I shouldn’t have come here really. I had no intention of walking this far. Haven’t got a clue how I’m going to get back home before dark, either. But isn’t this picture-postcard cottage worth the long trek and so much more? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place as quaint and welcoming as this one. The faded red brick, the white paintwork, the upper windows twinkling in the sunset. The bottom two windows seem to be hugging the front door, while those climbing flowers embrace them all.
What do they call those flowers? Not roses, obviously. I do know those. But I’ve never been very good with more complicated plant names. Aren’t they just the most gorgeous shade of lilac? And don’t they fill the whole earth with the scent of early summer and the promise of things to come?
I can’t wait.
I measure out three steps to one side of the gate, three to the other. Counting calms me down, gives me something to do. I remind myself to stand tall. I have to slow down, keep my distance, remember to breathe. I close my eyes and try to take in all the sounds, the warmth, the aroma of this perfect evening.
After killing off countless plants and pulling out tender shoots instead of weeds, I have to admit that I am not the world’s most gifted gardener. In fact, I probably have black thumbs instead of green fingers. But that does not stop me from admiring other people’s gardens and over the Easter weekend we had the good fortune to discover a most amazing Secret Garden. It is tucked away in a small village called Vaulx, not far from Annecy in Haute Savoie.
The garden is not only a profusion of colour, scents, sounds and shapes, but also a labour of love. And like all the best gardens, it also has a story behind it: the story of an affectionate, hard-working and profoundly creative family. Alain and Nicole Moumen were trained in psychology and education, but in 1980 they opted for a simpler life in the countryside. They bought a dilapidated farmhouse on a large piece of land, moved in there with their three daughters (then aged 11, 12 and 14) and started their own furniture-making and painting business.
They didn’t know anything about gardening, so they taught themselves over the years. Some knowledge was gleaned out of books, some through experimentation. Every member of the family (even the grandchildren nowadays) contributed to some aspect of the garden, which was only intended for personal enjoyment. Their originality shows in every corner of the gardens: this is a treasure chest of carpentry, metalwork, sculpture, mosaic, as well as planting. Alain even created his own material, a sort of clay which can be easily moulded into any shape and which he has used extensively for the fountains and walls. Meanwhile, Nicole is great at recycling, giving new life to reclaimed objects.
It’s a garden that would make traditional/professional gardeners groan, as it breaks all the rules, but it is a fantastic, quirky place full of secret nooks and crannies, that takes forever to explore and is a delight for children of all ages.
In 1994 Alain was persuaded by his furniture-buying clients to open the gardens to the public, but he has continued adding to the gardens every year. And the family is still very much involved in the whole process, with only two additional gardeners to help them. In the summer months, there are concerts and refreshments in the main courtyard, and Alain is often to be found preparing doughnuts for visitors. [My kids pronounced them to be absolutely delicious, incidentally!]
Nicole wrote a book about their experience, entitled “Secret Gardens, Life Secrets” and she says: ‘We thought we were making a garden, but in fact the garden made us.’ We were captivated by the charm and variety of the gardens, but even more so by the courage, originality and good humour of this family. I will definitely be back!
This was a 5 minute writing exercise that I was set in a writing group, based on a photo prompt. I’ve been unable to find this picture again, so you will have to take my word for it: it was a beautiful black-and-white photograph of a Cuban woman in white traditional dress, smoking a cigar, looking out of the window. She is flashing an insolent smile straight at the camera. Some makeshift flowerpots are teetering precariously on her windowsill.
The thyme is doing well this year. Grown all over, in a hurry like a virgin about to be married, all ready to jump into the nearest pot. Majoram, now that was a tricky one, hasn’t sprung the smallest green shoot. Rowdy waste of time. But who said aloe vera would never make it in a tin? Just bore’em and stuff’em, I always say. Look at it now: it’s tall, it’s spiky, it sucks up my smoke like a greedy suitor.
Speaking of suitors, it’s nearly time for him to pass by again for the day. He can’t keep away. He thinks he’s so irresistable in his shuffling walk-by, with his fancy hat, his spit-polished shoes, his thin moustache. I’m sure he can dance and gaze into my eyes for days. All he needs is a little feeding, watering, to grow into the man he could become. Do me proud, like my plants, every day.
This time there will be a pause in his shuffle. This time he will look up. And learn to linger.
It seems that no sooner have I finished with one bunch of administrative tasks that I have been putting off for weeks, then it’s time for the next lot to arrive. I would also like someone to tell me why they always arrive in bunches, like grapes, rather than in single digestible fruits?
However, I still managed to find time to stop and smell the flowers.
The cherry tree in our garden is nearly done with its blossoms, but my favourite flowers are out now:
Yes, lilacs. I love them in all shapes, colours and forms. Although I do have a preference for white lilac.
There is something about their scent that no synthetic perfume can capture. I could set up tent under their canopy for two weeks every year.
And perhaps that is the reason for their magic and attraction: their transcience. Like camellias or cherry blossoms, blink (or go away on holiday) and you miss them!
So enjoy them while you can. In spite of the rain and clouds.
Writing can wait. No, I don’t mean that! But admin tasks perhaps…
Here’s a last one, for luck.
I’ve found my dream location for thinking about writing as well. Now, if that swing were surrounded by lilac bushes, you know where you could find me for the next couple of weeks!