A tale of links across the Atlantic and among islands


To the Editor:

It all started on a rainy Sunday in March, 2007, with the chance purchase of a copy of the Sunday Washington Post. The travel section contained an article about the Outer Hebrides, and embedded in the article was a reference to a book by Adam Nicolson called Sea Room. Adam is the grandson of the Sissinghurst Castle gardeners, and the book is about the Shiants, three tiny islands in the Minch, the body of water between the Isle of Skye and Lewis and Harris.

Having dragged my husband to Sissinghurst for our twentieth wedding anniversary, I knew a little bit about the creation of the garden in the 1930s from what was not only the ruins of an Elizabethan castle, but was the local farmers’ dump for old and broken farm implements and other trash. I had no idea that there were still living, breathing Nicolsons who were still writing books, so I asked the Chilmark Library to locate a copy of Sea Room through Inter-Library loan.

The book begins with Adam’s commissioning a 16-foot wooden sailboat to transport him over to the Shiants, and I was hooked. The book is a look at every aspect of these islands’ existence – archaeology, anthropology, flora, fauna, social history, etc. The author so thoroughly loves these islands, and so clearly “gets” island life, that when the book ended, I was bereft.

He mentioned a website that contained all the information he could not put in the book, so I visited the site.(www.shiantisles.net) There was an invitation to sign the guest book, which I did. I mentioned that the closest I had ever been to the Shiants was to the southernmost tip of Skye and that I had been to Sissinghurst once, and of course told him how much I enjoyed the book. When I checked my email 10 minutes later, there was a reply from the author. He ended his reply with, “and if you ever get to Sissinghurst again, do drop by.”

I immediately emailed Janet Tilling, my English friend whom I met in 1993, on the West Tisbury eighth grade class trip. I told her, “We’ve been invited!”

Two years passed, and in the course of our correspondence, Janet told me of an eight-part BBC program that chronicled Adam’s efforts to re-introduce farming on the acreage surrounding the gardens at Sissinghurst. I immediately tried every source I could find to locate a copy of the series, but to no avail. Even Kathryn Larsen, program director of WSBE, the Rhode Island PBS station in Providence, tried to secure the rights to air the series, but the BBC had no plans to make it available in the US.

Then, I read about a new book Adam had written about his efforts, entitled Sissinghurst: an Unfinished History. I bought the book just before I was about to travel to London with friend Sarah Andresen in September, 2010. It was then I realized just how closely his efforts to create a sustainable lunch at the National Trust Restaurant at Sissinghurst were to our local food movement here on the Vineyard.

To make a now very long story short, Sarah and I, together with Janet and John Tilling, made our way to Sissinghurst, met Adam, brought him copies of Edible Vineyard, The Morning Glory Farm book, and the Land Bank map, and in the course of the conversation found that he was planning a trip to Massachusetts in October of 2011. I told him that Massachusetts was a very small state and that I thought that he and his wife, author, cook, gardener and doctor Sarah Raven, would really love to see what we’re doing on the Vineyard.

So, thanks to the combined efforts of Karin Stanley at the Polly Hill Arboretum, Abigail Higgins of the MV Agricultural Society, Jon Previant of the Farm Institute, and the board members of the Friends of the Chilmark Library, we are all treated to the US premiere of the BBC series on Sissinghurst on Wednesdays this month at 5:30PM at the Chilmark Library.

Adam will speak at the Agricultural Hall on Thursday, October 27th at 7PM. Admission is $5, or a dessert to share for six. This is an opportunity not to be missed, and a great way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, and the month of October.

Susan Bainbridge Murphy