When we moved to France we had no intention of becoming part of an Ex-Pat community: my parents live amongst Brits in Spain and we were not looking for a life remotely like theirs. On the other hand, when you live abroad you do seem to gravitate towards your own kinsmen and while this area of central France has nothing like the density of English found in areas like the Dordogne, where English language newspapers, English shops and “tea like Mother makes” are common, we do have several English friends.
Community spirit is high amongst ex-pats and last week we found ourselves rallying around a friend who, having successfully advertised a property in the Financial Times promptly took ill and retired to the emergency ward of a hospital in Manchester. His clients were coming for viewings from Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Paris and the UK so we spent a week collecting them from airports and railway stations, providing food and accommodation, showing them around the property and the region and sending them away rejoicing. I only hope our friend recovers and we have been successful in selling the house for him. Time will tell on both counts and we are glad to be able to move back down a gear or two and live again at the pace to which we have become accustomed.
Of course, there are local excitements too. Only last weekend we had the Poulaine Donkey Festival, an annual event attracting competitors from all over the region. Next week promises to be special too, with eight teams coming for a boules championship and I gather the circus will be in town once they clear the square of the boules. International competitions for rifles, pistols and crossbows are all coming soon, ensuring Chantal’s B&B will do brisk business leading into the summer season. Events such as these are however less common than in the autumn, because spring makes such high demands on people’s time. In spite of low produce selling prices and the general flight from the countryside, this is still a very agrarian country and life moves with the seasons.
Garden and flower festivals are part of the seasonal experience and we are hoping to be attending a local event at the Chateau de Bouges, south of Valençay. Further afield Fêtes des Plantes beckon from Saint-Jean de Beauregard, Courson, Chaumont, La Ferté St. Aubin and other attractive venues around the country. We are also beginning to receive invitations to prevue gardens and gardening spectacles such as the opening of the new plant house at the Natural History Museum in Paris and the Claude Monet garden in Giverny. For the second year in a row, there will be no time for Chelsea.
Shortly we have students coming over from the UK for one of our Design your own Garden weeks. These courses are a lot of fun for us and always include visits to local gardens and to the International Garden Festival at Chaumont sur Loire. We have been going to this show for many years and has become our “must see” event. It consists of more than twenty gardens designed to a set theme and allowed to remain in place for the whole growing season. This year’s festival is the 18th and chooses as its theme “Body and Soul Gardens”. It will look at gardens as a source of restfulness, peace and serenity, but also as the place that gives life to plants that care for the body. Horticultural therapy, phytotherapy and hedonistic therapy will all be touched upon in a show whose Chairman of the 2010 Jury is a neurologist and biologist who also writes on ethics, art and philosophy. When the French do this sort of thing, they do it so well.
Spring has been delightful this year. The weather has been warm enough to eat in the garden on most days since late March, but it is not so warm that the season passes too quickly. Highlights of pink Apricot and Peach blossom were soon followed by huge drifts of foamy-white flowers from the Cherry orchards. After a slight pause these were joined by Pears and Apples until the whole village seemed covered in flower. Scented Lilacs burst open simultaneously on April 17th and by the following Monday most of the Wisterias were showing colour and adding to the perfume from Viburnum bodnatense, which had been flowering for a few weeks, providing another dimension to evening walks in the park by the river Cher.
Our garden has been responding very nicely too. Our White Garden continues to delight as it matures and is already providing colour for most of the year. Every plant has been a joy but we were particularly delighted by the Magnolia stellata, bought from the Waste Not, Want Not nursery next to the Robin Hood pub in Rabley Heath in Hertfordshire. This charity assists people recovering from stress and mental illness and is dedicated to recycling horticulture materials and plants. I gather they are to be seen at Chelsea Flower Show this year.
I love having a little tale to tell about every plant and as you continue down the re-shaped border from the White to the Oriental Garden, there are a number of plants which have made the journey from France to England and back again in their short lives. A number of plants and sculptures have been reclaimed from our English gardens, both from our old home and from the gardens at work, while others have been given to us or bought since we have been in France.
We continue to be invited to design gardens, increasingly in France but also back in the UK. A recent two page article in a magazine aimed at Francophiles concentrated on our gardening courses and horticultural teaching but resulted in several contracts with English settlers in this country.
My next design trip is to Toulouse and to the Dordogne, with two very different gardens to consider.