Art, Architecture and Wine Making: a winning combination

While looking for somewhere to visit when staying in Aix-en-Provence, France, we came across the nearby Chateau La Coste. The vinyard, owned by Irishman Paddy McKillen, is a wonderful collaboration of art, architecture, a natural landscape, olive groves and vines. The shaded elegant minimalist entrance provided a brief respite from the summer heat before driving between the rows of vines to the hidden car park.

Tadao Ando - Gate 1

Gateway to Chateau La Coste

Access to the visitors’ centre is via a concrete staircase to the upper level with glass corridors allowing views to the infinity pool, the gardens and the countryside beyond.

Tadao Ando - visitor centre 11

View across the infinity pool at the visitor centre to the hills beyond

Louise Bourgeois

Louise Bourgeois – Crouching Spider


Tadao Ando – visitor centre

Artists Richard Serra, Andy Goldsworthy, Hirosho Sugimoto, Louise Bourgeois and Paul Matisse have been commissioned to design sculptural pieces for the site, while architect Tadao Ando is responsible for the main buildings, with a performance area designed by Frank Ghery.

Frank Ghery music pavilion 1

Frank Ghery – music pavilion

The installations are all integrated into the landscape and can be discovered by following a walk around the estate with the aid of a map. Some of the artworks are still being worked on, as can be seen by the bridge builder, and many more are planned for the future.

Bridges under construction 7

The artist at work: building a bridge from slate by hand

Sean Scully

Sean Scully – Wall of light

Origami bench

Tadao Ando – Origami bench


Tunga – Portals

Andy Goldsworthy

Andy Goldsworthy – Stone on Wood

Tadao Ando

Tadao Ando – chapel

Liam Gillick

Liam Gillick – Multiplied Resistance Screened seen between the trees

Tadao Ando

Tadao Ando – Four Cubes to Contemplate Our Environment

Paul Matisse

Paul Matisse – Meditation Bell

Michael Stipe

Michael Stipe – Foxes

Grape vines

View across the grape vines

Stone bench

Bench in the sun

Landscape view

Landscape view

Tom Shannon

Tom Shannon – Drop

Alexander Calder

Alexander Calder – Small Crinkly

Tadao Ando - infinity pool at the visitor centre

Infinity pool above the parking area at the visitor centre

At the end of the walk we cooled off in the shade of the restaurant next to the shallow infinity pool.  A wonderful lunch of locally sourced ingredients and a cooling glass of rosé from the vinyard refreshed the spirits before setting off into the heat haze to drive back to the hotel.

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A brief trip through the history of time: the evolution of garden design part 2

At last the follow-up to a blog I originally wrote in October 2010 for those of you who are interested in discovering the changing face of garden design. I mentioned Le Notre’s work in Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. His innovation was to move away from the idea of the house being the iconic status symbol as an indicator wealth and importance, towards the view that the grounds would do the job better, especially if they were heroic rather than domestic.


His death coincided with the change to a more liberal society. Scientific enquiry and social mobility meant prosperity for certain sections of society. As trade grew and countries were discovered and colonised, so did the exchange of products, plants and seeds. Gardens began to evolve away from the medieval standard of enclosed boxes, and as they grew in size and the boundaries receded, the former popular raised terraces were no longer necessary to provide views into the garden.

Wealthy aristocrats had the means to travel abroad and make collections, and built classical style gardens which would reflect their interest and show off their cultural knowledge. In England the Enclosure Acts, which resulted in the familiar pattern of hedgerows and fields of today, benefitted the rich at the expense of the poor. It was the age of power politics. Increased industrialisation soon encouraged the migration from the land, resulting in an urban sprawl which would soon encroach unimpeded upon the countryside. Better roads and vehicles started to make it possible to travel for pleasure rather than just for necessity.

By the mid-eighteenth century the straight line was replaced by irregularity, as man became more aware of his environment, whether urban or rural, natural or man-made, and moved towards a new more natural romantic look. It was an expression of nostalgia coupled with an appreciation of nature for its own sake and a new-found sense of space.

The ha-ha at Stowe

The ha-ha, a device which had been developed the previous century, enabled ‘nature’ to appear as part of the garden while keeping animals away from the house, was used at Stowe by Charles Bridgeman, a man of intellectual pretentions. He directed walks to views of open countryside, sweeping away the existing parterres and replacing them with lakes while moving the walled kitchen gardens out of sight. It became the most talked about garden of the day.

This new natural style was seen as representing a new ideal, symbolic of humanist and liberal principles according to various literary figures, such as Alexander Pope (who famously referred to ‘the Genius of the Place’). He was responsible for ‘grottomania’ which gripped the makers of picturesque gardens.

Serpentine rill at Rousham Park

Gardens developed in two different directions following the philosophy of Bridegman on the one hand,and William Kent on the other. Having been on the Grand Tour, Kent was influenced by the style of the painters of the day, setting the house in a series of pastoral scenes as painted by artists like Claude Lorrain or Poussin. As a painter he knew about the effects of perspective and chiaroscuro, and he applied these techniques to bring light, depth and shade to the garden. At Rousham Park the different shades of green of this idyllic classical landscape can still be seen today.

Orpheus and Euridice by Poussin

Romantic folly at Painshill Park

Painshill was Charles Hamilton’s view of a natural and picturesque landscape with serpentine walks round a lake, classical scenes and a rustic hermitage in a gloomy wood. He had unusual taste for the time, and planted many rhododendrons and azaleas, anticipating the nineteenth century fashion for exotics. His gardens influenced the banker Henry Hoare who planned Stourhead as a romantic circuit of temples based on thoughts of Homer, Virgil and Ovid.

Idyllic view of the gardens at Stourhead

Stowe influenced Capability Brown who worked there as a boy, but he went much further than Kent, working on a grander and  more heroic scale. Whereas Kent was more of an artist, a man of culture lacking horticultural experience, Brown had a gardener’s practical knowledge, enabling him to handle expanses of water and planting trees by the thousand.

Palladian bridge half submerged by Brown's new lake

Although his landscapes seemed simple, they were very expensive. He thought nothing of moving whole villages or levelling hills to reveal a view of the river, as at Chatsworth. A Brownian landscape was extremely tidy with shorn lawns and clean-cut river banks with sheep replacing flowerbeds. Despite his influence, however, many people still took their inspiration from the pictorial and literary principles of an earlier generation.

Humphrey Repton, another artist famous for his sketches showing the view before and how he envisaged it after improvement (famously contained in his ‘red books’), continued in the same vein, often modifying Brown’s work. He re-introduced the idea of terraces and planting near the house. He was extremely practical, introducing gravel paths in place of grass walks making it possible for ladies (with their long skirts) and children to walk in the garden and yet keep clean. He wrote many books and was responsible for the revival of interest in topiary.

Repton's sketch of the original garden 'before'

Repton - sketch showing suggested changes

Supporters of this picturesque movement believed that no artificial elements (temples, columns, statues, rustic cottages) should be allowed to interrupt the natural landscape. Fields, woods, streams and hills were now considered beautiful in their own right, and good for the soul. Primitive innocence was considered important, rather than shared cultural knowledge.

By the end of the century approximately 50% of the English countryside (bog, heath and scrub) had been reclaimed and many parks and gardens laid out. However the land-owning and educated classes continued to set standards of taste in all art forms, including gardening, until the end of the century. Better farming methods meant increased productivity and thus prosperity. Gardens were a way of reflecting this but these new landowners had no intellectual pretensions. Gardening became very popular among ordinary people and many books were written. There was even a monthly magazine, The Practical Husbandman and Planter. The topic also cropped up in contemporary novels by authors like Jane Austen.

I hope this has been interesting, and next time I will cover the Victorian era together with carpet bedding, concrete and tarmac and all things colourful and manmade.

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The rain in Spain may stay mainly on the plain, but the rain in France was definitely in Burgundy

Torrential rain in La Charolle

For our summer visit to France this year we visited Burgundy and the Loire Valley – very nice for wines. We caught the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo. It was so calm I kept waking up thinking we had parked in the Channel. The weather followed us from England – it was overcast and drizzly, with rolling mist in the evenings making it tricky to drive, and then one day of torrential rain. French farmers were all overjoyed – it seems they have had an uncommonly hot early spring and a long period without rain, and  desperately needed it.

We dropped in for a so-called ‘English Tea Party’ and found ourselves stepping back in time. English waitresses with white lacy aprons and starched hats made from paper doilies delivered pots of tea to bemused French visitors. Fairy cakes and small perfectly formed cucumber sandwiches (white bread with no crusts and cut into quarters) were served while the musical entertainment was provided by English morris dancers.

French visitors taking pictures of the morris dancers

French visitors enjoying a cup of tea while the English maitre d' directs the staff

Traditional box parterre at Villandry

Potager at Villandry

There are about 23 chateaux in the Loire valley, but we visited just two on the River Cher, being as much culture as certain members of the party were willing to tolerate as we were only spending four days in the area.

Villandry, famous for its potager where the vegetables are so perfect – although I have to say they looked slightly less than their best this year, probably because of their recent change over to an organic regime of pest control. The bright blue of the Perovskia set against the vivid emerald green of the box hedges provided a real splash of almost surreal colour. Then Chenonceux for its formal gardens on huge raised islands in the middle of the river. The chateau had magnificent rooms with nice architectural details. Sadly I noticed that the horse chestnut trees over there are as badly affected by the horse chestnut tree leaf miner as over here – so no playing conkers for French school children either.

Beautiful patterned wooden floor

Amazing glazing pattern

Horse chestnut leaves badly affected by leaf miner

Gaura lindheimeri

Everywhere we went Gaura lindheimeri was flavour of the month.

Finally we stayed at Fontevraud l’Abbaye, home of the famous Royal Abbey, one of the largest monastic complexes in Europe. Founded in the 12th century it was clearly very forward thinking as it was mixed order with both monks and nuns, ruled over by 36 abbesses, but perhaps there was a rule of silence! It was closely linked to the Plantagenet family, including Richard the Lionheart, King of England.

Decorative metal mahole cover

Simple paved mahole cover

It was turned into a prison by Napoleon 1st after the Revolution, and was used for holding German prisoners of war, where many not sent off to concentration camps were tortured. Fench author Jean Genet (Le Miracle de la Rose) was famously imprisoned there as a youngter for being a vagabond.

It had many different gardens: an apothecary’s garden with healing herbs and plants that would have been used for clothing and food in medieval times; various small plots outside the different buildings; a hillside area with a spiral marked out using grasses; and what I can only describe as a walking rollercoaster which was labelled as a sculpture – is that what we would call an installation?

The 'sculpture'

Part of the Abbey gardens

Not far from here we visited a vineyard in nearby St Nicholas de Bourgeuil where they only cultivate one grape variety, Cabernet Franc, producing red and rosé wines. Unlike many other wine growing areas, there is not much difference in the soil so variations in the taste are purely through using grapes which have been grown in sunnier or shadier places. Usually the wine is stored and matured on site underground in a cellar which is called a ‘cave’ in French, but this vineyard stored their wine out among the vines in a series of underground tunnels created by quarrying the local stone for the nearby chateaux.

Entrance to the wine 'cave'

Cars entering the underground tunnel

Life below the vines where the roots do not extend miles under the ground

Lampshade made from empty wine bottles showing the effects of fungal growth

Previously used for mushroom farming, there are plenty of spores in the damp air so the vineyard owners have to clean all surfaces every three weeks to avoid any risk of contaminating the wine.

Vines as far as the eye can see

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The trials and tribulations of a show garden

Well it may not be Chelsea, but there were plenty of things to go awry. Initially I was asked if I could adjust my design to fit a different site, and then the dimensions changed once Jacksons started installing the acoustic fencing around the whole display area. Next it was found that there was reinforced concrete under the whole site, and the only space to put a tree was in the top right corner where they had broken up the concrete, so the design was flipped to reflect this fact. After doing the planting plan, the design was flipped back again as the wall forming part of the water feature had already been built off-site to the original specification.

Paradise Garden - Phase 1 in which the concrete mixer takes pride of place

On my first visit, I was expecting to see the bare bones of the garden, instead of which I was greeted by a heap of compacted soil with a concrete mixer in the middle as the contractors were using the site as access for building the two other show gardens and revamping the four from last year. I planned a return visit the following week to begin the planting only to discover that the designated nursery wasn’t going to be able to deliver the plants on time. Just as well really, as the garden was still in its infancy and I would only have been in the way of the contractors.

As the nursery was supplying plants for the Chelsea Flower Show, there were a number of varieties which were no longer available, so I had fun visiting local nurseries and garden centres to choose the missing plants. With a carload of plants and rising excitement, I drove down to Kent to see how things were getting on, but on my arrival I was still unable to start as there had been a hitch with the fence and the contractors were still installing it. So bright and early the following day I arrived to start setting out the plants, only to find the fencing was still being installed, and that the posts on the deck were much too tall.

Paradise Garden - Phase 2 in which the posts are too tall and the water feature needs connecting up

I had persuaded some gardening friends to come and help, and on their arrival we started planting the areas in the middle of the plot. As the day went on we managed to plant most of the plants. It was quite tricky as due to the reinforced concrete below, the garden had been raised by about 18″ with pure top soil, which would have been brilliant but for the fact it was ultra dry and compacted, and preparing the planted areas meant breaking up hard lumps, and then finding the sides of the holes would collapse, just like digging on the beach before the tide comes in.

We finished off the following morning, but as yet there was no sign of the water specialists arriving to connect up the water feature, so I left not knowing whether the water feature was going to work or not. There was to be no planting behind the wall as originally envisaged as the water feature required a large holding tank which was to be placed there instead, but we managed to screen the area with tall bamboos.

In the event the water feature was finally working at 5.30pm the evening before the launch, so the first time I saw it working was when I arrived for Jacksons’ Open Day.

Paradise Garden - Phase 3 in which it all came right on the night

The weather was spectacularly hot and sunny, and the show gardens were officially opened at midday by Joe Swift, garden designer and television presenter. I returned home that evening, relieved that everything had gone well, despite getting horribly sunburnt.

Show organiser Louise Tomlin (left) and Joe Swift (right)

Working water feature with planting

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Jacksons Show Garden Design Competition

I am over the moon as I am one of three winners of this year’s Jacksons Show Garden Design Competition – watch this link for further details: I will be taking lots of pictures during the build, so watch this space!

Acacia dealbata, often known as Mimosa

The garden is entitled A Paradise Garden and it reflects back to the Persian or Islamic Paradise Gardens of the past. Their underlying geometric principles of composition, proportion and rythm within an enclosed and intimate space gave them a sense of order, while the mathematical relationship between harmony of colour and music which are responsible for our own intuitive pleasure make them feel refreshing, soothing, and spiritual.

Hemerocallis Golden Chimes

Modern day Paradise Gardens feature uncluttered clean geometric lines, flowing water, simple colours, restrained planting and an aura of tranquillity with form and function in perfect balance, providing the peace and calm so lacking in everyday life. Designers who use these principles include Luis Barragan, Fernando Caruncho, Edwin Lutyens, Geoffrey Jellicoe, Russell Page, Gilles Clement, Christopher Bradley-Hole, Kathryn Gustafson and Helen Dillon.

Echinops bannaticus Blue Globe

So this garden has been designed to offer a tranquil escape from  hectic everyday life into a private space offering peace and serenity. The journey takes you across water to a raised terrace where you can relax and enjoy the sounds of the water as it trickles across the stained glass ‘water paintings’ into the rill and then falls softly into the sunken pool. Sitting on the edge of the raised deck you can wriggle your toes in the soft sand while watching the hypnotic movement of the cobblestones and reflecting on the harmony of colour, shapes, sights and sounds surrounding you.

Perspective drawing for the Paradise Garden

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Winter interest in the garden

Even on the bleakest winter’s day scented winter flowering shrubs can brighten up your garden and gladden your heart. Evergreen shrubs give a garden a sense of structure, especially when silhouetted in snow or by a heavy frost, while variegated leaves can often appear to glow in the rays of the weak sun, showing up well against a dark background. Plant shrubs with fragrant flowers where you will benefit from their presence, perhaps along a path or close to an outside door.

The soil in your garden will determine which shrubs can be grown easily, for example Hamamelis and Pieris can only be grown on acidic soils. My own garden is heavily alkaline, with a mixture of clay, chalk and flint which can prove to be problematic at times. The following are some of the shrubs which seem to do well here despite their environment.

Euonymus fortunei Silver Queen

Euonymus fortunei Emerald 'n' Gold

Euonymus fortunei Silver Queen
The creamy white variegation has a wonderfully wintery appearance. It can be kept clipped to produce a more formal bush, or allowed to go its own way. It is very tolerant of different situations and soils and can be used as a climber if planted against a wall or near a tree. For golden variegation tinged bronzy pink by cold, try the smaller growing Euonymus fortunei Emerald ‘n’ Gold.

Chimonanthus praecox

Chimonanthus praecox
This is commonly known as wintersweet and is an alternative to Hamamelis for those gardening on alkaline soil. It is very slow growing and takes seems to take several years before it decides to bloom. Its yellow flowers appear on bare branches at this time of year, but I would have to describe their scent as extremely subtle: you need to press your nose up against the flower and really breathe in deeply to appreciate the scent.

Sarcococca hookeriana

Sarcococca hookeriana var. digyna
Usually known as Christmas box, this plant originates from Asia and is a member of the box family. It is a useful but quite slow growing plant which can be used in the toughest situations and is particularly good in shade. It will eventually grow up to about a metre in height, with clump forming suckering stems. It has elegant pointed small green leaves, and at this time of year has sweetly scented white flowers tinged with pink. Later in the year black berries appear. Other varieties include Sarcococca confusa, Sarcococca ruscifolia and Sarcococca humilis.

Ilex aquifolium Ferox Argentea

Ilex aquifolium Ferox Argentea
Otherwise known as the silver hedgehog holly, this is too prickly for picking, so not suitable for making wreaths or other Christmas decorations, but the creamy white variegation can brighten up a dull spot in the garden. It is a male holly so won’t produce any berries. Technically speaking most hollies are dioecious which means you need both a male and a female to produce any fruit, the berries being produced on the female plant.

Elaeagnus pungens Maculata

Elaeagnus pungens Maculata
A fast growing useful evergreen shrub extremely tolerant of all situations. It is another plant with small insignificant white and supposedly scented flowers over the winter,  sometimes with sharp spines hidden along the branches. As with all variegated shrubs, you need to keep an eye out for any reversion back to plain green, and cut it out straight away. I love it for being easy to grow, easy to prune, and in particular because it looks as if someone has come along with a paint brush and marked all the leaves in beautiful watercolours.

Lonicera x purpusii Winter Beauty

Lonicera fragrantissima
The shrubby honeysuckle on the other hand can be smelled from quite a distance away and can be used as cut flowers indoors, but I find it always seems a bit of a tangled mess of brittle looking stems in winter, and unfortunately it is very dull in the summer when other plants are needed to perk it up. It might be worth trying a small clematis through it for colour later in the year though.

Pittosporum tenuifolium Garnetii

Pittosporum tenuifolium Garnetii
A plant originating from New Zealand and usually described as half-hardy, it seems to manage even in the coldest winters, like the present one, although perhaps I have been lucky. It has small light green leaves with an irregular white margin, which become tinged with pink during the winter, later followed by tiny insignificant flowers and berries. It is useful for making Christmas decorations and wreaths as it takes a while before it gets floppy.

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A month in Chamonix? Now that can’t be bad …

Arriving in Chamonix in the French Alps used to be a confusing affair. You crossed over a bridge and railway lines, arriving at a small roundabout with people stepping out into the road all over the place. The signposts used to be poor, and you couldn’t see anything much other than some tired looking dwarf pine trees and lots of carparks beyond. Then suddenly it was given a makeover, and is now a delight to visit. The car park was resited underground, and instead there is a wide open space which can be used for markets, as a meeting area and for concerts. The materials used were mostly local, with granite and stone predominating, and a limited palette of greens were used for the street furniture: lamposts, bollards, rubbish bins and signposts.

The elegant new roundabout brings calm to the main entrance to Chamonix with its planting of silver birches in gravel and lamp posts in differing shades of green

A view across the new square with changes in the ground pattern indicating routes of passage

Sitting spaces were created for people to relax in, and performance areas designated by walls built in local stone. Steps were carefully designed to take account of the change in ground level, and the planting was kept very simple, mainly silver birch with white painted stakes.

There are plenty of places to sit and enjoy the ambience of the new sqaure

Local materials are used in the paving, steps and wall details

Steps and railings have been carefully designed to accommodate the change in level

The planting of birches enhances the buildings in the background

A raised bed faced with local stone continues the birch theme along the edge of the square


Altogether the impression one gets is of a calm, attractive and organised town centre with a strong sense of the underlying design.

View of the new intersection from above

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