Delos re-imagined: where the past meets the future

June 2021 – Until last month, the mention of Delos would have taken me back to my childhood history book, with pictures of the avenue of lions illustrating accounts of the Delian league’s flawed aspirations to peace. Now, another image superimposes itself over the old one: that of the Priest’s House, in Sissinghurst, overlooking Dan Pearson’s new magical interpretation of Vita Sackville-West’s and Harold Nicolson’s original vision for their Delos garden.

Vita’s idea for the Delos garden came after the couple visited the Greek island in 1935. She writes about recreating “a scrap of Mediterranean hillside” and her words suggest she was aesthetically attuned to the interaction between the plants she saw on the island and the dry, stony environment in which they grew. A few years later, the ‘Delos room’ was born, complete with sections of Greek columns, altars, and mock ruins of walls built in part with stones from the old Sissinghurst castle.

Within ten years, however, the Kent clay put paid to Vita’s dream, and gradually the Delos room reverted to the more familiar Sissinghurst template. Charming as it was, the woodland cottage garden which eventually developed instead was a far cry from the grey-greens of Mediterranean plants and the almost barren atmosphere of a Cycladic island.

The Delos room in June 2015

But 80 years on, the Delos garden is back, as a historical reconstruction of the original design, brought up to date and engineered to allow Mediterranean plants to thrive in a way that wasn’t entirely understood at the time.

With its rocky soil and restrained planting, it sits slightly at odds with the received idea of Sissinghurst as a lush English garden brimming with colourful perennials. So why revive the Delos room when the garden that developed in its place seemed a more natural fit with the Sissinghurst style?

An obvious reason is that this was Vita’s original idea, and she intended Delos to be different from the rest of the garden. This alone makes it an exciting enough proposition. Plus, the area itself is not in the main nexus of rooms but lies just outside it.

Even so, there would have been powerful arguments against it. What about the ‘right plant, right place’ principle most of us have been taught: should the project’s historical legitimacy take precedence and justify the artificial creation of an environment that will allow Mediterranean plants to thrive? Instead of resuscitating the Delos room concept, why not simply accept that the conditions were not suitable for a Greek garden, and instead grow plants that would relish the Kent soil and English weather?

This, of course, is what had happened, but more by default than by design. The result did not feel particularly special in the wider Sissinghurst context but it was pleasant. But ‘pleasant’ is for ordinary gardens, and Sissinghurst is no an ordinary garden, so another solution was called for, one that would both be true to Vita’s plan and to her willingness to explore new ideas.

Strategically, the Delos garden also gives the National Trust a unique opportunity to engage a new generation of garden enthusiasts. Over time, Sissinghurst has locked itself in the never-ending race to do more and more of what it’s known for – gorgeous romantic planting that our eyes feast on. We love it, but it’s expensive, labour intensive, and it goes against more recent trends about low-impact, sustainable gardens that are more in tune with their wider setting.

On the face of it, re-imagining the Delos room, may not feel entirely in line with those modern aspirations. It involved bringing in quantities of new, free-draining soil and crushed brick to improve drainage. Terraces we created, too, allowing water to run off the site instead of stagnating.

But there is another way of looking at it. Given our climate-change predicament, the new Delos room should be seen as a 21st-century successor to Beth Chatto’s gravel garden: an example of how beauty can be achieved in adverse conditions, an acknowledgement of the environmental challenges we’re facing, and a leading educational project to draw inspiration from.

Just one year on, Dan Pearson’s planting has already delivered on the first count. The grey-green domes of Ballotas and Euphorbias are basking in the June sunshine alongside the shaggy silhouettes of Artemisias. White and pink Cistus are hugging the low walls. Over there, your eyes are drawn to the zingy reds of Dianthus, catching the dusky pink of Tragopogon at the base of a column, and lingering on the chartreuse green of Sideritis and Eurphorbia flower heads. Across the open ground, the yellow spikes of Verbascum and Asphodelines make you look up again, their vertical form echoing the ruined columns and repeated on a larger scale in the tall Italian cypresses. It is a show, a brilliant piece of staging with plants as the main actors, set on rocky paths amid Grecian artefacts in Edwardian surroundings.

It’s so close to perfection, in fact, that you could almost believe you are on a Mediterranean island, as does this trio of middle-aged chaps who strolls in from the Top Courtyard. Passing the large pomegranate tree which they mistake for an olive – easily done from a distance – one of them exclaims: “It’s just like Ibiza!”.

As they shuffle off, half-unsure and half-awed, we head into the White Garden. A small girl, perhaps 10 years’ old, is skipping ahead of her mother who calls her back to admire the roses. At that point, the girl has reached the gate to the Delos room and is standing still, staring. She retorts: “But mummy, there’s a really beautiful garden here!”.

I’m with that little girl – not that the White Garden isn’t a beautiful space, but because the Delos room has that rare power to create wonderment. It’s both unlike what we think of traditional Sissinghurst and very much in the spirit of Sissinghurst. By anchoring itself in the past, it’s also showing us a way to the future, and it does so with enticing, elegant poise.

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