The Loire Valley: Enchanted gardens

Thursday, January 16th, 2014 10:00 am by .

The French have gone all “English Country Garden” on us. When it comes to gardens,  the British  have always felt a bit superior to our neighbours with their severe symmetrical hedges, their strict lines and angles. Here, just for once, we got to be  more romantic, more sensual than our French counterparts.  We were the specialists in roses round the door, walled gardens, frothy herbaceous borders, soft sinuous wisteria, and clinging clematis. Not any more. From all around the Loire valley, princesses, countesses and country mayors have been sneaking through the Channel Tunnel to learn about the wonders of an English garden and take that knowledge back to their own gardens where they have mixed it in with huge helpings of French flair and panache. Here’s a brief look at some of the loveliest gardens:

CHÂTEAU D’AINAY LE VIEILainey

Princess Marie Sol’s family have owned her castle at Ainey Le Vieil since 1467.  As I approached it, I had the sense that I’d opened a child’s pop-up book on the page about ‘castles’. With its ramparts and turrets and its French name of “le petit Carcassone”, the castle is small and perfectly formed. It’s surrounded by a moat, with a network of streams, channels and a fishpond that girdle the property. Further out in the gardens, a row of cow sculptures and topiary in the form of what the Princess calls ‘imagined creatures’ combine humour with the romance of the 5 walled gardens, each with a different theme: the sculpted orchard with its paillarded apple and pear trees, the meditation garden and the embroidery garden among them. http://chateau.ainaylevieil.free.fr

 PRIEURE D’ORSAN d'Orsan

A short drive away, the Prieure d’Orsan is a Relais & Chateau in Berry that nestles in a wood. A cuckoo is calling in a nearby woodland just beyond an exuberant wild flower meadow of long grasses, cornflowers and wild orchids. This distant part of the priory grounds  is very different from the formal gardens around the central building. Their design is  inspired by medieval tapestries and illuminations. This former monastery’s 7 elegant guest-rooms have no phones and no tv.  Owner Patrice Taravella presides over dinner. Vegetables come from the ‘potager’ behind the priory. His signature chocolate mousse cake doesn’t but it’s worth it anyway and you can always stroll it off in those gorgeous grounds through a labyrinth of high hornbeam and low box and  past that lavish  vegetable garden. Prieuré d’Orsan – 18170 Maisonnais

 JARDINS DE ROQUELINroquelin

The approach to this house is through fields bordered with poppies and cornflowers. The old brick farmhouse, shop and garden are home to ducks, geese and  some very noisy peacocks. But it’s the roses, the glorious “rose anciennes” that lure visitors in the know to this secret garden in Roquelin.  With names like Cuisse de Nymphe, Guirlande d’Amour and Aimable Amie, the roses climb up the walls of the farmhouse, throng around the lawn and ripple along trellises. When owners describe it affectionately as ‘your grandmother’s garden’, they are not refering to some sad rectangle in Surbiton. www.lesjardinsderoquelin.com

 CHÂTEAU DE CHEVERNYcheverny

Anyone who has read Tintin should stand in front of the Chateau of Cheverny, remove in their imagination, the two outer wings and there you have it: Marlinspike Hall, the home base of Tintin and his pals. In his honour the Chateau of Cheverny runs a permanent and rather fun Tintin interactive exhibition – Tintin’s wardrobe, rooms where chandeliers shake and shudder and all goes dark, video loops of Castafiore – even if the little Belgian boy is a distant childhood memory, it all comes flooding back in this mini-museum in the grounds. www.chateau-cheverny.fr

JARDIN DU PLESSIS SASNIÈRESsamieres

This landscaped park is a labour of love of the owner, Guillaume Henrion, mayor of Sasnières. Nestled around a lake in its own little valley, the garden has a plateau above the 30,000 m2 that adds drama to the glorious setting and from its row of magnolias gives a panoramic view of the series of floral “rooms” below.  There’s a delightful tea-room in the main house. www.jardin-plessis-sasnieres.fr

Getting There:

From London to the Loire Valley,  the train is probably the best option, travelling to Paris and then connecting, with a change of station, on to Tours or Blois. The former Rail Europe now operates as UK. Voyages-SNCF. Car rental is essential.

In addition to the Prieure mentioned above, I highly recommend an utterly magical B&B:

 Le Moulin d’Echoiseau

9kms from the lovely town of Vendôme. This mill on a stream has its own garden of pure enchantment. My favourite, Mimi, room starts at 100Euros. Le Moulin d’Echoiseau,

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