Utter originality, you would think, is a tall order in the world of gardening. Influences are all around us: we copy, we refine borrowed ideas – everything comes round again.
Not so at Orsan. The Prieuré de Notre Dame pretends to be in the monastic style of six centuries ago. It certainly evokes in shapes and symbols a strict and devotional mood. No priory or abbey, though, ever had a garden like it. It came from the imaginations and the drawing board of two Parisian architects to transform a tranquil valley in the almost abandoned centre of France – and to lodge in my mind as a piece of perfection to emulate and aspire to.
The architects, Patrice Taravella and Sonia Lesot, found and bought the one-time priory in the same year, 1991, as we found our French property, 30 miles away. It was an off-shoot of the great Benedictine Abbey of Fontevraud by the Loire to the north. Its setting would have suited the Cistercians: buried deep in wild country, among woods and stream, like Tintern or Citeaux or Rievaux.
There was no church left, and certainly no garden: just a three-sided court of dignified stone buildings open to a shallow pastoral valley, a stream and high woods. The architects’ minds, though, immediately parcelled it into a grid of strict formality. ‘Every designer’, says our friend Tara, ‘must start with un trame’ – a word that means a weaver’s pattern, suggests underlying order, and in this case is a set of squares imposed on the country like monastic discipline on unformed novices.
We have almost forgotten what pleasure lies in discipline, regularity and repetition. It is so far from the fashions of our times. What we forget,
perhaps, is that a pattern preordained, predictable and precisely applied feels
like a straitjacket only until it is accepted. Once it seems normal it has the opposite effect: it solves all problems and leaves the imagination free to wander. The hedge-walled cloisters of Orsan can become a gardener’s spiritual home.
Symbolism is important, too. You enter through a garden of simples: healing herbs in beds like a pharmacist’s stockroom. Windows in high hornbeam hedges reveal an inner courtyard where only beans and wheat grow, in strict-ruled rows; then another where the one crop is grapes, from vines trained on chestnut trellis copied from a Book of Hours. The Hornbeam walks dividing and linking the spaces are cut with rigid precision, then ornamented with roses, also precisely trained in elaborate figures. No shoot but is tied in, often to a chestnut trellis that soars up above a hedge or describes some whimsical figure to break the pattern. Whimsy plays the role here that it does in illuminated manuscripts: the gardening monk is allowed his little jokes. One is a potager that turns out to be a maze, another a wicker orchard chair far too big to sit in.
At the crossing point in the centre of these green enclosures stands the fountain. Not a glittering display of the beauty of water, though; just a sober pedestal with four pipes dribbling barely enough to wet the stone. The subliminal message is that water is precious, scarce and to be carefully conserved.
We stayed at Orsan, in the modern hotel Tara has installed (and where he is chef for his own produce) in the priory buildings. Walking at night and waking in these decorous surroundings is a kind of cure. There could scarcely be a garden so different from my pragmatic and unruly domain. Yet coming home I felt revitalised by its real, intense, marshalled and directed forces.