Back to our old French property, after an absence of two years, to see how my trees are getting on. A tree you’ve planted yourself is always yours, whoever else may be its legal proprietor. I am always happy to take credit – and there was plenty to take in the ranks of pines – pale Scots and dark Corsicans – the fluttering files of poplars and the battalions of young oaks, wonderfully wayward in comparison, mobbed by brambles and wild roses: an impenetrable mass of prosperous native vegetation.
When you set out a new plantation and watch anxiously over its first few years every rabbit is a threat and a deer a disaster. Only fifteen years later do you realize that if one tree in four is spared to make serious growth your wood will be over-crowded.
In all our time in France I never saw a squirrel. Deer, boar, hares, badgers, foxes, martens (and once a wildcat), but no squirrels. This time, to my joy, I saw two red squirrels attacking ‘our’ walnuts. Can they be on the increase in France? At last Europe is waking up to the threat of greys spreading from Italy (where they are proliferating) through Piemonte into the Alps, and through the Alpine beech woods into France.
It is almost twenty years since we found our place in France: at exactly the same time as two Paris architects found an abandoned priory 25 miles away in the Cher and started what is now a famous garden (and enchanting small hotel), Le Prieuré de Notre Dame d’Orsan. (www.prieuredorsan.com).
Orsan today has an air of long establishment. Some of its visitors are convinced that it has always been like this, that it really was monks who planted and shaped the intricate hedges and espaliered apples and pears. We have nothing like this in England, and I wonder whether it has ever been in the English psyche to create a whole landscape on the theme of sustenance.
There is a vineyard in the middle, the vines trained on hurdles copied from the 1471 Augsburg edition of Petrus Crescentius. In the first compartment, surrounded by tunnels of hornbeam, the autumn crops are leeks and cabbages, all perfect, steely blue against the green-brown of the hedges. Beyond the vineyard, which has a simple stone fountain at its heart, are compartments of soft fruit, of roses (sustenance spiritual), of pumpkins in waist-high osier beds and of espaliered pear trees forming a circular maze. The next room has tall apples, the next pears, the next service trees…until finally you come to alleys of perfectly trimmed oaks, an archery ground, and coppiced woodland.
Calm vegetable geometry like this seems timeless. But then so does the forest. Neither takes as long as you think.