Hermione Quihampton is not the name of a fantasy duchess trailing fags-ends and empties as she devastates the garden. La Q is the former wife of a Anglo-French farmer who became very much part of our life at our old house on the fringes of the Auvergne. Picture her tall enough to be called stately, immensely red-haired, loquacious, brusque and funny, upholding the English way of Open Gardens at her billet in very profonde France. Not every French village has a ‘Best Garden Seen From the Road’ competition. I suspect Hermione is behind it; at any rate she is up there among the laureates.
She initially took over from the often absentee gardener (me) at our old place, planting the parterre with every blue flower she could find, the taller the better. By autumn, the box hedges were submerged in a breaking surf of toppling herbs. She baked cakes, made hedgerow jam and, bit by bit, took over vineyard duties from our less-motivated vigneron. The grapes glowed, their leaves perked up and signs of mildew faded when she bore down on them. A year later she had read the wine-making books and started edging me out of the cellar. I think she loved the saccharometer, the tall glass jar with its bobbing float; the fermenting froth was pretty exciting too – and the wine not bad at all.
Her Open Garden attracts the idle and curious, of course, as they do everywhere. In France, though, the second element, the charitable contribution, is sometimes less well received. Hermione tells me of a group of seven who pitched up full of horticultural anticipation, and then read the sign about the children’s charity. ‘I think they hit the cultural buffer,’ she said when they turned back to their car.