Les jardins de Brittany

GARDENING British tourists usually pass Roscoff by; but its exotic gardens, one new, one restored, are worth stopping for, says Michael Leapman
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The Independent Culture
In the next few weeks thousands of family cars will stream off the ferry ramp at Roscoff, in northern Brittany. The driver will be concentrating on keeping to the wrong side of the road, the navigator on finding the main route to the southern and western beaches and the children will be squabbling in the back. By the time any of them start to take the slightest interest in the surrounding landscape, they will be purring past fields of waving artichokes and giant cauliflowers, the little fishing port left well behind them.

That would be the first strategic error of the holiday. Roscoff is a delightful town, worth a day or two of anyone's time - especially anyone who enjoys visiting spectacular gardens.

Like Cornwall, the far north-west of France is warmed by the Gulf Stream, taking the worst chills off the winter weather. This means that a wide variety of tender plants seldom seen in northern Europe can be grown here, including many that originate in the southern hemisphere.

Although the Bretons still lag behind the Cornish in turning this climatic quirk into a tourist attraction, today two outstanding and unusual gardens, both open to the public, take advantage of it in contrasting ways. They will come as a revelation to those who think of French gardens in terms of the formalism of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Ten years ago, what is now the Jardin Exotique de Roscoff was a rocky spit of untended land jutting into the bay, part of it used as rubbish tip. That it is now a riot of colour and rampant growth is due principally to the efforts of Daniel Person, the enterprising proprietor of Les Arcades, one of the town's best hotels and restaurants.

Daniel has a lifelong enthusiasm for tropical plants and in the early 1980s he was instrumental in beautifying the local golf course with Mediterranean flowers. In 1986 he persuaded the town council to acquire 5,000 square metres of coastal land dominated by a tall rock, with marvellous views over the bay of Morlaix. His dream was to create a garden to rival the showplaces of the west of England and the French Riviera.

Before a start could be made on serious planting, something had to be done about the wind, which in this region poses more of a threat to plants than frost. Jutting into the water, the site is exposed to stiff sea breezes from three sides, and the rock, though offering some protection, also acts as a buffer, channelling air currents in odd directions. The first priority for Daniel was to plant screens of tall, rugged shrubs to protect the more tender subjects. Australian olearia (daisy bush), the evergreen eleagnus, tamarisk and pittosporum were placed in the most exposed parts of the new garden, and today they act as a decorative protective framework.

In 1987 a local voluntary association was formed to manage the new garden and acquire plants. Within two years it was well enough established to warrant hiring a full-time gardener and in 1990 an extra parcel of land, a few hundred yards away, was acquired for an extension. Here some of the ground was hollowed out to give extra protection to wind sensitive plants.

Two years ago the stretch of land separating the two sections was incorporated into the garden, so that it is now a single plot of 13,000 square metres (three acres), with more than 40,000 plants. A pleasant 20-minute stroll from the port and the town centre, it attracted 35,000 visitors last year. Though it is still under development, Daniel expects many more this summer.

Allow two hours for a thorough visit. As you enter the gate the first impression is of lush and colourful abundance, and that persists as you follow the winding, undulating paths between plantings. At ground level, massive clumps of daisy-like osteospermums, in eye-catching shades, are a continuing theme throughout.

In contrast are the tall and extravagant echiums from the Canary Islands, their fleshy spikes - pink, blue or white - already reaching ten feet high only three years after planting. Among other dramatic highlights are beschorneria, with thick flower stems soaring high above the slender leaves.

South African plants proliferate. Two years ago, Daniel spent five days in the botanical garden at Kirstenbosch, in Cape Province, and returned with about 1,000 seeds and specimens. They include several different kinds of protea, the pink coleonema, leucospermum (like a scarlet-flowering artichoke) and, wedged prettily between the rocks, the brilliant red leucadendron.

The climb up the cliff - the central feature of the original area developed - is steep but not over-strenuous. The reward is a marvellous view over the rest of the garden in one direction, and in the other of the shoreline, with the sea lapping against the rocks. Descending, visitors pass into a delightful grotto. Old ships' propellers and anchors have been installed to provide a suitably nautical framework for plantings of exquisite alpines and smaller flowers and shrubs. A bridge spanning a ravine is hung prettily with scarlet geraniums.

As the walk continues it offers pleasures for all the senses: the white- flowered hakea smells of vanilla, while, turning a corner, you get the unmistakable whiff of an Indian takeaway from the curry plant (helichrysum). There is a section for palm trees and another for cactuses and succulents, with 23 varieties of agave, some of them gigantic and still growing. A water feature, with a pond and waterfall, is currently being added.

The newer plantings still inevitably look a little bare but they will quickly take on a more mature and crowded aspect, due to Daniel's policy - endorsed by head gardener Louis Kerdiles - of allowing plants to self- seed, producing natural-looking clumps all over the garden. Seedlings surplus to requirements are sold at the little shop by the entrance: not so much to make money, says Daniel, but to deter theft, which has been something of a problem. Faced with such a wide and tempting array of unusual plants, the green-fingered can become light-fingered.

The second major public garden in the Roscoff area could hardly be more different. Where the Jardin Exotique is showy and colourful, the Georges Delaselle Garden on the Ile de Batz is a shady and restful, a place for quiet contemplation rather than dazzling visual excitement. In spirit, if not in detail, it resembles Monet's garden at Giverny and is of roughly the same period, celebrating its centenary next year.

Getting there is part of the fun. A passenger ferry from Roscoff harbour runs hourly during the summer and the journey takes only 35 minutes. Most visitors to the small island rent bicycles, but if you just want to see the garden it is only a 15-minute walk from the pier.

In 1897 Georges Delaselle, a wealthy insurance agent and a passionate gardener, bought land on the south-east tip of the island. At that time, very little research had been conducted on the possibilities of growing tender plants on that coast and, affected by the inquisitiveness of the age, he was keen to experiment with the possibilities.

Exposed to strong winds, the land that he bought had no trees and indeed little vegetation of any kind. The first thing he had to do, therefore, was to plant trees all round the site. He chose mainly the Lombardy cypress, which grows tall and fairly fast. Yet when these had begun to mature he recognised that they would still not give complete protection against the wind and salt spray - protection that he needed if he was to raise palm trees and other tender subjects.

So he decided to excavate a large area of the garden to a depth of some 14ft - the example that Daniel Person was to follow on a smaller scale at the Jardin Exotique more than 30 years later. Within this hollow, tender plants can grow, untroubled by the gales that roar overhead.

Paths edged with low stone walls guide visitors through the atmospheric part of Delaselle's garden, a protected oasis of stillness and repose a few yards from where the sea beats remorselessly against the rocks. This area is called the palm grove, because it contains examples of 29 different species of palm, as well as numerous varieties of salvia, fuchsia, hibiscus and agapanthus.

While the grove was being excavated, dolmens marking several Bronze Age tombs were unearthed, showing that there was a settlement here more than 4000 years ago. Many of the stones have now been placed in a grassy area to the right of the main path, close to the garden's entrance.

In 1957, 13 years after Delaselle's death, the property was acquired by an aerospace company, which used it for staff holidays, and the garden was neglected and allowed to become overgrown. By 1987, a thick layer of sand had smothered the paths in the palm grove. That was when a team of enthusiasts began to restore the garden, with the help of the regional authorities. They found examples of only 47 of the hundreds of varieties that Delaselle had originally planted, but nine years later, under the guidance of the young head gardener, Olivier Maillet, there are a total of some 1,300 species - including 40 palms, comprising the largest collection in Brittany.

As in Delaselle's time, the stream once again flows down through rocks to a small round pool within the grove. The rockery and cactus plantation have been restored, in an area well sheltered by the original cypresses. Agaves, aloes and prickly pears do well there. In 1992 a collection of modern sculpture was placed in the garden, creating dramatic vistas across the harbour.

Many of the plants to be seen here are the same as those at the Jardin Exotique in Roscoff but here on the island, you get more of a sense of unity, of a garden designed for quiet enjoyment and reflection rather than to show off the impressive range of unusual plants that will grow in the conditions.

There is one other short visit that gardening enthusiasts should make before they leave Roscoff. A little chapel near the tourist office has been turned into the Maison des Johnnies, a charming museum devoted to the Breton onion men, who for 170 years have been crossing the Channel between July and December and selling strings of onions and garlic in the streets of Britain, usually travelling by bicycle. In some parts they were known as Onion Johnnies. The first recorded Johnny was Henri Olivier, who made the journey in 1828. The trade reached its peak in the 1920s, when there were estimated to be 2,000 onion men and boys - some starting as young as nine - with a highly organised backup structure in Brittany.

The museum contains wonderful old photographs and documents that illustrate the history of the trade, and a rich selection of cuttings from British newspapers that indicate the affection in which the itinerant salesmen were held. When Parliament passed a law in 1945 that would have restricted their activities, a special exemption was made for the onion men.

Today only 12 Johnnies still make the trip across. Traffic in the other direction is booming, though, with thousands of families visiting north- west France to enjoy its beaches and seafood. As its gardens become better- developed and better-known, there is one more good reason for going.

! The Jardin Exotique de Roscoff is open daily, 10am-7pm in summer, 10am-12.30pm and 1.30-5pm out of season. Admission FF20. The Jardin Georges Delaselle, Ile de Batz, is open daily, 2-6pm, from April to November. Admission FF20. Brittany Ferries runs frequent services to Roscoff from Plymouth, and also to St Malo (a two-hour drive from Roscoff) from both Portsmouth and Poole. Phone 0990 143537 for details of timings and prices.

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