The partnership between Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll ranks as one of the most famous in gardening. He was the architect, she the gardener. He provided the garden layout and designed the structures and spaces, while she filled them in with billowing herbaceous plantings that have become synonymous with the “English garden”. Given their place in British gardening lore, it was a bit ironic that I should see my first example of their work in Normandy, France at the Parc du Bois des Moutiers. And even more surprising that I should be most impressed by the elements provided by Lutyens, who is often a mere footnote to Jekyll in gardening books.
The owner of the property commissioned Lutyens to design his country retreat. Lutyens designed not only the main house, but more importantly all of the outdoor hardscaping, including terraces, paths, level changes, pergolas and walls. It’s easy to see the master’s hand at work here: all the elements flow into one another and into the landscape, seamlessly linking the house to its environment. And despite the detectable English influence in the design, the chosen materials and style seem local, and sit perfectly comfortably in the French countryside.
On one side of the house, the feeling is open and grand. A large, multi-level terrace offers a full view over a large lawn, which descends down into a park-like forest dropping steeply to the coastline and into the sea. The view is all sky and forest, with a small bit of sea poking through between the trees.
On the other side of the house, the ground is level and space is restricted by the small country lane that leads to the property. Fittingly, the feeling here is intimate and enclosed. A walled garden, a pergola-covered walkway and small paths and steps make this side feel like a hidden and private oasis, a complete antithesis to the open lawn on the other side, yet perfectly complementary.
Jekyll provided the planting plans for the property, primarily for the above mentioned enclosed areas. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to know how closely today’s plantings match her original intent. I’m also not sure how she approached the design– did she come and visit the site, check the soil and look at native plants, or was it more formulaic? The soil here is chalky and shallow, perhaps not best suited to her standard palette of perennials. The family has also done a lot of restoration of the property after almost losing it, so again it’s difficult to know how close to the original plan they have stayed.
Some things are perfect, whether designed by Jekyll or the owners: the rose draped pergola and the soft white hydrangeas in containers fit this rural French site as well as anywhere. Other things are a bit disappointing, such as an in-between area on the side of the house, which features an open lawn with no structures and some randomly dotted tree specimens. The park on the sea-side is mainly the work of the owners, and makes for a relaxing walk through native forest intermingled with many cultivated plants, such as Japanese maples and hydrangeas.
Le Parc du Bois des Moutiers is a great place to take in some inspiring lessons about the role of structure in defining and linking the garden and house, or just to enjoy a beautiful setting on the Norman coast.