“You are nutcases!” “What an insane idea!” “Don’t do it!” Just some of the many comments we received from friends and family when we bought a very dilapidated medieval manor house. Called Manoir Le Hot, it came with a hectare of rough meadowland in the department of Manche, on the beautiful and little-known west coast of Normandy in 2006.
Years of hard graft followed. The house needed a mountain of work and I wanted to create a garden among all the nettles, brambles and trash. But we’ve done it! While my husband could run his business from almost anywhere, I was a teacher in the UK until 2018, so we could only make it out to Normandy in the school holidays. Somehow it was enough. The moment we arrived each time, we pulled on our work-gear and painted, hacked, sawed, dug, mowed, built and planted. And gradually, the comments became a touch kinder.
We made a large gravelled terrace at the back of the house, and then I set about planning a garden beyond it. My idea was a set of parallel borders separated by paths and full of repeated plants, to create the effect of looking across a tapestry when viewed from afar. These would run outwards from a central pergola of roses and other climbers drawing the eye up through the garden from the terrace.
There were plenty of hitches – bits of pergola collapsed in the strong westerly winds, the grass paths became a nightmare to maintain and had to be replaced with paving, couch grass romped through sections of the borders when my back was turned. There were endless difficulties, but of course endless joy when things went right, too. Choosing the plants was the easy part – I’ve been a keen amateur gardener for 45 years, I managed to get the RHS Certificate of Horticulture, and won Daily Mail Gardener of the Year way back in 2002 (heavens knows how – I think the judges stayed at the Grand Hotel down the road and were still tipsy from the night before). My small courtyard garden in Eastbourne on the south UK coast has been open for the National Garden Scheme one weekend every year since then.
The colour scheme for the borders on the right of the pergola was based, rather ridiculously, on a piece of fabric! Lots of orange, egg-yolk yellow, brick red, black and white, with touches of pink and blue. So in went Crocosmia, dark-leaved elder, ‘Hot Chocolate’ roses, Hemerocallis, Helianthus, Anthemis, Argyranthemum. And though the area was large, there is a great money-saving bonus to planting in this repeating style – you buy one perennial and then keep dividing it (or with shrubs, keep taking cuttings) until you’ve got enough to fill the beds. A splendid scheme born of financial necessity under the guise of artistic design!
You may have noticed that all these plants are summer-flowering, and that’s because that is when we are in France. I am so lucky to have the luxury of growing masses of early summer flowers in my UK garden, and then abandoning the whole caboodle and turning my attention to the Normandy garden for at least three months every summer.
I played around with the shapes and colours in the left-hand side borders, and was eventually happy with a mixture of purple, pinks and white – with the odd hot orange thrown in to keep things exciting.
But there was also a lot more ‘garden’ to tackle – a hectare can seem a surprisingly large amount of land when you divide it up! So a circular orchard followed with a metal ‘pavilion’ clad in Virginia creeper at its centre, a long Rosa rugosa hedge for shelter from the wind, a small ‘cottage garden’ surrounded by thick beech hedges, raised veg beds, a mown area of silver birches, lots of ornamental trees, a much-loved summer house, a big greenhouse, a copse of over 130 native trees on the other side of the drive. We were giddy with the fun of it all, whilst stumbling to bed at the end of each day hobbling with exhaustion. We don’t have any help in the garden apart from someone who mows the grass occasionally when we are not there.
The large entrance pond teems with frogs, moorhens and small fish all very busy among the lilies and pondweed, and it largely looks after itself, thank heavens. We don’t have any mains water at the house, only a well, so the pond water (there is a spring at the bottom) comes in very handy during dry summers for watering the toms in the greenhouse and the pots on the terrace. Nothing else in the garden ever gets watered – everything just has to take its chances.
One very surprising April day in 2014, a huge stork made a nest on the telegraph pole near the terrace! He found a mate, and they have raised a family there every year since. They have endless photos taken of them by visitors to the garden. And we now have 4 small grandchildren, so the legends are all clearly true.
There is an association called Cotentin Côté Jardins, a collection of about 30 private gardens which regularly open to the public during the summer, and in 2016 Manoir Le Hot was invited to belong to it, which was exciting. The garden is now open each Saturday afternoon for most of June, July and August. Also in 2016, almost accidentally (!), my two gardening sisters and I began writing a light-hearted weekly gardening blog which has gone from strength to strength. I mention what I’m up to at Le Hot – a lot! I’m so busy that I occasionally think wistfully of the peaceful days when I was in full-time work.
So the madness of buying our crumbling manoir has paid off. It’s our refuge as well as our workplace, and we’ll continue to give our hearts and souls to it for as long as our backs and knees will allow us.
By Elaine Fraser-Gausden at manoirlehot.com