Archive for August, 2010

Festival des jardins

Festival des jardins

Every summer, Chaumont-sur-Loire hosts a garden festival, and this year we have finally managed to visit. It takes place in the grounds of the splendid fairytale château at Chaumont, all chubby turreted towers and wooden drawbridges. The building rears up into view from time to time, a wonderfully enduring, medieval presence among the transient modern gardens of the festival.

The theme for 2010 is “corps et âme” (body and soul), which has been interpreted widely by the thirty or so participants to include sensory designs, plantings of herbs and other medicinal plants, and gardens designed for relaxation, contemplation or just plain fun. Landscape architects of course are well represented among the designers, but other gardens were produced by graphic artists, photographers, dancers, philosophers, even dentists!

This is not the Chelsea Flower Show: there is none of that absurd primping and preening for a single moment of glory. Instead the Chaumont show gardens have to last from April to October and so have a more relaxed, natural feel, with the plants flowering seasonally, and occasional signs of wear and tear visible on paths and lawns.

Of course some designs work better than others. My least favourite was a garden (from a design team led by Didier Courant) with a surfeit of bright pink poles, distorting mirrors and an unfortunate smell of rotten cabbage. Some are rather ordinary. Many, however, have charming features or novel ideas, from chairs that seem to float on water (in a garden by Christophe Marchalot and Félicia Fortuna)…

Floating chairs

and a Japanese-inspired retreat by Juliette Berny, Fanny Cassat and Renaud Le Creff, with simple strips of slate sloping into a pool…

Palm of my Hand

…to a labyrinth by Anne and Patrick Poirier, inspired by a 16th century plan found at the château, but made contemporary by the use of vines and multi-coloured supports.


The best designs were lovely – distinctive, inspiring and memorable. My favourite (from Olivier Hostiou, Marie Forêt and Laurent Weiss, and apparently inspired by the idea of a return to the womb) was explored along a circular path sheltered by a mass of tall willow canes, curving overhead. On reaching the centre you suddenly found yourself in a bright, enclosed, round space, the willows now curving dramatically away. It was filled by an abundance of scented chamomile, with wicker seats laid low among the flowers.

Earth Mother

Earth mother

Given this year’s theme, the gardens were sensuous, encouraging visitors to listen and feel and smell. One asked us to remove our shoes to experience the differing textures underfoot; another actively encouraged us to rub the leaves of the plants and enjoy their fragrance; a third was full of bird song. One (designed by choreographer Benjamin Millepied) produced more laughter than I have ever heard in a show garden, through a simple pair of stepping stone paths to be followed by two people holding hands, who were required to balance and stretch and almost topple as they wove their way along.

Chaumont is a highly successfully event, showcasing conceptual designs and attracting some 150,000 visitors each summer. Next year the château will host its twentieth annual garden festival, with designs on the theme of “the happy art of biodiversity” already being invited. It is a shame that the Chaumont-inspired Festival of the Garden at Westonbirt in the UK proved so short-lived and has, since 2005, been seeking a new home. Perhaps that says something about the attitude of us Brits to contemporary garden design…

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Square du Vert GalantTucked away in the heart of Paris, the Square du Vert Galant sits on the western tip of the Ile de la Cité. Its name – which my dictionary amusingly translates as ‘gay old spark’ – is a reference to the raffish king Henri IV, who used to cavort on this spot with some of his many mistresses.

It was Henri who created the Ile de la Cité by joining together three smaller islands and building the Pont Neuf, which joined the two banks of the Seine.

Turned into a public park in 1884, the little green triangle is visible from both sides of the river, and from the Pont Neuf, but it is difficult to work out how to get there (in fact, you follow the signs for the tourist boats Les Vedettes du Pont Neuf down the steps in the centre of the bridge).

Once there, you will find a pleasantly shady little spot, with great views of Paris either side, some mature trees, an odd lump of Canadian rock and some even more oddly-planted flower beds.

It is ideal for a picnic, with a water fountain near the entrance, lots of benches and some lawn. You are so close to the river on the path that surrounds the park, it is almost possible to dangle your feet in the water.

Square du Vert Galant

There is a well-known photo by Robert Doisneau of the park in 1950 as a slice of Parisian life.

Since its creation, a large equestrian statue of Henri IV has looked approvingly over the green spot that bears his name, which is still known as a place for romantic assignations and marriage proposals.

Square du Vert Galant

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Howick Hall

In the UK last week, we visited Howick Hall, a beautiful 18th century stone property near the Northumberland coast. Its extensive grounds have won several awards and have just been chosen as “garden of the year” by the magazine Gardens Illustrated.

Howick HallPerhaps the accolade raised our expectations a little too high. Photographs suggest that in spring the woodlands are glorious, with bulbs, rhododendrons and many flowering trees. The Gardens Illustrated piece shows a romantic spot with rich autumn colour and mossy greenness under foot, accompanied by Tom Stuart-Smith’s winsome description of Howick as “the ultimate in slow gardening.”

But on a damp day in late July, I was a little underwhelmed. The woodland is indeed a fine mix of ancient trees and new, carefully-labelled plantings. There were some lovely specimens of beech, birch and maple. But during our visit all we could hear was a brace of strimmers noisily removing the meadow grass throughout the arboretum. A gardener advised us to return in autumn to enjoy the woodlands more.

In the gardens near the house, there was some nice perennial planting, but for me the beauty of the house outshone the rather narrow borders. The plants were pretty but not perhaps bold enough for such a glorious spot.

Howick HallHowick HallA cream tea in the new Earl Grey tearooms was accompanied by a view of one of the estate’s red squirrels industriously harvesting nuts from a bird feeder among the filipendula just outside the window.

On our way out, we saw the bog garden, which was at its peak, with big swathes of plants – it was lovely, if perhaps a little too manicured for me.

I suspect that, if we had just stumbled upon the gardens at Howick Hall, we would have been enraptured.

But somehow to me the grounds seemed a little diminished and bewildered in their new “garden of the year” spotlight.Howick Hall

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