A broad lawn sweeps downhill to a lily pond at lowest point, interrupted by an informal bed rather than 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, leading to further woodlands beyond.
Peeking out from the woods are various traditional French farm work-sheds and cottages bought up from around the region, demolished and rebuilt on-site.
These gardens are extensive, and cover all the bases. They have representations of every garden style imaginable. In many of the smaller garden rooms, statues and authentic rural vernacular artefacts including wells and stone water troughs provide focal points.
The sprawling Les Jardines en Le Pays d’Auge is choc-a-block with dazzling array of trees and shrubs, woodland bulbs and herbaceous perennials, rhododendrons, roses and clematis at late spring peak, borrowed landscapes of rolling French fields and orchards, and sweeping laws scattered with small daisies. I, who have always had a marked preference for the informal garden that allows nature to express herself freely should be in raptures. And yet….
And yet, I’m disappointed. As I pace from garden room to room, past informal shrubberies, through woodland settings and down the long lawns, I can’t help but compare this garden with the garden I wandered around yesterday. Jardin de Castillion was 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 yesterday’s garden 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 allee, 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 tinged with anticipation and wonder as each room gives onto the next. At the bottom you cross over a central axis allee of deciduous trees including two handkerchief trees, which I had never before seen in flower.
An opening in the hedge on the far side, leads to a richly planted mixed border rambling along both sides of a long rectangular pool. The accomplished eye for detail here is mesmerising. You stand rooted, while your eyes wander lovingly over a feast of texture and form, eventually coming to rest on still water.
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. Here it’s the overall effect of perspective rather than detail that draws your to the distant statue.
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 come.
However, the undeniable design skill is not the most striking aspect of the garden. It is the profound sense of loving care that makes this garden so memorable. The garden is redolent with a beauty and attention to detail that speaks of passion and pleasure rather than obsessive control.
By contrast, the garden I walk through today, I have the sense that the creator has over extended himself. It comes across as more like a Disney theme park, than a garden. Beneath the trees large areas have been planted out with sweeps of one species, like a commercial landscape project. And he can’t keep up with the maintenance. Hedges delineating different rooms have been let go, sprouting shaggy with long spring growth. The effect is n ot informality, just messy. Oddly for me who normally dislikes the severe lines of crew-cut hedges, find this lack of care lazy.
The rural cottages, barns and workshops with their tableaux of smithy, bakery and calvados distillery might be fun for the kids, but for me, they jar with the garden experience.
Garden ornamentation is clichéd and unimaginative. And as for the ‘spiritual garden’ with its overgrown labarinth, 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, 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 wonderful garden and express my admiration to its creator Colette Sainte-Beuve. Her face shines with the same feelings of love and delight that breathe through the garden. Then the conversation takes on a somber turn. As she mentions her struggle to keep the garden financially viable and the likelihood of closure if she cannot attract more visitors, I notice Colette working hard to hide her distress. She is clearly uncomfortable with this moment of vulnerability, so we say our 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 an outstanding gardener does not always ensure the viability of a beautiful garden. Sometimes life is just not fair!