French fancy: Anna Pavord discovers a 19th-century garden near the Dordogne where box rules supreme

My brother has a farm in the Causse de Gramat, the high, wild, rocky country just north of the glorious Cele valley, south of the less interesting Dordogne. He's spent his working life as a vet, a horse doctor, but has always had a good eye for making gardens. He has the necessary practical skills too, which is much rarer. He can repair and build dry stone walls. He knows how to shift vast rocks with the forklift on his Massey Ferguson tractor and how to use the scrub-basher to rid his pastures of the prickly, low-growing juniper that had grown there unchecked for decades, swamping everything under its dour, prickly advance.

His little fields now are like medieval tapestries, stitched all over with wild flowers. The soil is very thin, the ground exceptionally stony, and the underlying rock fast-draining limestone. Though it must have been hellish ground to earn a living from, it provides the most perfect conditions for wild flowers. Grass scarcely exists. Instead you look over sheets of papery flowered white cinquefoil, thyme, acid-yellow spurge, a beautiful deep-blue veronica, pompoms of sheep's-bit scabious and thousands of orchids, never in clumps, but scattered singly everywhere: lady orchids, burnt- tip orchids, early purple orchids and in the shade of scrub oaks, the extraordinary folded purple asparagus-like spikes of violet helleborines. They were all there, waiting underground for the day when they would be liberated from the crushing prison of the juniper.

It's a potent dream, the flowery mead. For us it's a kind of idealised world, the way we think it looked before we spoilt it all. It's a luxury of course. Managing the fields for the benefit of wild flowers would not have been an option for any French farmer of the past, trying to feed a family from the fruit of his labours. But wandering around those complex, interknit pastures, I realised yet again how impossible it is to do this sort of thing on the kind of ground that most gardeners have. Our land is almost always too rich. You can't impoverish soil in the course of one generation. Rather than trying to garden with wildflowers (which usually means fighting a constant war against nettle, dock and other bullies), perhaps we should be grateful for our good land, use it to grow good food and spend the money and energy that we pour into wildflower gardening in fighting for and protecting the real thing instead.

Being so high and stony, many of the little farms in the Causse de Gramat are like my brother's, full of flowers. The verges along the lanes are the same. We drove through webs of empty lanes, the grass either side studded with orchids. When we'd overdosed on flowers, we went over to Marqueyssac, 9km west of Sarlat, to visit a garden that's almost entirely without them.

Marqueyssac overlooks the Dordogne, one of a whole clutch of grand, battlemented houses here that glare at each other from their respective peaks. In terms of situation, it is by far the most extraordinary, because it sits on a long, thin promontory of land that drops steeply to cliffs on both sides. In the middle of the 19th century it was owned by Julien de Cervel, a man in love with Italy and here, perched above the Dordogne river, he planted a garden as close to his Italian dream as he could manage. The ground is poor and stony, the terrain bizarre in its dimensions, but the result, more than 150 years on, is spectacular.

Marqueyssac is an almost entirely green garden, planted mainly with box under tall thin cypresses and umbrella pines. On the cooler northern slope of this strange peninsula are stands of lime and hornbeam. When de Cervel first planted his allées and parterres of box in 1861, they would have been laid out formally, geometrically. But then the garden was abandoned and by the time Kleber Rossillon took it on, 10 years ago, the box had had anarchic ideas of its own about what it wanted to do and how it wanted to grow.

In the parterres close to the house, rounded hummocks of the stuff look like dough rising: lopsided, smoothly interlocking organic shapes, bulging over the edges of the hedges that once contained them. Occasional mad box trees rise up from the molten mass, clipped like French poodles with bobbles on the end of each branch. Down below (the cliff drops 130 metres) is the glittering river and the rich, flat arable land that is the river's gift to those lucky enough to farm it.

The chateau at Marqueyssac, with its astonishing roof sweeping almost vertical (the stone tiles weigh more than 500 tons) sits at one end of the promontory. Three long paths, each different in character, lead to the belvedere 800 metres away at the other end. It's clever having three paths. If there were just two, you'd effectively do the same circuit each time. As it is, you are given constant choices, with sets of steps twitching through the undergrowth to connect one route with another.

Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac, 24220 Vezac, Dordogne are open daily (10am-7pm). During July and August there are special openings every Thursday until midnight when the garden is lit by candles. Admission 7.20€. For more information call 0033 5 53 31 36 36 or go to the website, marqueyssac.com

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Trainer / IT Trainer

£30 to £32k : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Trainer / IT Trainer to join an a...

Recruitment Genius: Fence Installer - Commercial

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This privately owned Fencing Co...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £22,000

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you answer yes, this company...

Recruitment Genius: Project / Account Manager and IT Support

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leader in Online Pro...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'