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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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I have just written an article for Gardens and People on the extraordinary 1990 proposals by Bernard Lassus to reinvent the Jardin des Tuileries. They were an entry in a state-run competition and, sadly, a less adventurous plan by Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier was chosen for implementation. My article is part of a series on Gardens That Were Never Built.

So, last Sunday I spent an hour walking through the Tuileries, taking photographs for the article. It struck me how poorly they are currently being maintained. Many of the ancient horse chestnuts and plane trees are unpruned and sprawling.
Unclipped treesbox bedThe box bed near the Jeu de Paume was unclipped and full of bindweed and large thistles.

Oddly planted with a mass of variegated perennials and grasses, the two exedras are similarly infested with weeds and look sad and neglected. Some of the trees planted as part of the Benech / Cribier plan are struggling to survive. Much of the gardeners’ attention seems to go on the narrow little flower beds, with their high maintenance mix of annuals and tender perennials, all planted at a rather domestic scale.flower bed The Tuileries is of course still a magnificent processional space. But it would be sad if it is allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that another major overhaul is needed so soon after the 1990 concours that produced the remarkable Lassus proposals.

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Hotel Biron planting 1

The gardens of the Hotel Biron are currently a sea of creamy hydrangeas and soft green foliage.

A few weeks ago I posted on the lush roses and paeonies that filled the grounds in June. It appeared to be the peak of the summer.

But now everywhere is a mass of lacecaps and mopheads, all planted in generous drifts.

Hotel Biron planting 2

Hotel Biron planting 3This seems to me thoughtful, confident design, planting for leaf form and colour, and using big swathes of a limited range of species.

Shown in these four photos, taken last weekend, are the oak-leafed hydrangea, H. quercifolia “Snowflake”, and the popular H.aborescens “Annabelle”, with a lilacky splash of H. macrophylla “Blue Wave.”

These are not fancy or fashionable plants, but the whole thing feels tranquil and unflustered, just right for the heat of midsummer.

Hotel Biron planting 4

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rainbows and daisesrainbows and daisiesAt one of the side entrances to l’Eglise Saint Germain des Prés in the 6th arrondissement are four little box-edged flower beds. This summer, one of them is thickly planted with rainbow-stemmed swiss chard, pink cosmos and dahlias. (There are also some rather unnecessary, straggly standard roses.)

My daughter and I stood for a few moments on Saturday to admire the planting. The chard was translucent in the sunshine. Even in the short time we were there, several other people also stopped and commented on the display, noting admiringly that the leaves were edible as well as beautiful.

It was a tiny space, a few annuals, and a delightful moment.

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ecole des beaux-artsThe Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts was established in the seventeenth century and, in its heyday, was an enormously influential school for architects, painters and sculptors throughout the world. Its alumnae include Degas, Delacroix, Givenchy, Monet and Mary Cassatt.

Its current home in the 6th arrondissement was built on the site of an early seventeenth century convent. Something of a hotchpotch of styles and earlier historical remnants, the school’s buildings were designed by architects François Debret and Félix Duban between 1816 and 1872.

Today the site has a shabby, faded charm, with a mix of poorly maintained classical-style buildings, temporary modern classroom blocks, and a good deal of graffiti. We visited last weekend for the portes ouvertes – an open day showcasing the work of current students.

ecole des beaux-artsThe site includes the Cour du Mûrier, a charming little courtyard, created by Duban on the site of the original nuns’ cloister. It is named after the Chinese mulberry tree planted there by Alexandre Lenoir, who had for a time established a Musée des Monuments Français in the convent, aiming to rescue fragments of old buildings at risk from revolutionary fervour.

The courtyard is today a small leafy space, with a grand fountain at its centre and copies of classical statues displayed in painted arcades.

ecole des beaux-artsAdded later, the Jardin Lenoir contains some of the remnants acquired for the Musée des Monuments Français, including the façade of the hôtel de Torpanne, originally built in the Marais around 1567.

The open lawn of this pleasant garden is currently being used to house prefabricated classrooms, and the rest is sealed off behind fencing; sadly we could only see glimpses of the tree-filled space.

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British Embassy ParisWith Wimbledon in full swing, I am reminded that there is a solitary grass tennis court in Paris. It is located, perhaps not surprisingly, in the gardens of the British Embassy in the 8th arrondissement of the city. The French, of course, prefer clay courts.

British Embassy ParisThe Embassy court is used by staff and visitors – including (I am told) by new British PM David Cameron when he visited Paris recently, and was delighted to be able to try out the tennis racquet he had just received as a gift from French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

The rest of the gardens, which are relatively small by Embassy standards, are a pleasant mix of grass, shrubs and perennials, with lots of English-style roses and lavender. They are not generally open to the public, but sometimes people are lucky enough to receive invitations to traditional British events held there, including a Guy Fawkes’ Night bonfire and a birthday party for the Queen.

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Hotel Biron gardenHotel BironSomeone asked me the other day about “secret” places in Paris, where it would be fun to take visitors. One of my suggestions was the garden of the Hôtel Biron in the 7th arrondissement. OK, so the building is not exactly a secret, as it currently serves as the musée Rodin, which receives about half a million visitors a year. But the three-hectare gardens are less well known, and very pretty in the summer. The entry charge for the gardens is only one euro.

The house itself is early eighteenth century. The current gardens were laid out in the 1990s, when it was decided not to recreate the original design (although plans survive) or to restore the gardens as they would have been during Rodin’s time. Instead a pleasingly plant-rich contemporary design by Jacques Sgard was installed among the ornamental ponds and mature linden trees. You can stroll among roses, irises and paeonies, admire the occasional Rodin sculpture, and enjoy views of the Eiffel Tower and the golden dome of Les Invalides, both nearby. There is also a little children’s playground and a pleasant café in the grounds.

Hotel Biron garden

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