Hedging their bets: Anna Pavord visits an immaculate garden in France
The jardin has our correspondent enthralled - if a little frustrated about where she is allowed to tread
If I'd been parachuted, blindfolded, into the grounds of the Manoir d'Eyrignac (an unlikely scenario, I know), I'd be in no doubt that I was in a French garden, rather than an English one. Why is that? There's plenty going on at Eyrignac that you'll find in our grand gardens, too: excellent topiary, long vistas through yew and hornbeam hedges, formal pools, good paving, symmetry.
But the French, I think, are keener on control than we are. The topiary at Eyrignac is never allowed to bulge into the molten forms that you find, for instance, at Powis Castle, near Welshpool. The lines of the hedges are drawn out ruler-straight. The owners of grand French gardens were not so diverted by plant-collecting as we have been, so in this region at least, you don't often find the extraordinary range of trees, shrubs and flowers that we take for granted in England. The herbaceous border isn't a fixture. And, at Eyrignac anyway, the elegant café is streets ahead of anything you'd find over here.
The sense of power in a classic French garden can be intimidating, as it is at Vaux-le-Vicomte, but Eyrignac is a manoir, not a chateau. The house is a comfortable size, the stone a warm, creamy, buff colour. Though it dates from the 17th century, the gardens were mostly remade from the 1960s onwards by Gilles Sermadiras, father of the present owner, who had a stylish and very successful shop, Maison et Jardin, in Paris. The gardens have a chic, self-possessed air (as did the garden made by the famous English decorator, John Fowler, at his home, The Hunting Lodge at Odiham, Hampshire).
But without more recent additions, such as Capucine's gardens, an enchanting small potager and cutting garden laid out behind a cottage to the west of the main house, I would have found it all a little too controlled. Patrick Sermadiras, the present owner, has also created a flowering meadow, dominated by thousands of pink and white cleomes, which in September is an astounding sight. Masses of zinnias – pink, orange and yellow – flower alongside the cleomes in a mix which we'd find hard to do over here. The heat in the Perigord evidently suits these Mexican and South American annuals. The new meadow is laid out below a white garden (mostly roses) and its freedom, its gaiety, its profusion provide a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing order.
I knew nothing about Eyrignac before we got there, following signs from Salignac. The approach is intriguing, winding on a high, narrow road through oak woodland, with views out on to pasture and orchards of walnut. When you arrive, you don't see the house at all, because the garden stands between you and it, dropping in a series of parallel terraces. Each terrace has its own character, but they share a formality of style, laid out in long lines of hedges and topiary. They end at the house and the scrolled beds of its very French parterre.
You approach the garden from the café, down steps which give you views along these terraces towards the house. Unfortunately, you're only allowed to walk along one of them – the least interesting. Sermadiras says this is necessary to protect the grass, which at Eyrignac is as green and lush as an English lawn. With 90,000 visitors a year, I'm sure this is true, but it affects your pleasure of the place. You have to stick to the circuit. Too often, chains are slung between exits and entrances that by instinct you want to take. Too often appears an irritating shoe, very pointed, with a line through it, warning you to stay off the grass. By the end, I wanted to kick it.
Nevertheless, I'm very glad to have seen the place. The second terrace on its own is worth the price of admission. This is lined either side with tall pillars of yew, but is made extraordinary by curling buttresses of hornbeam which stand in blocks behind the pillars, then curve down in a half spiral round them. I've never seen anything like it before. Each "garland", as Sermadiras calls them, is made from 12 hornbeams and,f in this climate, they grow fast – about 80cms a year. Between the end of May and the beginning of September, they are clipped five times. Each session involves eight men clipping for eight days. The formality of the layout, the staggering amount of topiary, demands a high standard of maintenance. In this respect, Eyrignac is outstanding.
Looking along this avenue from the path that comes down from the café, the bulwarks of hornbeam curve towards you. But when you look along the avenue from the opposite end, by the house, you see they still curve towards you. How do they do that, I wondered? And because you can't get into the middle of the terraces, it takes a while to understand how cleverly the switch is made, on a cross vista which takes in the tall stone tower where silkworms once hummed and spun their cocoons. It's a brilliant device.
The designated route takes you over a wide grass terrace towards the house. On the right there's a line of Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Stewartii', the only ugly things in the place, dusted over with dead growth, drooping in a way that might have been charming when they were young, but is no longer supportable. You can half see why they were first chosen: the foliage, a kind of yellow, provides contrast in a garden that is predominantly made of greens, the habit, a tall cone, fits into a scene where topiaried forms of box and yew provide the dominant theme. But, but, but…
But then you forget the horrors for you've arrived in front of the enchanting house in a sandy courtyard that's raked fresh every day. In the corner, facing the house, is a tiny Romanesque chapel, with rather beautiful modern stained-glass in the windows. Steps rise to the French garden, laid out with intricate scrolls of box, but you can't get into it. For a half-decent view, you need to sweep round to the right and make your way to the other end of the parterre. Here you look back down to it through a double line of yews clipped into pyramids. As they come towards you, they gradually get smaller and narrower. It's a trick to make this view, the most important one from the house, seem longer than it really is. But it only works from one direction.
A wider loop out of the courtyard takes you to some gorgeous outbuildings and a series of outlying gardens that are much more lighthearted in tone than the formal core. There's the wonderful potager, the cutting garden romping in September with dahlias and zinnias, a menagerie of topiary animals and the wildly unattainable splendour of the huge flowering meadows. You don't often find yourself in a garden as superbly maintained as Eyrignac. But it would be even better if that control didn't extend quite so tightly to Eyrignac's visitors.
Les Jardins du Manoir d'Eyrignac, 24590 Salignac are open every day. Summer opening hours (until end of Oct) are 10am-7pm. Admission €12; eyrignac.com
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