Approaching the gardener's cottage at Sissinghurst, I'm imagining how hard it must be to live in a house that's only yours while you remain in your job. Perhaps it's a mind-set. It was once a fairly normal thing to live in a home that went with the job, and tied cottages were common, built for workers in towns, on farmland and in the grounds of country houses. It makes sense, but times have changed and it's not a common thing any more. I can also see that living in the grounds of one of the most celebrated gardens in the world, and treading in the footsteps of such illustrious forebears is a unique, exceptional experience. A privilege. A little unnerving perhaps, and here my imagination is running away with me. Is it rather haunting?
From the outside, this modest, Thirties-style cottage seems simple, uncluttered and quiet. As Claire Abery appears to greet me, unperturbed by the drizzle — the sign of a proper gardener — and we go into the house, I feel as if I'm entering hallowed space, as atmospheric as anything in the castle itself. I can feel the weight of history pressing in already. The interior wears this lightly and living on site does have obvious advantages — no travelling costs for a start — and certainly not a lengthy commute, for a working day that starts at 7.30; they have to fit in a lot before the gates open to the public at 11:00.
The National Trust look after the outside maintenance on the house and have recently installed secondary double glazing downstairs, which is a boon: "It always used to seem cold in this house," says Claire. What happens inside, within reason — and without changing anything structural - is entirely up to the tenant. When she first moved in eleven years ago, the house had been empty for some time and it had been painted 'rainbow style'. "The kitchen was bright yellow, the front room was red, the bathroom turquoise and my bedroom was peach. So it was out with the magnolia paint!" Claire laughs.
Looking round it's clear to see that the colours on the walls are more sophisticated than that ubiquitous shade of cream. She has carefully used a combination of muted neutrals that create a very natural light within the house, like the light outside on a cloudy day. Much of the paint comes from Little Greene. "I like colour," Claire says, "but not on the walls. I like to use it in different pieces, and change things around." A useful tip to follow if you're decorating on a budget.
Claire has used considerable ingenuity to personalise the cottage, and perhaps this is made more evident because changes can only be decorative. "I have to be more imaginative and I try not to spend any money. I like to 'make do and mend' and if I do buy things they tend to be from junk shops - rather than antique shops. The most money I've spent is on a chest of drawers in my bedroom and that was £200. I did see a Jasper Conran bookcase in John Lewis that I really liked, but it was over £600, which was far too much, so I surreptitiously measured it, then gave the dimensions to a friend who made it with me."
The cottage and the adjoining cottage were originally built by Vita Sackville-West as accommodation for workers on the estate. Claire's cottage was once the home of former head gardener Pamela Schwerdt and her partner Sibylle Kreutzberger. They gardened here at Sissinghurst for many years, originally working for Vita, then continuing to work in the gardens after her death in 1962 and once the National Trust took over the running of Sissinghurst in 1967.
Claire often finds echoes of Pam and Sibylle popping up in her garden: "Plants that they once grew appear unexpectedly from time to time, which always makes me smile," says Claire. It is Pam and Sibylle's work - their planting schemes and landscaping - that we can still see at Sissinghurst today.
The latest head gardener, Troy Scott Smith, has plans to bring the garden closer to the way it was when Vita was around — "allowing a rose to billow or a meadow to flourish". He has been working on the 'loosening' for a couple of years now but, as Claire explains, "it's a big thing to turn around. The changes are happening, but they'll take a little while to show."
The kitchen is small and neat with a secluded view out across the back garden. "I think originally it was a scullery and pantry, with the main kitchen in the other room," says Claire. "There must have been a range where the fireplace in the living room is." The space is now beautifully crammed with logs for the fire in the room next door. The front room is the largest downstairs space, with plenty of room for a rustic table and chairs and some additional comfortable seating. Not much has been installed by previous occupants, but Claire thinks that the 'built-in' cabinet in the front room must have been made by someone who once lived in the house. "I can tell from the way it seems to be made from odd bits of wood. It's as if whoever made it scraped it together from pieces they found around the place." The room is pared back and uncluttered with a distinctly retro feel.
"I love all that 'digging for victory' ethos; I love the clothes, the feel, the British spirit — and they all looked so stylish while doing it." Claire has good reason to feel a connection too, as six Land Army girls and their matron were billeted to the cottage during the war to help on the farm. "The matron slept in my room and the girls slept in bunk beds in what's now the spare room."
Perhaps it's no coincidence that Vita Sackville-West is the author of The Women's Land Army guide, published in 1944. She writes: '"Gardening is surely an ideal profession for the woman who likes it. The work is not so heavy as to put too great a strain on her physical capacity; and in the more expert branches the possibilities and range of interest is really unlimited." Claire finds the work of the Land Army just as inspirational. "My fortieth birthday party was on the theme of a Forties VE Day celebration and everyone had to dress up. I just love everything about the Forties — the shape of the dresses, the spirit of the times, the mucking in together" a spirit epitomised by the Land Girl organisation.
Upstairs, the spare room and the larger of the bedrooms — where I try to imagine the serried ranks of bunks for strapping land girls — doubles as a workspace for Claire. She has been resourceful in furnishing the bedrooms, even managing to find almost identical bedside tables for her bedroom from two completely different places, and restoring them, so that they now look as if they came as a pair. The bedrooms are simply decorated, highlighting Claire's sense of colour in accessories and soft furnishings. There are jars of buttons and ribbons where you might have seen face cream and hairbrushes and, by the window is a desk, or rather, a sewing station. "I love sewing," says Claire.
The views from the upstairs windows are captivating — you can look out in one direction across the roofs towards the castle, then in the other direction to a vista across the Kent countryside to the Greensand Ridge in the distance.
What happens here in the winter once the gardens are closed to the public? "Well, the winter is really when we do all the work," says Claire. "As soon as the garden shuts at the end of the season we get stuck in pruning roses, hedge-cutting, clearing herbaceous beds. There's lots of preparation to do before we get ready to open again in March."
Then there are the bulbs. "This year we'll be planting 37,000 bulbs! It used to be a nightmare but now we have a spreadsheet to help us work out what goes where. Every week in summer we have our Friday Tidy, we sweep and dead-head, collect seed and generally clear out the beds; 'primping and preening', is what Adam (Nicolson) calls it," she laughs. Back downstairs, the cosy little sitting room is the perfect space for Claire to spend winter evenings in front of the fire, making things and sewing smaller items like Christmas decorations. Striking zig-zag wallpaper in green and blue has been used on just one of the walls, and helps to make the room feel larger. I spy the Conran-inspired bookcase looking very effective along the side wall of the room, neatly and stylishly housing ornaments and photos. Claire is obviously a skilled craftsperson, frugal and practical. "I cook too, but there aren't enough hours in the day. I'm thinking that I might make some jam soon, I bought some lovely quinces the other day that I really need to use, but we'll see, I shan't beat myself up about it."
As we prepare to leave, a wave of duck egg blue nostalgia washes over me and, for a moment, I'm transported back to a glorious period: of hard work, camaraderie, thankfulness and skilful make-do-and-mend. Claire has managed to pay homage to that past in the styling and decoration of the cottage, but at the same time transcends it and lives very much in the present. This house might belong to the National Trust, but within its walls Claire has created a stylish home that is all hers.