A broad lawn sweeps downhill to a lily pond at lowest point, rather than being interrupted by the usual terracing of Continental gardens. On two sides of this lawn, woodland gardens of rhododendrons, herbaceous perennials and bulbs transition from humanised landscape to natural forest. On the far side, a series of themed garden rooms surround the country house and assorted farm buildings, leading to further woodlands beyond.
Traditional French farm work-sheds and cottages peek out from meadows in the woods. These gardens are extensive, and cover all the bases. In many of the smaller garden rooms, sculptures and rural vernacular artefacts including wells and stone water troughs provide focal points.
The rambling Les Jardins en Le Pays d’Auge is chock-a-block with dazzling array of plants at late spring peak. I, who have always preferred the informal garden that allows nature the freedom to express herself should be in raptures. Instead, I’m disappointed.
As I wander around, I can’t help but compare this garden with the one I saw yesterday, Jardin de Castillon, one of those rare garden experiences where you wander around in an altered state, transfixed by delight and awe. It quite takes the shine off this one.
Funnily enough, as I entered Jardin de Castillon to be confronted by oversized shishkabobs of geometric shapes, my heart sank.
‘Oh no! Not another topiary garden.’
I am not a fan of the heavily clipped, either formal or topiary gardens. I find the highly defined lines of hedging and geometric shapes subjugate the natural growth patterns of plants beneath severe lines. Such gardens celebrate human domination of nature, rather than nature itself. But looking further along this allée, I realised the contrast of these hard-edged vertical forms emphasised the soft drooping forms of weeping Japanese maples and the background deciduous trees, holding formal and informal in delicate balance. From there, room after room of this garden was a revelation of garden design balance and harmony, skilfully realised.
Down a gentle slope, a series of garden rooms with gravel paths, occasional geometric topiary, and severely clipped hedging of straight line and looping curve is woven through with informal foreground plantings and background forest to achieve an entrancing atmosphere of elegance and whimsy.
One’s path down the hill is redolent with anticipation and wonder as each room gives onto the next. At the bottom you cross over a central axis allée of deciduous trees including two handkerchief trees, which I had never before seen in flower. On the far side, a richly planted mixed border rambles along both sides of a long rectangular pond. This opens on to the largest room, where another mixed border wraps around a gently sloping lawn, backed by a long pergola of wisteria and clematis in full bloom.
Garden rooms too numerous to detail vary in size and atmosphere. Consistent through the garden is the sense of pleasant surprise you experience moving from long narrow vista, to intimate garden room to broad sweeping area. Once or twice surprise is pre-empted by a tantalising glimpse of what is to come. However, it is not the undeniable design skill that is the most striking aspect of this garden. It is the profound sense of loving care that makes this garden so memorable, so touching. The garden is redolent with a beauty and attention to detail that speaks of deep passion and pleasure rather than obsessive control.
By contrast, in the garden I walk through today, Les Jardins en Le Pays d’Auge, I have the sense that the creator has over-extended himself. It comes across as more like a Disney theme park. Beneath the trees large areas have been planted out with sweeps of one species, like a commercial landscaping project. The hedges delineating different rooms have been let go, sprouting shaggy with spring growth. Oddly, I usually experience a distinct distaste to severe lines of crew-cut hedges, but I find this lack of care sloppy. The rural cottages, barns and workshops with their tableaux of smithy, bakery and calvados distillery might interest the kids, but for me, they jar with the garden experience. And as for the ‘spiritual garden’ with its overgrown labyrinth and chapel that bursts forth into Gregorian chant as you approach, and faux-ancient graveyard, well that’s just plain weird!
The sad thing is that, being so far off the beaten garden-tourism track, on the backroads of Normandy where people mostly come for war reminiscence, be it 11th or 20th century invasions, these gardens struggle to pull in the punters. But the Disneyland garden with attached gift-shop, restaurant and reception centre knows how to market itself – enough to keep the turnstiles turning. Not so Jardin de Castillon.
As we reluctantly leave, I say how deeply I have been touched by this beautiful garden and express my admiration to its creator, Colette Sainte-Beuve. Her face shines with the same love and delight that emanate from the garden.
Then the conversation takes a sober turn, as she describes her struggle to keep the garden financially viable and the likelihood of closure if she cannot attract more visitors this coming season. I notice her chin trembles as she works to hide her distress. She is clearly uncomfortable with this moment of vulnerability, so we make hasty farewells and head for the car. Fortunately, she doesn’t see me glance back to catch her wiping the tears from her cheeks. It strikes me that being a great gardener does not always ensure the viability of a great garden. Sometimes life is just not fair!
Le Jardins de Castillon
D73 – “Le Château”, F-14490 Castillon, Normandy.
Castillon is a 3 hour drive from Paris, or 1:45 from Rouen.