The quirkier side of Chaumont

detail from Liberty, Equality, Fraternity 2012

Last week’s post looked at the history of the chateau at Chaumont-sur-Loire, now home to the famous international garden festival. This week’s is going to look at some of the inspirational, if sometimes [ok often] quirky, gardens that have been hosted there over the last twenty years or so that I’ve been going.

your author captured in a garden of distorting mirrors


In keeping with the silly season that seem to affect the press every year this is perhaps not my most serious piece of well-researched garden history, but it does show that gardens can be humorous too!


The photos for this post are my own unless otherwise stated.

But first a little bit of serious stuff.




The original festival ground  lies across a small steep sided and heavily wooded valley  from the chateau itself.  One of the earliest tasks was to convert this from a  dry and uninteresting space into something worthy of serious attention. The result was the Vallon des Brumes – the Valley of Mists.

A reservoir was created at the top, a pump added at the bottom and a water course laid.  Wooden steps, walkways and viewing platforms snake down the sides. So far so good but nothing inspirational. That came in the form of a bit of simple technology.

A mist making machine was installed at the top of the valley and every 10 minutes or so sends out great clouds of vapour which gradually  roll down the valley, enveloping the plants and viewers alike, hiding and then slowly revealing the views again.  It meant that the vegetation, based around plants from Japan and New Zealnd, could revel in permanently moist air and become lush despite the heavy shade.

From there visitors were enticed into the Sentier des Fers Sauvages – literally the footpath of wild iron. Opened in May 1998 this exploited the possibilities of Rebar – the metal bar poles and grills used for reinforcing concrete. We’re used now  to seeing widely used in garden structures but then it was a real eye-opener.

The designer, Jean Lautrey, created bridges, tree-houses, a bouncy walkway, tunnels and structures through the woods and along a long stretch of the valley side, forming an alternative approach to the festival site. Unfortunately sheer pressure of numbers has forced the closure of all of the features that could possibly pose any risk but there are still ideas to be taken away and adapted for gardens at home.

The woodland is also used as a setting for art installations.





Every year there are 25  temporary gardens, all roughly the same size, 200-250m2,  but very varied in terms of locations and settings, all self-contained and hidden by hedging. Some have really difficult sloping sites, others very shady while others have to compete with the view of the chateau or the Loire behind them.


One of the things that can sometimes be disappointing is the patchy quality of the planting in these temporary gardens. Unlike Chelsea, where designers spend a fortune  ordering large quantities of  plant material from specialist growers like Crocus, at Chaumont almost everything seems to be grown on site. Nor is planting always appropriate to the harder landscaping and materials being used. 

Unfortunately that means that since not all designers are  plantspeople  the planting can sometimes seem like a bit of an afterthought, just whatever comes to hand shoved into the ground to fill the space. Gardens can also look very meagre in the early months particularly, and although there is hidden irrigation, can suffer badly during the course of the season despite attempts at maintenance.


Interestingly the temporary planting leading to  the chateau itself is always spectacular, with large numbers of long beds packed with annuals in a taller and very French version of Victorian bedding…





BUT, apart from the patchy standards in the show gardens, one thing that has changed enormously for the better over the years is the quality of  both the planting and plantsmanship in the permanent planting areas. I used to think that French planting and plantsmanship was way behind that of Britain. Now, looking at some [if not all!] of the planting at Chaumont I’m no longer so sure.

Now let’s turn to the temporary gardens. It’s been really difficult to choose just a handful out of the hundreds that I’ve seen, but looking through thousands of my photographs was a very instructive experience.

I recalled gardens that made an immediate impression years ago, but which have since faded from the memory, and I see why. Others I can hardly recall seeing at all.  This is just a random cross-section…

There are many reasonably “conventional” gardens, around whatever the annual theme happens to be, although sometimes the connection seems a bit strained, but most are trying to push the limits in one way or another.



In the early days I photographed everything [and that was long before the idea of writing a blog occurred to me] and so I found one or two complete disasters or things which were so bizarre that one wonders how they ever made it of the drawing board let alone in to the grounds themselves…

How, for example, did this giant birthday cake make it?






Or this red flying saucer?




Perhaps its all down to the French sense of humour…

There was certainly fun being had with this seemingly innocuous garden space in the Year of the Garden at Play,

which clearly appealed to children of all ages.

As did this musical garden space, made from bamboo cut from the overgrown 19thc planting on the banks of the valley…

and this garden caged in with string

How about a real bed of roses?

Or maybe a sick bed?

Or repurposing a sofa?








I remember when it was  in the one of the reception areas but  obviously it got broken during the course of the season so couldn’t be sat on safely.  However the next year it was back in almost the same place but now at out use for slightly different reasons.

Recycling like this is one of the keynotes of Chaumont. Items such as large pieces of stone, timber or metalwork are used year after year in different contexts. But recycling of other materials, albeit in different formats, is also encouraged.







I think what I like most about all these oddities – some clearly intended to be funny others probably not – is the way that they help a visitor rethink or at least look at a garden in a different way.

Some designers take this refocussing very seriously…

One way is, of course to frame the scene…




even if the view is a little surprising…


Another way is to challenge the senses…

How many birch trees are there? Pretty obvious in the photo, but entering this space really did cause a gasp of surprise…

Are these chairs and the  greenhouse really floating in the middle of  a pond  ?

Well no … they’re standing on the bottom. The water is merely a few centimetres deep but dyed black to give a false impression pf depth…

and which way up do tree roots grow?


Another way of challenging the  senses is by planting vertically.

Patrick Blanc in front of the original vertical wall, 1994


Chaumont has one of the earliest examples by Patrick Blanc, which is still going strong although it seems to have taken on a life of its own…

and a few years ago commissioned a second for the stable yard.

And if you don’t go up you can easily go down.

In this example a sunken area was exploited in a  very simple but effective way. Steps led down into a mini-tunnel and then onto a platform where the visitor  instead of looking down at plants viewed them at ground level.


 It gives a totally diffrent impression of how a garden and its planting can be perceived. Of course the planting could be more interesting but the principle is adapatable as is the height of the fencing

And it needn’t be a look over the fence. Why not look through … you never know what you might see…                                      or as the designers put it:

A solemn descent towards the centre of the garden, through a dark corridor, followed by a sudden access to light, directly in harmony with the sky. Here, the “body and soul” concept is taken to the extreme, in a sober and purified creation.

Instead of trampling on the garden, you go into it completely, …Above our heads, it blossoms, dense and vigorous, it overflows, abounds with disturbing plants.  Coming to curl up at its centre, we find we are alone, nose in the air or amongst wild grasses, fully immersed, in the scents of plants.  It involves creating a “bubble” where you can change your point of view and look: the plant we would have trampled on from our full height becomes an extraordinary object of contemplation. In this microscopic observatory, you bend over, examine, touch, and let yourself be completely imbued with the magic of the place.

There was a lot more in the same vein but let’s move on !


and of course gardens don’t have to be on the ground or even on a wall.

What was clever about this design was that some of the overhead panels were planted, while others were mirrors and reflected the garden below, and because of the different angles and the movement of the panels in the wind the scene was constantly changing.

Mirrors and reflections, sometimes “normal” and sometimes distorting are regular features at Chaumont, and always cause interesting effects…




Here’s a garden that managed to change even though nothing but the observer moved. At first sight I wondered what made a theatre of pots of grasses or cacti that interesting. But on walking past it clicked… .


Look at the pots. Each one was painted in 3 colours – red blue and yellow and carefully arranged so that from some angles all appeared to be just a single colour … but take a few steps and the pots changed colour…

and in the process almost appear to have moved, even though, of course,  they didn’t…. unlike this one…





Here the point is clearly not the the planting. Instead, the designer Agnes Charvet said she wanted to modify the way we looked at the “rigorous French garden, squared, pruned, edged, controleld, clear and concise” She did that by “pushing the plan” and its planting “off balance by 20 degrees. …A bit of confusion and our perception becomes chaotic. The complexity and obvious disorder which may seem random are in gact the carefully thought out manipulation of spatial organization etc etc

As you’ll have gathered  I’m a great enthusaist for the principles behind Chaumont, and indeed a great fan of many of the gardens but there are also some things whch are hard to deal with. The biggest of these is the “philosphical”  approach that many of the garden designers take.  Its a very French thing.  But then all French children study philosophy at school and so are perhaps more used to it than we  intellectually challenged Brits.   Every garden has an explanatory notice  explaining the principles behind the design.  The extract from Agnes Charvet isn’t too bad [unlike the rather pretentious one I quoted earlier] but too often I lose the plot in trying to understand or even follow the intentions.

By way of example…

Garden called Igloolik ultima

Here’s a simple example: a simple hemispherical plant display stand, with dozens and dozens of identical green pots of sage. It’s big enough to walk inside and although you wouldn’t want it as your entire garden  if you had time/space/energy it would  make a great feature, and the idea could be picked up and adapted for a collector of a particular kind of plant etc.   But the first paragraph of rationale is : “Phantasmagoric places where our relationship with the world is shaken up, the polar regions and their indigenous people will be faced with the threat of a major climatic disruption. Igloolik ultima is an ontological metaphor where what “woman, man & shaman” will become is incarnated in a garden through the experience of the senses.”

And don’t think it’s only the French who indulge in such luxuries of language. This garden was designed by Chrles Jencks…

and his description begins ” Can war be a garden theme?

Agamemnon’s Curse, Charles Jencks, 2004



Agamemnon had to take revenge, fight back, wage war. This interactive water garden leads the visitor to witness and take part in this scourge of nature and culture. They can play war, using catapults, water guns and waterfalls. Canals of different colours drain the water from the hilltop

A waterwheel with off-centre paddles creates a movement that is calm  and harmonious, and yet disorderly and agitated at the same time. Then the water returns to the top of the tank and the cycle starts over. In the background giant rhubarb grows in different stages of development  This destructive creation can produce rebirth and beauty which comes as some consolation to the curse of war.”

Enough enough and more than enough!

So… finally  lets have something fun…

probably my favourite installation of all….

The blue visitors who seem to be enjoying themselves running across the whole site  in 2007


and if you haven’t had enough quirkiness by now and want to see even more, then photos of all the gardens for the last 10 years have been archived by Chaumont.







About The Gardens Trust

Email - Website -
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The quirkier side of Chaumont

  1. cboot says:

    Brilliant, saves me the journey — but seriously I must go back.

  2. Pat Webster says:

    I’ve been to Chaumont only once, so I found this retrospective quite wonderful. The blue runners are fabulous! do you know what kind of wood they are?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.