Last weekend was Rendezvous aux Jardins in France - an event organised by the Ministére de la culture which is designed to encourage citizens to visit gardens across the country. We took the opportunity to have a look at the gardens of Chateau Mongenan in Portets - a small town on the banks of the Garonne and a little way south of Bordeaux. Here I finally understood the cultural distinction between gardens and gardening in France and the UK. We are worlds apart.
I had first read about the difference in approach in a superb little book by Monty Don - called The Road To Le Tholonet. This was it, small scale and in a nutshell.
Chateau Mongenan - with pots of citrus symmetrically positioned along the front facade of the chateau - in traditional 18thC style.
In the UK gardening is hands on, get your fingernails dirty and garden for the love of it. If you visited an open garden in Great Britain (let's say a Yellow Book garden which is open for charity) it would be manicured to within an inch of its life for the great day and the owner would most likely be around to talk you through their favourite plants. If it was a larger property - say a historic garden like Hidcote, which is a National Trust Garden open all year round - there would be a team of experts on hand, and an explanation of the plants and the evolution of the garden's design. This garden was somewhere between the two in size and importance - it was a Monument Historique and a Jardin Remarquable. It was small, with a beautiful little chateau and had three defined garden areas as well as a museum and shop.
We were warmly welcomed when we arrived and were the only English people there - joining a group of about 6 French people on a tour which started in the museum where we spent some time being told about the history of the buildings, the stonework, the social and political connections, the family and the Freemasons - there was a Masons' chapel on site and Freemasonry featured both in the family's background and in the design of both the house and the gardens. This took approximately half of the tour and set the scene for the entire visit.
We then went into the gardens, which were somewhat in a state of disarray because the owner - an intellectual and a writer whose family had lived at the chateau since it was built - "did not have a gardener at present". However, the absolutely charming woman who showed us round explained the concept behind the design and its three sections. First there is the front garden, echoing the symmetry of the facade, This has flowers all year round and is formal and traditional in layout. Next, a pleasure garden at the back of the house with trees for shade (no flowers) and a raised terrace approached via 7 steps (Freemasonry symbolism here - the seven steps to Paradise) where, in the past, tableaux, readings and concerts were performed. Symbolism was everywhere; Nine pillars for the nine muse. Black and white tiles symbolising the battle between good and evil. The seven steps - repeated at the back and the front of the house - to symbolise man's ascent to Paradise. The garden was a work of philosophical importance and the original designer was an intellectual and not a hands on plantsman in the manner of, say, Christopher Lloyd or Carol Klein. The entire property was designed to facilitate literary and philosophical salons from the time of King Louis 16th onwards.
Finally there was the vegetable and fruit garden - which was temporarily unavailable to visit because it needed work. There was however a rose allée with lovely old roses. One in particular was pointed out to us because of its magnificent smell - but no-one knew its name. At this point the discussion turned to the wet spring we had had and the problems with slugs and, in particular, snails. I was ready to add my bit vis a vis slug pellets, copper bands and beer traps when one woman said:
"Well, with snails, you catch them and eat them, obviously!"
And another replied "Yes, with sauce Bordelaise, magnificent"
And a third "Yes but a lot of work cleaning and preparing them......"
Chucking them over the hedge into the vineyard next door clearly was not an option. I kept quiet.
At the end we visited a seed and cutting stalls where we could help ourselves for free and talk more generally to the the team of four people who had showed our little group round in such a kind and welcoming manner. I got quite a few super packets of seeds including some I have wanted for a little while.
There was also a shop inside a carriage house, but we suddenly became aware of the time....it was after mid-day and everyone else was wanting to leave and have lunch. Shopping, and the profit motive, was off the menu.
So off we went, clutching our bags of seeds and entranced by the contrast between two nations divided by a common love of the garden.
Seven steps to Paradise - you have to count the treads - starting at ground level at the bottom and finishing at ground level at the top. The same motif was displayed behind the house - exactly in line with these steps - and leading to the raised terrace designed for performances. This photograph is courtesy of Chateau Mongenan