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Le Jardin Botanique du Château de Vauville

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Take a voyage around the Southern Hemisphere in this exciting garden in the Manche.

Le Jardin Botanique du Château de Vauville

Hidden away in one of France's last "undiscovered" regions, the Botanic Garden of the Château of Vauville is in fact one of the country's very finest gardens. While most botanic gardens are less than exciting, for the simple reason that they reflect a committee effort, the Vauville garden reflects the passion of a single couple: Guillaume Pellerin and his wife Cléophée de Turkheim.

And while all botanic gardens are by definition, collections, the garden at Vauville manages to also be a superb landscape garden, thanks to Guillaume Pellerin's architectural eye. A trained and practicing architect, Pellerin has managed to bring a truly wild collection of plants, almost all hailing from the Southern hemisphere, into a harmonious and breathtaking landscape garden.

Located not 300 yards from the Atlantic ocean, south of Cherbourg in Lower Normandy, the Vauville garden comprises almost exclusively evergreen plants of a subtropical nature. It is thus a garden of exuberant forms, textures, and natural structure, making the most of the inherent forms of the terrain. Pellerin has capitalized on an old irrigation stream to create what appears to be a deceptively large flow of water throughout the garden.

He has also taken deft advantage of the mild and moderate microclimate of the region, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, yet chilled by constant winds. Pellerin has moderated the effect of the winds by planting windbreaks of diverse eucalyptus and bamboo, then profited from their protection by planting more delicate plants in their lee. Each windbreak planting creates a garden "room" of different character, adding to the sense of suspense and discovery as you wander. The garden abounds in escallonias, trachycarpus, cordylines, Lambert cypress, and hundreds of other exotic species collected by Pellerin.

Pellerin's plant collection is known and respected world-wide, and he regularly trades plant material with other botanic institutions. "Only an impassioned amateur," as he says (having had no botanical training), he nevertheless manages to propagate many of the species in his garden in a small, decidedly low-tech greenhouse dating from the early years of the garden, which was begun in 1947 by Pellerin's parents.

For those visitors who may feel disoriented by this exuberant garden's relative lack of flowers, there are incidental and more traditional flowery vistas, enjoyed all the more because the senses are not dulled by a surfeit of color everywhere. Pockets of surprising color harmonies (as in this combination of centranthus and geranium, right) and contrasts are especially striking framed by the dramatic tapestry of foliage and plant forms.

All this botanical exuberance forms a stupendous backdrop for what is one of the most exquisite châteaux that I have ever seen. While the donjon (round tower) dates from 1163, the remainder of the current structure was built from the end of the 17th and into the beginning of the 18th centuries. It is not overwhelmingly huge, compared to the major chateaux of the Loire, for example, a fact which for me adds to its charm, as does the fact that it has been in the Pellerin family for over 100 years.

Built with handsome local gray sandstone walls 3 feet thick and a richly textured schist roof, the château is an exquisite example of the maison fortes, or fortified houses, of the Cotentin region of Lower Normandy. Even its windows, inserted abnormally high off the ground, bear witness to its resistance to attack. And the apex of its roof is ornamented with the traditional ceramic tiles and epis de faîtage (roof ornament) of the locality.

If all this isn't sufficient to pique your interest, add to the picture the fact that Guillaume Pellerin has what is probably the world's largest collection of tools, with more than 10,000 pieces dating from Roman times all the way into the early 20th century. As Pellerin says, history is the sum of man and his tools. And he has multiple exemplars of every tool imaginable, from the most delicate lady's flower secateur to the Roman shovel he is holding in his hands to the picturesque grapevine planting tool (the wooden "Y") before him.

Unfortunately, no museum yet exists to house this wonderful patrimony of humankind. Pellerin has drawn architectural plans for a magnificent underground museum facing the oceanfront on his own property. While he has received promises of partial funding from local government, he must match this funding from another source in order to make the museum reality. Let's hope he finds his funder.

Meanwhile, you can look for the magnificent book on his collection, which amazingly is available in English as well as in French. In French it is called Outils de Jardin (Garden Tools), and it is authored by Pellerin with Suzanne Slesin, Stafford Cliff, and Daniel Rozensztroch, published by Abbeville Press (Editions Abbeville, in French). It is a bible of French gardening.

Le Jardin Botanique du Chateau de Vauville, 50440 Beaumont-Hague (20 km west of Cherbourg), tel. 02 33 52 71 41


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