brief period of time before the memories and unhappy feelings that came speaking out at her from the very walls became too much and I can well believe it. This time, I felt it too and I was quite ready to move on to the garden…even in the pouring rain. When those rains came down, it was like a relief actually…like all the emotional debris in those walls could just be washed away in a moment. The art and the history of the place is fascinating; the gardens (as they were to Vanessa Bell) were a healing balm and I lapped up every rainy inch of them for as long as it took to drench myself through to the skin.
Interestingly, I found some sort of redress to this somewhat skewed energy at Charleston at a garden we visit on the Sunday, which we had intended to stop off at on the way to our accommodation on the Thursday afternoon…but our timings had other plans and we had had to postpone this outing until our return journey. Rather than feel annoyed at this rejig of our schedule, I had opened up to “well, maybe Sissinghurst has something else to show us…and particularly wants to show us this on the way home rather than the way there” and I was right. Even then, we almost didn’t go as our well-meaning host at the bed and breakfast tried to persuade us to stop at a different garden which he (a photographer) prefers…and I did heed his advice enough to at least consider his advice by looking at the other website; but Sissinghurst was calling me far louder than any other temptation could have matched and so that is where, on the now hot and sunny last day of our holiday, we went.
This garden had eluded me for decades; an “almost visited” venue of almost thirty years for a variety of reasons, mostly that we would always pass that part of the world with no time to spare or a dog in the boot of the car. When we got there just in time to enjoy a brief introduction from one of the guides, I immediately knew why I had been inadvertently saving this up for myself. It turns out that Vita Sackville West’s lavish garden design of many, contrasting and varied, garden “rooms” with interesting transitions designed by her husband Harold Nicholson, had been “lost’ for many years to the uninspiring and somewhat regimented planting of the National Trust. For just three years now, the Trust had been newly working to reinstate Vita’s original vision for the garden (which I took as one of my evolutionary clues…the feminine impulse reasserting herself) and, being now being well underway, it appeared I arrived in absolute perfect time with the garden at its high-summer best. I had to smile at the infallibility of the “rhyme and reason” to the apparent “accidents” of circumstance that had kept me away until now; as ever, everything was just perfect.
I read Vita Sackville-West’s biography (part diary entries; the rest written by her son Nigel Nicholson) many years ago, probably the same summer I first visited Charleston in the late 1980s. In her way, I regarded her as being an honourary member of the Bloomsbury group through her connection with Virginia Woolf, with whom she had a love affair. For some reason, she had always stayed with me; the presence of her the very pointer towards Sissinghurst that a garden in deepest Kent might not otherwise have been. She…the very energy of her…was the reason I was here and, I realised, I had kept that train-track of intention running without interruption all the many years since I first read her story.
Both Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicholson had homosexual leanings plus a so-called open marriage and, while this produced its own set of complications and mixed-feelings not to mention the occasional upheaval (as with Vita’s love affair with Violet Trefusis), my sense of this – on finally getting to Sissinghurst, spoken to me through the very landscape of the place that they used as their canvas – was that they achieved together some sort of balance where neither party was the wounded dog to the other one’s greater fulfilment. They were married for 48 years and genuinely loved each other; that is quite apparent. Because they came together under the umbrella of their mutual love, whilst allowing each other to have certain freedoms to pursue what came natural to them, it seems to have worked in a way that it didn’t (in my opinion) for Bell and Grant at Charleston.The working team that they were in visualising the garden that they created together at Sissinghurst, which became their mutual focal point – Vita the artistic touch, Harold the straight lines and numbers on the drawing board – speaks for itself when you walk into that space; you can feel it! I was quite delirious as I skipped around its spaces, especially the White Garden, which felt like my most hallowed space…although the flamboyant colour of its other “rooms” gave the purity of its whiteness its real power through the contrast and surprise to your eyes of something so devoid of broader palette that it could have been the recent scene of an August snow storm. I made a bee-line for that garden, loving the synchronicity with our name and spending the longest time in it but then, looking back, it seems only fitting – if tongue in cheek – that we started our journey through the multiple possibilities of Sissinghurst from the start-point of ourselves.
Like the surprise of our rainy Friday in Charleston, Sissinghurst offered up a new experience around every corner and – not really a surprise – I had the landscape speaking to me through the accidental juxtapositions of “moments of light” and equally of shade around its endlessly labyrinthine corners which seemed to pick up from the material of my last two or three blog posts and develop them to new, deeper knowing in the most timely way; not least the way the three of us managed our own routes, split up, came back together and even (for a short while) lost each other completely. Like my recent visit to St Catherine’s labyrinth (see my post Walking the Labyrinth), this visit had such a lot to say to us on many levels and, whether or not they knew it at the conscious level, a labyrinth is what Harold and Vita created here and is how it serves to activate you through the maze of its pathways which, unfailingly, take you on a journey of many possible routes towards a centre piece (with a tower) that elevates you. This is in obvious contrast with Charleston where, lovely as it is, the garden is walled in and far more limited in that it only every keeps circling you up and down the same directions and, ultimately, back to that house; offering just one way in and out via that point. To receive the deeper levels of this and all its many other timely gifts felt like another full circle reached and then taken up a notch – to a whole new level – at the end of our visit as we headed for the tower that is the perpetual marker at Sissinghurst though never seen in quite the same way, dressed in the same colours or even appearing quite the same thickness from the ground through the many possible filters and perspectives of each vantage point. This, in itself, had something important to remind me about life seen at ground level.
As if to mimic the upward motion in my own metaphysical journey, having left the tower until last, we coiled up the spiral staircase to peer over its edges as a finale and gained a whole new experience of where we had “just been”. We also got to appreciate what Vita and Harold created together; the birdseye view of what they saw in its raw potential and what they went on to carve out of its natural attributes, as a collaboration. It was no small feat and the sense I was left with, without needing to pour over their personal letters or reread her biography (though I have since dipped into that dusty old book dragged down from my shelf) was of a marriage that worked, of a male and female crossing point that then transformed their shared landscape into an explosion of colour, texture and aroma, an outdoor season-directed landscape that speaks volumes about what they were all about…together…in some sort of harmonious union that, for them, was ideal. Not everyone’s version of harmony – I grant you that – but as a blueprint for a love based upon meeting each other in the middle and allowing each character to be and develop and explore and grow all that they are about in this physical form, what they created together is an encouraging sign of what it is possible to create when even people with vastly divergent interests come together and allow all this to take seed and lead where it will.
In age-worn letters on the wall of one of the rooms in the tower, the words of Vita’s poem “Sissinghurst” tickled some of my own preoccupations…the ever-present rose, the deep-deep waters discovered as a stagnant moat (as she first found Sissinghurst in its semi-derelict state) and yet something drawn upon, brought back to the surface and allowed to unfold…the relentless, healing power of nature…the spokes of a wheel…”beauty, and use and beauty once again” as the rhythms of a life outside of the dictates of politics, time and obligation; in these familiar themes I found myself as I stood high up on the brim of a tower once connected to a castle, now a viewing point across a garden so sublime I didn’t really want to leave. And those telling, final, words that linked me back to all that relentless rain that came down upon Charleston this visit, bringing glistening fruit to the bower of a goddess wrapped up in verdant green…”I dream; I do not weep”.
In providing the room for each other to do what they are here to do, each pursuing their own interests and passions and then meeting back at their shared point of creation, which became an outward symbol of a deep love and respect that – quite literally, in their case – continues to bloom and bear fruit; in this, I felt something akin to the way forward that I envision for a newly rebalanced humanity being modelled for me to take home as a feeling every time I pause to think, even briefly, about that wonderful garden. If the divine feminine and masculine in close collaboration can be found anywhere so tangible, I felt like I had encountered them here. This is why, I now knew, Sissingurst had rearranged itself to the end of our long-weekend; making me smile at how it had known best as we brought our wedding anniversary weekend to a close, carrying home the essence of our experiences to our own sacred meeting place, the fruit of our best yet collaboration and the long-running project of our mutual lives together; that place we call home.
The book that I read about Vita Sackville West, all those years ago, was “Portrait of a Marriage” by Nigel Nicholson which consists of a collection of her diary and memoire entries in 1920 (an eventful year, coinciding with her affair and near-elopement with Violet Trefusis) and a biography written by her son. I’d forgotten how wild and racy her life was…and seemed to me when I first read about it at the tender age of about 19 or 20. She would dress up as a man and pass herself off in society quite convincingly as “Julien” when she was with her lover Violet. I dipped into her diaries yesterday and was thoroughly caught up in them for a while.
As I revisit all this in a new light, I am struck by how the more we break down gender barriers and embrace the male and female aspects of ourselves, the more we have been forced to experiment with new ways of conducting our lives and that trial and error has sometimes proved messy (as the Bloomsbury set are clear evidence of)…and yet it is a necessary and inevitable part of evolution, just as we start to soften up the barriers between our different modes of sensory experience (synaesthesia) and the left and right hemispheres of our brain (the stand off between science and spirtuality that is now butting noses as quantum theory forces the consideration that consciousness gives rise to the material world and not the other way around). It was an interesting addendum of this weekend to have spent our Friday in evening in down-town Brighton where it is more than possible to walk the streets with your gay partner and dress or behave as flamboyantly as you like in a way that was quite impossible for people such as Duncan Grant or Vita Sackville West…and the very fact that we now do this (in some places…) is a clear sign of an evolution that is still underway and that these people helped to set in motion. You could say, the present and future generations are still harvesting fruit from the many seeds that they planted and my hope is that this pathway leads to a garden of rich and varied experiences (like Sissinghurst, a garden of many possible rooms…) where many more people get to feel they have the facility to travel wherever they are drawn to and to discover and explore their true selves within their current lifetime without the fear of causing themselves or others pain along the way.