Listen carefully. DO NOT buy a house in Northern France. Do not be seduced by old stones, a deeply-rustic position, cheaper house-prices, friendly natives, quiet roads, sandy beaches six miles long, or the availability of fabulous wine for tuppence-ha’penny.
If you fall for these sirens, you’re in trouble. You will be condemning yourself forever to endless ferry-discussions, and indifferent weather, huge long car-journeys to get anywhere at all, a project that occupies most of your waking thoughts and many of your sleeping ones too, and ……and…..cacophonous birdsong..and……oh I can think of many more…..
We bought our wreck of a manor-house L’Hot in January 2006 – EVERYONE told us not to. Low on realism and high on optimism, my husband talked a good talk about what we could do with it. After years and years of building, and sanding, and painting, and wiring and plumbing, we are there – give or take the odd exciting hole in the roof. And we love it with an unhinged passion.
The two or three acres around the house were a blank canvas – a scrubby bramble-and nettle-filled wilderness seething with black plastic sheeting and blue bailer-twine. Utter madness to take it on.
I started with an idea, based on a little-known garden outside Dieppe called Miromesnil in which a view across parallel borders of repeated shrubs gave a depth and perspective to the planting. I wanted to see if it would work with perennials too, and the result has been a deepening love affair. We created a series of narrow linear borders stretching like a lined notebook on the previously blank lawn, and populated them with quantities of the same key plants. Looking out from the back windows of the house (particularly from above), the effect is of an intricate tapestry, with repeated colours, shapes and heights lessening the hectic effect (A bit. I hope.)
It’s never perfect, I’m always tinkering, moving plants, chopping back thugs, trying to find the delicate little things again – frankly, since they have to be left to their own devices for up to seven weeks during term-time, everything I have planted has to be a blooming good do-er, not taking into account the rabbits, moles, gales and endless buttercup roots not to mention my new enemy, the extravagantly-named Shothole Borer.
So, in summary, if you are in fact up for spending all your holidays doing hard manual labour for 16 hours a day, by all means crack in and buy a wreck in Normandy. Sorry, I really can’t natter any more – I have another 16 flower-borders to weed.
Yes I can confirm that when Elaine and Nigel first showed us around their new acquisition in Normandy we thought they were totally barking.
Just read the body language in the photo below taken in the summer of 2006 as Elaine explains to me how this crumbling edifice can be converted into a romantic getaway.
The neglected and featureless front garden also felt like Mission Impossible without the assistance of, at the very least, a regiment of Gurkhas.
But never underestimate a Growbag and if we fast forward to 2015 you have to say – the girl done good. The real joy of a project such as this is one of scale. Plants that would soon swamp a normal garden here can have free rein. Rosa longicuspis romps up stone walls and architectural giants such as Phytolacca Americana (American pokeweed) feel completely in proportion to its surroundings here. Please also note that an invitation to spend a few days in this rural French idyll is actually an invitation to spend almost every waking hour in the ‘green gym ‘ of the front garden with Elaine weeding, pruning and mulching; there will be prosecco but it has to be earned……
Prosecco was definitely on my mind the few times I visited Elaine at L’Hot – in fact the last time it rendered me prostrate in one of their gargantuan bedrooms while Growbag #1 & 2 set off eagerly to visit Jardin de Plume near Rouen last year. I’m afraid those ‘formal allées, reflective pools and parterres’ will remain forever a mystery to me. As I recall I’d sufficiently rallied by their return (happily at cocktail 0’clock) to appreciate Elaine’s developing planting plan but thankfully not so much that I had to join the digging and delving effort.
Gardening preferences reflect entirely an individual’s style to my mind. In her repeated ‘tapestry’ plants – Stipa Gigantea; Anthemis ‘Sauce Hollandaise’; Hemerocallis ‘Stafford’; Phlomis ‘Russeliana’; Sambucus Nigra ‘Black Lace’ and Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ you can actually see Elaine walking down the street – she wears vibrant colours and feminine textures. Like everyone else she is her garden and her garden is her, including the overgrown nettley areas :0
To be honest I like to think I’ve pulled off this repeat planting lark myself and with NO EFFORT. Now back in Scotland from a quasi ‘hen’ night in Ronnie Scott’s at the weekend, the burst of energy from veg in my deep root planters provides a not dissimilarly ‘layered’ impression – certainly from my late afternoon position on the sun lounger. There are fears the cabbages are having such a fantastic time they won’t develop a heart but that’s life and love right there and unlike Elaine’s manic effort, I’ve managed to create all of this while ordering things from Amazon with the other hand.