Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens was originally a manor within the Weald of Kent. Over hundreds of years, it was home to a number of families and generations and has housed many noble and notable persons. With each new owner, came new grounds and buildings. Expanding into a deer park and castle. In the 17th century, at the collapse of the Baker
family, which had owned it at the time, Sissinghurst was converted into a prison camp during the Seven Years War. After the war, it became a workhouse for the poor, and then housing for Kentish farm labourers. Eventually, the brickwork fell into ruin and the grounds became a mess of tangled weeds.
By the 20th century, Sissinghurst was long forgotten until Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson acquired the property. Vita was a horticultural writer and amateur gardener and decided to remake the grounds, filling it with flowers. Each garden was designed as a room, with different plants and landscaping. The rooms were all filled with statues and other hidden arts. Sackville-West and
Nicolson opened the grounds to the public in 1938, and in 1968 the National Trust took over the buildings and gardens. Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens was also where I encountered the Rabbit. Not a rabbit in the traditional sense. He did not have a twitchy nose or a fluffy tail (although he may have, I never actually checked). He was a
man dressed as the White Rabbit from 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. He had a purple and red striped waistcoat, and similarly matching socks. From the pocket of his waistcoat dangled and oversized pocket watch, and on his head was a black top hat, from which two rabbit ears extruded. On his face was drawn a set of whiskers and a triangle-shaped nose, both of which were slightly smudged.
I met him in the largest garden-room, which was really a green, by the faux-pagoda on the edge of the pond. I had just returned from a week away from home, and while I normally enjoy a summertime visit to the gardens, my tiredness had made me irritable. In a bid to restore some of my energies I told my family to continue the rest of the walk to the orchard without me so that I might have a brief rest in the grasses.
It also gave me an excuse to observe the 'Alice Exhibit' from afar. Occasionally, the Trust would put on shows to entertain children while their parents enjoyed the gardens in peace. This summer, the theme was 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', and they had set up a large tent in the middle of the central gardens for the exhibit. I, however, had reached the grand old age of sixteen,
and therefore held all childish activities in outward contempt but privately longed to attend them. And so, I chose a suitable spot to spy on the show. The 'Alice Exhibit' was just ending by the time I settled myself in the grass. I watched the end few minutes, which were not particularly interesting, having read Carroll's original books and seen various interpretations
at the cinema more times than I care to recall. Presently, the actors took their bows and disappeared. With nothing left to entertain me, I began to drift off. I woke to the light tickle of ants crawling over me. I was still too tired to care, or my mood was restored, either way, I left the ants to continue their minuscule journey across my body.
I had just began to nod off again, when I heard a voice to my left; "My dear, you have an ant on your shoe." It was the Rabbit. He was lying next to me with his hands at his sides, and his legs crossed neatly at the ankles. I did not know how to respond to his observation. It was true, there were ants, but somehow I had fallen into Alice's hole instead of her.
I just said, "Yes, I do." "Do you mind them there?" He replied, squinting at me. "For they are ants, and you could squish them if you wanted to." I returned that I had no wish to, for they were doing no wrong. He laughed and asked me what a young lady such as myself was doing on the ground. I asked what he was doing on the ground.
"To see if you were alive, of course!" He said, "It would be no good at all if you had died. Doing so would certainly make us late for the tea party!" I sat up and brushed some of the ants off. "What tea party?" I enquired, for I do enjoy those little triangle sandwiches one has at such places. "Why, the Mad Hatter's tea party. The invitation said we
were to attend in our finest clothes. I am in mine, where are yours?" I said that the clothes I was in were the finest I had at that precise moment and that I was very sorry. "Where is the tea party, and when?" I continued. I was unsure whether the man was acting for my amusement or his own. Or perhaps I had entered
Wonderland when I wasn't paying attention. The Rabbit sat up and pointed across the pond. I knew that behind the pond was a copse of trees and behind that a giant glass greenhouse. "It is in the rushes, my dear girl, at noontime." "But twelve has already been and gone, Rabbit," I said, morosely.
"Has it? Oh dear." He sighed and flopped back into the grass. After a few moments, he patted the ground where I had lay, inviting me to stare up at the sky with him. Forgetting my childhood lessons not to talk to strangers, and my teenagerish inhibitions to ignore others, I pointed to one of the clouds. I said it looked like a tea-pot. The Rabbit agreed and said the one
floating next to it looked like a tea-cup. I turned my head to look at him and said, "Perhaps we could have our own tea party. We have the tea, now we need to find the rest of it." He laughed, "What a jolly good idea, my dear, why not." It didn't take long to find the sugar lumps, the sandwiches, the scones (he pronounced them scones and I said they were scones in proper English).
There were some cream biscuits if one squinted very hard at a not particularly cream biscuit shaped clouds and one cloud that was the spitting image of a blob of jam. After a while, we were sated by our tea tray in the sky and lapsed into silence. We lay next to each other for around half an hour, quietly nodding off in perfect peace. The ants had made a path over both of us.
Suddenly his pocket watch made a bong not fitting for a machine of its size. "My goodness!" He cried, leaping up. "My dear, it is three o'clock, and I shall be late!" I sat up myself, and he helped hoist me to my feet. "Rabbit, where must you go?" I asked. "I will be late, I will be late, I must go, my dear, goodbye. I had the most lovely tea party!"
The last I saw of the Rabbit was him hurrying back to the tent, clamping his hat firmly on his head. When he reached the tent, he turned to wave frantically at me one last time. I returned it, shaking my head in delight. My family had just rounded a large pot plant as his hand disappeared between the tent flaps. "What are you waving at?" My mother asked me.
I did not answer, but promised instead to tell them about my adventures over a cup of tea in the Trust's cafe.