Divine inspiration

Take a tour of some of Normandy’s most beautiful gardens with ALISON HUGHES and meet the green-fingered people behind them

Take a tour of some of Normandy’s most beautiful gardens with ALISON HUGHES and meet the green-fingered people behind themBehind every beautiful garden lies a great deal of hard work, usually on the part of one particularly dedicated and passionate person. Some enjoy international fame such as Claude Monet for his home in the village of Giverny, and Gertrude Jekyll for the Bois des Moutiers. They may no longer be with us, but their garden legacies live on. However, not all great gardens have their roots in the past, there are many fantastic ones still in the making – quite a few of them just over the Channel in Normandy. I travelled to the area during les Journ�es des Plantes Franco-Britanniques. The event is held every year at the Ch�teau de Crosville-sur-Douve, which lies on the edge of marshland halfway down the Cherbourg Peninsula. The plant fair at Crosville is just one part of the amazing tale surrounding the regeneration of the ch�teau, which is now a thriving business with a gift shop, tea room and converted barn used for wedding receptions and other functions.I visited on the Friday before the event and there was a festive atmosphere as stallholders arrived, greeting friends from previous years and sitting down to share tea and lemon cake in the courtyard before setting out their wares. I met up with ch�telaine Mich�le Lefol, whose single-minded determination has transformed the fortunes of the ch�teau. Sitting in the glorious spring sunshine I learned that Mich�le is part of the third generation of tenant farmers to live at Crosville. She talked of how absolutely devastated she had been at the age of 14 when she heard that the owner, who no longer wanted to put money into repairing the roof, had decided to sell her’ ch�teau. Mich�le was so determined that it would not be sold that, in an attempt to put off prospective buyers, she went round and filled with water the basins that had been strategically placed to catch the drips from the leaking roof. No buyers came forward and Mich�le managed to persuade her parents, who had no financial resources, to buy Crosville. A mad venture but, as she said, her name Lefol’ is a bit of a giveaway! By this time Mich�le was 19 years old. So began a campaign to raise the necessary money. By hook or by crook, or rather by sheer dint of her youthful optimism, enthusiasm and relentless pursuit of her goal to save the castle, the doors and coffers opened. The State donated 50 per cent of the money needed to get the essential roof repairs in motion, another 25 per cent came from the d�partement and the final 25 per cent was made up of awards and prizes.But this was just the beginning of the regeneration. As any owner of a property this size knows, the words money’ and pit’ are never far away. A chance meeting with Pamela Descamps-Currie, owner of Le Clos in Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, also in La Manche – which is open to the public under the parks and gardens scheme – and a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, led to the first Journ�es des Plantes in 1998. That first year there were just seven exhibitors, including the �picerie Anglaise – the only British stall – and 1,500 visitors. Last year there were 80 exhibitors and 10,000 visitors, with stall-holders coming from as far afield as Belgium and the Auvergne. Now there are many more British exhibitors too, such as Heather Verard, a garden designer who moved her business, A Propos du Jardin, from London to La Manche four years ago. Plants rarely seen in Normandy are now quite commonplace because of the influx of British growers and plant people. Wandering around on the Saturday it was a delight to see the variety of colours and species, from the dark green of the variegated hostas to the delicate pinks and lilacs of the azaleas.       It was a real pleasure to meet Mich�le and see her enthusiasm and passion for her home, because it is above all, just that – her home. Her parents live in the right wing and she still milks her 50 cows every day. Full of projects for the future and very much hands-on, it is good to know that having put so much time and effort into her beloved ch�teau that she has recently found personal happiness too, in the shape of her new Italian partner, Paulo. Being a restaurateur his skills may soon be put to use in Mich�le’s latest project, a restaurant, which will go with the chambres d’h�tes she has planned for the outbuildings. As I waved goodbye to Mich�le and Paulo I found it hard to imagine that, not so long ago, the left wing of the ch�teau, with its elegant painted ceilings and fine proportions, was home to chickens, bales of straw and buckets of water.

Intrinsic harmonyFrom this fortified farm turned garden-centre-for-a-weekend, I drove further down the peninsula to meet another remarkable lady; one who has turned her hand from writing to gardening. At first sight the Manoir d’Argences is breathtaking. Tucked away in a valley just south of Coutances, the 17th-century manor house is a delight. With its grey slate roofs and glimpses of well-honed shrubs and trees, it has a feeling of timelessness; the perfect setting for a period drama. But it wasn’t always so. A previous owner, described as having “plenty of money but no taste”, had improved’ the property in the worst possible way. When writer and journalist Caroline Lecardonnel moved to the manoir in 1989 with her doctor husband there was a fair amount of work to be done to restore its intrinsic harmony. Caroline recalls how she used to think it very sad to have such a beautiful house but nothing around it, for at the time it was surrounded by vast areas of lawn and gloomy gravel. Knowing nothing at all about gardening, the former Parisian set to work with a shovel and created one small flower bed, of which she was very ashamed. Not used to failure and by nature very determined, she persevered with the idea of creating a beautiful garden to complement her beautiful house. Tools, knee pads and overalls were purchased and the writer’s creativity turned its focus to flowers, shrubs and trees. She was helped by a gardener who apparently didn’t know a tulip from a rose and the two muddled along, digging and digging, planting and replanting until one day a guest pronounced it good and encouraged Caroline to continue.When I visited, we walked from garden room to garden room as Caroline told me her story and how she felt compelled to keep adding to her creation. Indeed she has accomplished something beautiful and totally in keeping with the style of the manoir, favouring sculpted shapes and shades of green on the front lawn and a sunken knot garden planted with roses and lavender to the side. Then there’s the surprise pathway that takes you alongside a little brook and leads to a number of different spaces. One is planted with huge gunnera by the side of a pond bordered with reeds. It is the setting for the  annual Festival du Film Muet (Silent Film Festival) and is all the more fitting as Caroline’s grandfather was the film director Jacques de Baroncelli and her father Jean de Baroncelli was film critic for Le Monde. The Nouveau Jardin is a smaller space, with two benches, enclosed by high yew hedges; a place to reflect in. Each room has a different atmosphere created by the planting. It is a great tribute to Caroline’s determination and hard work that she was awarded the highly coveted Soci�t� Nationale d’Horticulture de France (SNHF) Bonpland first prize in 1999 for the most beautiful private garden in France; in 2003 the Vieilles Maisons Fran�aises Prix du Jardinier for the Manche d�partement; in 2004 the HSBC first prize for the restoration of a park or garden and first prize in the national Top des Parcs competition in 2009. However, Caroline said her real reward is sharing all this beauty with her visitors. “If they leave with smiles on their faces, I am happy,” she said.    

Childhood homeWith my mind full of beautiful images, I headed towards Granville and the childhood home of Christian Dior which stands in the most stunning location on the edge of a cliff looking out towards the Chausey archipelago and the Channel Islands. The house, now a museum hosting exhibitions based on the famous couturier’s creations, is closed during the low season, but the gardens are open and it was pleasing to see local children using them as a park in which to ride their bikes and older people strolling around them, taking their daily constitutionals. It was Christian’s mother Madeleine who created the gardens in 1906, shortly after the family moved into the property. The microclimate of this part of France means palm trees grow happily alongside more traditional coastal plants such as primroses and azaleas. The town of Granville, which bought Villa Les Rhumbs after Christian’s father faced financial ruin in the 1930s, opened the gardens to the public in 1939. In 2002 the gardens were redesigned to reflect the style of the 1930s and to mark the designer’s centenary a parcours olfactif (sensory path) was added where visitors can sniff their favourite Dior perfumes. Scent was very important to the great man of fashion so perhaps it is no surprise that his favourite flower was lily of the valley. His fondness for his childhood home is noted in his autobiography, where he states that his life and style are due entirely to the location and architecture of his perfectly proportioned family home: “Je garde le souvenir le plus tendre et le plus �merveill� de la maison de mon enfance.”No tour of Normandy gardens would be complete without a visit to the most famous garden of all, Claude Monet’s Giverny property, Le Clos Normand. This was my third visit to this lovely spot and it was still a thrilling experience. What appears to be the most natural planting in the world, the riot of colour, the water lily pond which has become the symbol for Giverny; all have been expertly crafted – first by the artist himself to create the scenes that he wanted to paint and now by the team of caretaker gardeners who carefully maintain Monet’s vision. I had the good fortune to be guided around the grounds by head gardener Monsieur Vah�. He explained the colour scheme – the cooler pinks and blues nearest the house and the fiery reds and yellows further away. He talked of how Monet had trees removed to open up vistas so the eye could be drawn to the distant hills beyond. This artist who was mad about flowers transmitted his passion to his friends who numbered statesmen, fellow artists, writers and film-makers. The Clos Normand offered such a contrast to and respite from the lives of these city dwellers that they set off on wild hunts to find the exact same species to plant in their own gardens. One friend wrote: “Still hunting for the parent plant of the sweet lemon tree. Diable, but there are only some 300 different lemon trees!” His great friend Georges Cl�menceau said: “Monet’s garden stands amongst his masterpieces, casting the spell that changes nature into painted works of artistic light.” Researching the life of Monet, a picture emerges not of your typical artist shunning society to live for his work, but of a principled, politically engaged person whose Grandes D�corations (water lily paintings) were offered as a memorial to the morts pour la France and as a celebration of peace after the horrors of World War I. His house and garden welcomed people from many walks of life and although the villagers may have looked askance when his friend’s wife Alice Hosched� and her children joined his household, Monet acted in a very honourable and protective fashion towards them. It is true that towards the end of his life he stated: “It’s much better to be alone – and, better yet, completely alone.” But his aloneness also included his one great passion, nature. He knew instinctively what many of us have to learn; that nothing in this material world can rival the beauty of a simple flower. He spent his whole life trying to capture what he felt in the presence of the natural world. Although he found his quest frustrating from time to time, he was more often enraptured by what he saw. My tour was complete. I did indeed feel privileged to have met such inspiring people and to have seen such beautiful settings and environments. Although I can concur with Monet’s sentiment of doing better when all alone with nature, I must add that the determination, focus and belief in the creations of the people that I met was just as inspiring.FRANCOFILEGETTING THEREBy ferry: Brittany Ferries sail from Poole (summer service only) and Portsmouth to Cherbourg and Caen.Tel. 0871 244 0744www.brittanyferries.com WHERE TO STAYGite au JardinEliane & Michel Philippe27 Rue de l’Aulnaie27120 Fontaine-sous-JouyTel: (Fr) 02 32 36 89 05 www.giteaujardin.comThe G�te au Jardin concept was launched in Normandy in 2001 by G�tes de France.

G�tes de FranceChez Gis�le FrugierLes Buttes 50580 Canville-la-RoqueTel: (Fr) 2 33 53 03 06www.gites-de-france.com

WHERE TO EATBouchon de Cocherel8 Rue Aristide Briand27120 Houlbec -CocherelTel: (Fr) 2 32 36 68 27

WHERE TO VISITCh�teau de Crosville-sur-Douve50360 Crosville-sur-DouveTel: (Fr) 2 33 41 67 25www.chateau-crosville.fr

Les Jardins d’ArgencesManoir d’Argences50200 SausseyTel: (Fr) 2 33 07 92 04www.jardins-argences.comJardin Christian DiorVilla Les Rhumbs50400 GranvilleTel: (Fr) 2 33 61 48 21www.musee-dior-granville.com

Fondation Claude Monet27620 GivernyTel: (Fr) 2 32 51 28 21www.fondation-monet.comTOURIST BOARDSCDT de la Manche Maison du D�partement98 Rte de Candol50008 Saint-L�Tel: (Fr) 2 33 05 98 70www.manche-tourism.com

CDT de l’EureTel: (Fr) 2 32 62 84 32www.eure-tourisme.fr