Rousham, Oxfordshire, June 2016

My favorite Garden of all time

During our trip to England in June 2016 we spent one day visiting Rousham.  This is a lesser known estate just outside of Oxford.  I first learned about it via the famous Monty Don and a show about it on Youtube. (again, quite extensive research on my part.) I was struck with the elegant simplicity of William Kent’s garden design and wanted to see for myself.  I was not disappointed.  For the true lover of English gardens, this one is absolute perfection.  It mixes expansive green lawns, wooded pathways and various garden “rooms.”

 

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The day we visited was a bit muggy, so sadly my pictures are slightly hazy.  The lawns above overlook the river.  The design is simple and elegant and the differences in the shades of green is remarkable- I think Kent was interested in the contrasting greens as it is very noticeable.

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The wooded pathways lead to small follies, this one being a imitation ruined Roman temple.  (These small shelters can be found in most English gardens- smart given that there is a great deal of rain and it is easy to get caught out in a storm far from the house. Also, it seems they were perfect for assignations as well as picnics.)

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After an ill-fated attempt to reach the river below the folly in which I had my first encounter with Nettles (they are awful and sting like nothing else. Very glad I never had to contend with nasty little plants before) we decided to visit the walled garden adjacent to the house. It was spectacular.  Above is me standing in one of the immaculately maintained box hedges.

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One of the interesting features of this garden were the trained fruit trees- these are trees which are carefully pruned each year so that they grow in a particular shape.

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This garden is full of lovely little pathways with over hanging flowers and small fountains.  One of these even had a tiny walkway for newts to climb in and out. (Sadly I don’t have a picture of this.) The roses were unlike anything I have seen before. The air full of the fragrance.

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Finally, we visited the Dovecote.  This round building was designed to house doves and the interior was filled with small little nooks where doves made their nests.  (As you can see, it is mostly pigeons living there right now.) It added to the overall perfection of the garden.

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Roushham was spectacular.  We were free to wander around the garden uninterrupted for as long as we liked.  It was serene and natural.  The entire place felt calm and far away from everything. This is truly one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited.

Château d’Azay-le-Rideau, France May 2018

Truly a floating palace (almost)

We decided to visit Chateau d’ Azay -le- Rideau on our second day in the Loire Valley. During my extensive research (i.e. looking at wikipedia pages) I saw this chateau and while it looked interesting, I had planned on visiting a different chateau this day.   I have no historical knowledge of d’ Azay-le-Rideau, so I was going in without any frame of reference.  It turned out, that this is by far, one of the true jewels of the Loire Valley.  The weather was perfect, which helped, but I can safely say that even if it had been cold and rainy it would have been well worth it.  The chateau is surrounded by a lovely little village which is very quant and mid-evil feeling.   I was accustomed to English estates, where the stately home is usually some distance from the village (such as Blenheim). The approach to the chateau through the village made it seem so much more accessible and welcoming.

 

This Chateau is surrounded by the Indre River, although it has been channelled and controlled so that it appears to be more like a lake. I have since learned that it was originally constructed on a muddy island which caused no end of challenges for the builders.  It was designed so that the chateau appears to be floating and the reflection on the water magnifies its beauty.

The gardens were lovely and far more like the English style I love and am accustomed to.  There were no bordered flower beds and you do not get the sense that humans are trying to dominate nature you seem to find elsewhere (more on that in another post).

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The interior was equally beautiful and, odd as it is to say given the size and scale of the chateau, comfortable.  The rooms had a nice flow, and while this was never a royal house to my knowledge, it is both as elegant as a palace, yet also felt intimate and cosy.  One of my favorite rooms had rattan wall coverings and charming exposed beam ceilings. It felt very contemporary, which is a perhaps due to the to the popularity of the French chateau style currently.  IMG_8588

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It seems clear to me that this chateau has been an inspiration for architects all over the world seeking to design in the French Renaissance style. This staircase is magnificent.

The one most interesting aspects of d’Azay- le- Rideau is the attic.  It is 2 stories high, with windows on either side, held up by ancient Oak beams which date from the 16th century. (I believe that the original owner was given special permission to cut virgin Oaks for these beams).  Below is a picture of the chimney with a little ladder to climb up it.

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This visit was fantastic. As a fan of Louis XIV, I was pleased to learn that he stayed here once.  I loved this chateau, and have since returning home started to learn more about its history, which is littered with royal connections.  A governess to Louis XIV, Françoise de Souvre, lived here in the late 16th century.

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The drive away from the Chateau into the village.

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My dad, me and my boyfriend, Matt.

Chenonceau, France May 2018

Beautiful Chateau, shaped by powerful women

During my trip to the Loire Valley a few weeks ago, we had the great fortune to spend a day visiting Chenonceau, one of the loveliest architectural masterpieces I have ever seen.  The Chateau was home to some powerful women- Diane de Poitiers, and Catherine De Medici. While the chateau itself is stunning, and the situation is majestic (it spans the river Cher) what made this Chateau so special to me was the relationship between Diane and Catherine.  I had read a book by Leonie Frieda about Catherine DeMedici which gave me some insight into her life and what her marriage with Henri the Second was like.  Fundamental to this relationship was Diane de Poitiers relationship with the king.  Diane was his mistress.  I found it fascinating that this woman, 20 years his senior, could maintain such control over him and command such fascination and amorous desire.  Thinking that she must have been truly beautiful or full of charm, it was eye opening to discover that in reality, she was a cold fish who was generally disliked by everyone.  (The only nice thing that was said about her was that she was a thrifty house keeper.)

At Chenonceau there are two gardens, symbolizing the two women: The Catherine garden, and the Diane garden. They are on opposing sides of the chateau and create totally opposite feelings in the visitor.  the Diane garden, which is much larger, was  stark and austere.  The sun beat down and  there were no trees only copious gravel pathways.  All the plants and flowers were so constrained; it was difficult to get a sense of beauty when walking in it.  Only when seen from above, inside the chateau, does the visitor get a sense of what it actually looks like.  From the ground it felt large, flat and hot. (Below) Perhaps similar to the character of Diane, beautiful, remote, distant and austere.  Like I think Diane would have, this garden left me feeling cold and unwelcome.

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The Catherine garden, by contrast, had an entirely different effect.  It was surrounded by tall trees and woodlands.  the river felt closer, even though both gardens adjacent to it. I was full of wide expanses of grass and lovely little trees and plants.  The lawns were inviting, there were benches in the shade, encouraging people to sit and relax.  While smaller is scale and size, this garden felt like it was naturally part of the landscape.  The feeling is almost maternal, as if you are being taken care of and accepted.  Which, given that Catherine had 10 children, makes sense. IMG_8468

These two very different experiences in the gardens made me wonder if they were a reflection on the  characters of the two women? It seems like it might be so.

The crowning glory of Chenonceau was the grand hall.  This ground floor hall runs the expanse of the river.  It began as a bridge during Diane’s time, but Catherine when she took ownership of the chateau, had it enclosed and turned into this majestic space.  Catherine used this hall to hold a grand party for her son upon his succession to power.  Being there, you can picture the dancing revelry which took place.  (Also of note, the black ans white floors- Diane famously only ever wore black and white clothing for the majority of her life. Could this floor be an homage to her time at Chenonceau?)

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One of the unexpected joys we discovered was the village area next to the chateau which housed, presumably, the workers of the estate. This is a lovely enclosed little community, full of beautiful houses, a duck pond and carriage house.  The houses are surround lovely grassy common area.  It felt cosy and comfortable, as opposed to the grandeur of the chateau itself.  Being there, it was easy to picture what it might have been like when the estate was working- full of chickens, children and people bustling around.  Today the area is immaculately kept with matching buildings crawling with Wisteria bushes.

Finally, the drive up to and away from the Chateau is worth showing.  the elegant tree lined road really illustrates that this is a royal residence. There is no ambiguity of the power of the resident one is visiting. (There is even a guard cat today in residence!)

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“Un Chat de garde!” I believe his/ her name is Noisette. Well worth the visit.

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