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Le Parc du Bois des Moutiers

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This historic landscape park in Varengeville sur mer is a sublime mix of mature plantings and one family's passion.

Le Parc du Bois des Moutiers

Since we spend most weekends in upper Normandy, I know the gardens of this corner of France pretty well. And in spite of some stiff competition, Le Bois des Moutiers is for me the most beautiful in the region. While there are numerous chateau gardens and plant collections in the area, none of them comes close to the sublime, mature beauty of this classic landscape park.

Guillaume Mallet, amateur botanist, keen esthete, and originator of the garden, fell in love with this gently rolling piece of land, forested with majestic pines and falling away abruptly in cliffs to the sea that glimmers blue from the upper regions of the property. He purchased the estate in 1897, and hired the finest fin de siecle British architect, Edward Lutyens, to design the house and grounds. As Lutyens occupied himself only with what we today would call "hardscape," he called on his long-time collaborator Gertrude Jekyll to provide planting plans.

While some of Jekyll's planting plans were installed, it was forty years of the unceasing vision and sheer toil of Guillaume Mallet that created Le Bois des Moutiers around the backbone of Lutyen's house, paths, pergolas, and pavilions. Guillaume's vision and work extended far beyond these original structures, populating the understory of the forest beyond with ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials from all over the world. He sculpted the background of the park with a perfectly balanced mixture of evergreens and deciduous trees. The evergreens provide weight and contrasting, strong forms and textures. The deciduous trees, carefully selected for small leaves, were chosen to cast a light protective shade over the wealth of rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias (see Picture 1 below) sheltering at their feet.

His unceasing efforts were violently interrupted in 1940, when the Nazis occupied the house and even mined the park. Perhaps not surprisingly after this terrible trauma, both Guillaume and his wife died in 1946.

In the years immediately following the war, Guillaume's son Andre and his wife Mary struggled with the decision of what to do with the property: fight to restore it, or--as was the case with so many war-damaged estates--simply abandon the effort. But with the energy and focus characteristic of this family, they didn't dither about long. By 1955 the house was restored and once more ringing with the sounds of Mallet family life.

After years of the entire family and their friends spending every weekend tearing out blackberry brambles, mowing by hand, and weeding, the extensive park was reclaimed and the long and more rewarding work of restoring damaged plantings began. Scores of botanical treasures were unearthed among the weeds, most of which had to be identified by the botanic novices Andre and Mary, and their children Constance, Claire, and Robert. (For an account of Robert's current life love, see Shamrock in a previous edition of this page. Robert also wrote and published a beautiful book, Rebirth of a Park, chronicling the history of his family's restoration of the park.)

After a fruitful period of collaboration with botanist and gardening friends, Andre Mallet died in 1964, several months after a paralyzing stroke. His death again left the family faced with the crisis of how to keep the park cared for. The serendipitous discovery of an antique gold coin in the bottom of a drawer financed the purchase of a tractor, and set this indomitable family on a trajectory toward opening the park to the public in 1970.

Today, it is Claire's son Antoine (pictured above) who is in charge of the park--both its upkeep and evolution. His grandmother Mary still lives in the house on the grounds, and mother Claire, always effortlessly elegant, is omnipresent, whether guiding tours or pruning the wisteria. The family employs only three gardeners to help them maintain the enormous park. How they accomplish this gargantuan task is cause for respect and amazement, for all is weeded, mowed, planted, and pruned.

Antoine has planted pines to replace those lost to time and the terrible wind tempest of December 1999. He dreams of restoring the kitchen garden. Meanwhile, visitors simply revel in the gentle gradient from formal flower beds near the house, planted in gentle Jekyllian palettes (see Picture 2 below), to the majestic park beyond. There you can wander down a sweep of meadow toward the woodland glades that shelter the superb sous-bois (understory) of les Bois des Moutiers.

One of the world's richest palettes of rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias burst into bloom during the long, cool (often cold!) Norman spring, beginning as early as February and continuing into June. The mild maritime climate means that plants flourish and flowers last a long time. You'll see rhododendrons big as mountains, wander through paths laced overhead with boughs of azaleas the size of dogwoods (Picture 3 below).

The walk bottoms out in a bog garden, where in summer, masses of astilbes follow the blooms of Japanese iris, and exotic gunneras (Picture 4 below) tower their giant umbrella leaves over all. Climb back up through a lightly shaded wildflower meadow, wander through a wealth of hydrangeas (the Mallets and the de Belders of Belgian hydrangea fame were long-time friends), and re-emerge near the house to view once again that cool blue elipse of sea framed by billowing hydrangeas.

Le Parc du Bois des Moutiers is a garden for all seasons, a garden whose subtle harmonies never cease to surprise and delight me, no matter how many times I wander its tranquil paths. It is one of the great gardens of the world.

Le Parc du Bois des Moutiers, 76119 Varengeville-sur-Mer, Tel. 02 35 85 10 02 Fax 02 35 85 46 98


Click below for more pictures from this garden:

picture 1

picture 2

picture 3

picture 4

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