A Travellerspoint blog

Of Weald and Downs

East Sussex and Kent

The beach near Rye, East Sussex

With Paula & Kevin
in a Sussex pub garden

For quintessential English countryside only a stone’s throw from London you could do far worse than visit East Sussex. This lovely county truly has a bit of everything – pretty villages and interesting towns, centuries of history, coastal scenery and rolling downlands.

Alex & Pete's cottage

To the west of the county lie the South Downs, while the east, along the border with Kent, shares with that county the area known as the Weald, a sandstone ridge which separates the chalk landscapes of the North and South Downs.

We have just returned from a lovely weekend visiting friends in this lovely county, prompting me to share some of its delights here. We’re lucky enough to have two sets of friends living here: Alex and Pete have a pretty cottage in Battle (site of the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings) while Paula and Kevin live in the seaside town of Hastings (which despite its name wasn’t the site of that famous battle!) This past weekend we were with the former in Battle and we took advantage of the summer weather to get out and about.

We visited two beautiful spots, Bodiam Castle and Sissinghurst. OK, I’m cheating a bit, as the latter is actually a few miles across the border into the neighbouring county of Kent. But it sits in the same High Weald area as Battle, so I hope I will be forgiven! In this entry I plan to tell you about those outings and in the next will introduce you to some of my other favourite places in East Sussex.

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle

There are many castles in England worth visiting, but what makes 14th century Bodiam stand out is its moat. This is the archetypal image of a moated castle. Although ruined it is sufficiently intact to look very impressive when seen from across the moat in particular.

The castle was built by a knight, Sir Edward Dallingridge, and designed to be both an effective defence against the threat of a French invasion (or peasants’ revolt) and an impressive family home that showed off his status and wealth.

Bodiam Castle, with northern gatehouse and Barbican ruins in front (left of photo

There are two gatehouses but you can only enter through the one on the north side, in front of which are the ruins of the Barbican. A National Trust volunteer here pointed out the historic graffiti carved into the stone of the gate, which can also be seen on the southern Postern Gate. Some of this was made by soldiers of the Napoleonic period. It used to be thought that they were guarding prisoners of war in the castle, although that has since been disproved – they are more likely to have been simply stationed in the area. One of the inscriptions here is particularly clear – it was made by James Bryan, of the 35th Regiment of Foot, in 1819.

Historic graffiti

But I was more fascinated by the volunteer’s explanation of these more cryptic carvings. They are known as Witches’ Marks, and were typically carved into buildings as a device to prevent witches from entering – the theory was that they would get lost in the maze-like patterns. These particular Witches’ Marks probably date back to around the time of the building of the castle!

Witches' marks

Once inside you will find the various buildings which once stood around the central courtyard are much more ruined than the outside wall. It takes some imagination to visualise the chapel, great hall, living quarters etc., although the informative signs certainly help.

Ruins of Bodiam Castle


Chris up the tower

You can climb the spiral stone steps of the postern tower for views of the surrounding countryside and for a bird’s eye view of the castle’s layout. But the steps are steep and a little worn so I left that to Chris, who went up with our friend Alex while Pete and I remained on the ground, studying more of the graffiti.

Chris's photo of me and Pete (and an oblivious stranger!)

Historic graffiti

We also looked up at the murder holes through which guards could throw burning oil, rocks, scalding water, tar and other nasty substances on to invading troops, should they storm and enter the castle.

Murder holes

This gate was the entrance for tradespeople but was also probably used as a private entrance for the family and for informal guests – hence the heraldry above the entrance.

Heraldry above the Postern Gate

Eagle owl

As you explore you see signs of Sir Edward’s wealth – a large number of fireplaces (33 – none of them in the servants’ quarters!), the chapel which once had beautiful stained-glass windows, the landscaped setting with water features.

Outside we saw an area set aside for children to try their hands at archery. There was also an eagle owl, one of several birds of prey to be seen at the castle, but owning to unusually hot weather they weren’t having any of their usual flying displays, understandably. So we headed back to the main entrance after our castle explorations to enjoy a much-needed cold drink and relax with a view of the pretty surrounding countryside

Sissinghurst Castle

Despite the name, Sissinghurst is more of a manor house than a castle. The original manor house was built around the end of the 13th / early 14th centuries. Nothing remains of that house apart from some sections of its moat. But in the 16th century a new Renaissance courtyard home was built here by the Baker family, with a new brick gatehouse and comfortable family accommodation.

At Sissinghurst Castle

The house was leased to the government during the Seven Years War (1756-63) to be used as a prison camp for 3,000 captured French sailors. It is to them that we owe the ‘castle’ element of the estate’s name – they wrote home to their families, often referring to Sissinghurst as Chateau de Sissinghurst, and the name stuck. Unfortunately, they also destroyed much of the house.

Building detail

Weather vane

What survived was restored by the Mann Cornwallis family (their initials can be seen on the weather vanes which top the towers). This included the Renaissance gatehouse, stable block and several farm cottages.

But Sissinghurst owes much of its present-day fame to the couple who bought it in 1930 – Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. They fell in love with the estate and devoted much of the rest of their lives to creating a home here – restoring some of the buildings and adapting them for their needs, but most significantly, creating the garden that would make Sissinghurst famous. It was Harold who designed the series of separate ‘rooms’ but Vita whose influence is most strongly felt in the planting of these. She felt that plants should not be constrained but instead be allowed to tumble over paths in a more romantic style.

When the National Trust took over the property in 1967, five years after Vita’s death, they tidied up the garden, but more recently they have carried out research into Vita and Harold's original designs and vision for the gardens and are gradually restoring them to recapture these.

Climbing the gatehouse tower

Tower gatehouse from the gardens

The first thing we did on arrival was climb the 78 stairs in the gatehouse. This is really worth doing and I was very glad I’d made the effort. On the way up you can stop in a series of rooms, of which the first is by far the most interesting. This is Vita’s writing room and has been left just as it was when she died in 1962. Actually, you can’t go in the room, only look from the doorway, as many of the books and other objects are fragile, but that is enough to give you a strong sense of the character of the room.

Vita's writing room
Forgive the quality, it's a dark room and I didn't like to use flash

Further up in the tower you can see some of the graffiti left by those French sailors, and also, as you climb, see collections of coloured glassware and this little stained-glass monk in one of the windows.

P1000877.JPG P1000867.JPG

Stained glass in the tower, and historic graffiti

Once you reach the top the views make the climb worthwhile. As one of the staff had told us, you see no modern-day buildings at all, so these are the same views generations of previous inhabitants will have enjoyed.

View from the tower

Looking down, closer to the tower, you can really appreciate the overall layout of the gardens and features of the estate in a way you can’t possibly do when on the ground. The series of rooms into which the garden is divided is clearly seen from here, and the various small buildings dotted around. Unusually Harold and Vita chose to make their home in several of these – they slept in the South Cottage, where Vita also had a flower room and Harold his book room (where he wrote); their two sons had bedrooms in the Priest’s House, which also held the kitchen; Vita wrote in the tower, in the room I have already described; and the library, also used for hosting visitors, was (and still is) in the former stable block opposite the tower. I found it hard to imagine living like this, until I realised that the garden is also part of the ‘house’ and walking through it from room to room would have been an almost hourly pleasure for the family.

The White Garden from the tower

View of the orchard from the tower

The library

Descending the tower we crossed to the nearby library which houses the couple’s extensive collection of 20th century books. Here we found a helpful volunteer happy to answer our questions about the furnishings and fittings, including the large painting of one of Vita’s ancestors, Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset (1536-1608) being presented with petitions by his secretary, and a simpler work by one of the imprisoned French sailors depicting the Sissinghurst of his time.

In the library

Exploring the gardens

We went to an introductory talk about the history of Sissinghurst, from which I have drawn some of the info above, and took a break for refreshments in the café, then started our explorations of the gardens. It has to be said that these weren’t at their best and I would love to return to see them perhaps earlier in the year (June would be great for the roses). Our dry hot summer has also hit some of the plants quite hard, but there was still plenty to enjoy.

The gardens

The dahlias were looking pretty good, the White Garden had enough in bloom to be very pretty indeed, and elsewhere the borders held much of interest. Here is a selection of my best photos taken as we strolled around.

In the gardens of Sissinghurst

The White Garden





In the White Garden





Some of the other flowers

It was a hot day, however, so we decided against a longer walk in the fields around the garden, and instead settled for excellent ice creams eaten in the shade of the Elizabethan barn. We checked out the shop where there was a sale on (but didn’t buy anything), and also the separate plant sale (ditto), before heading home, resolving to come again soon.

I'll finish with a few photos of some of the buildings on the estate - and one more of the gardens!

In the gardens, and the stable block

The old stable block

Old cottage

Posted by ToonSarah 12:09 Archived in England Tagged landscapes buildings castles architecture flowers history views garden

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This sounds like a fascinating excursion. I once visited Battle with my then ten-year-old son (he's now 47), who had been reading about 1066 and wanted to see the battlefield — where there was absolutely nothing to see, but that didn't bother him in the slightest.

by Nemorino

I knew of Bodiam Castle but never heard of Sissinghurst. I always learn something when I read your blog but I have not always comments. My bad.

by Michael Dempsey

Beautiful. As I read about Hastings which was not the site of The Battle, I thought that there ought to be a town between Hastings and Battle named OF :)

by greatgrandmaR

Thank you all :) Don, I will say something about the battlefield in my next entry, but I agree there is nothing to see there - still, every English child learns about the Battle of Hastings so it's quite something to stand where it was fought.

Michael, Sissinghurst is a special place and I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

And Rosalie - what a great idea ;)

by ToonSarah

Now that Lesley is working on getting me back for the Isle of Wight in 2019, I'm hoping to visit this area in advance of the walk next year. I had intended to in May but was so knackered from the walk that I didn't make it.

by Dabs

Yes, it's sort of like the French with the Bridge of Avignon. We foreigners find it unremarkable, but the French just like to stand on it because they have been singing about it since before they even learned to talk.

by Nemorino

So the Isle of Wight is the new London, is it Kristi, with regular annual visits ;)

And yes Don exactly like that - except having learned that song in French lessons at school I would be just like the French and want to stand on the bridge!!

by ToonSarah

Thank you for the presentation of the destination and attractions I heard but hardly know much about it before your blog. I read your blogs here but, unlike on VT, I am not yet into writing many comments too.

by Odiseya

Your "View from the tower" indicates a stunningly beautiful day. When you said they walked through the garden to get to the different rooms, I could only think of some of the damp, foggy and rainy days we experienced and that might not be so pleasant.

Fascinating tour. Thanks so much.

by Beausoleil

Thank you both for stopping by. Sally, it was a scorching hot day - we have had such a hot summer. But they would have had to do those walks in all weathers, even snow!

by ToonSarah

Another fascinating trip that's for sure. Bodiam castle seems interesting especially with the Witches Marks, never heard of that fact. Your picture of the gardens are really beautiful, although I like autumn very much, I hope spring will come soon ... I can't wait for 2021 to be over to be honest.

by Ils1976

Thank you Ils :) I love the colours of autumn but not that it is followed by winter, which I don't enjoy! These garden photos were taken in the summer of 2018 (August) :)

by ToonSarah

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