On the way to the abbey
Is it a record year for roses? It certainly seemed that way on our drive through northern France last month. One of our stops was at Fontevraud, the Benedictine abbey where our King Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (and their son Richard Coeur de Lion) are buried. Fontevraud lies just south of the Loire near Chinon, and is still one of the biggest religious precincts in Europe; 36 acres within the walls. You arrive at the main gates along a straight street, lined with cottages, every one of which was hidden by its climbing roses. Reciting the names – of the ones we knew – made the walk through their sweet aura into a poetry recital. From then, on roses, climbing or sprawling or standing to attention, were the theme of our journey. At the Cotswold-perfect village of Apremont on the river Allier they festoon every house. At our old farmhouse, the great grey-leaved single white rose from La Mortola, that famous Mediterranean garden, is overwhelming the ancient barn and Ghislaine de Féligonde is smothering the little farmhouse.
At home it’s the same story. ‘Mad Alf’ cascades from the sycamore. Iceberg climbs one wall, Bantry Bay another, and our neighbours’ red and white roses soar high above our mutual wall, far out of reach. The patient little ‘monthly’ rose (never out of flower, even in winter, at least in folklore) modestly proffers its handful of blooms. There is nothing modest about the rampant Alister Stella Gray and his crop of custard-coloured flowers. I’m almost sorry the hydrangeas start up at the same time, in a competition they’ll never win. But there is still clematis to look forward to, agapanthus are in bud, our potato tree, Solanum laciniatum from Tasmania, scatters its purple flowers on the greenhouse roof and the giant scarlet fuchsia from Brazil is making up its mind whether to flower this year or not.