There are a lot of formal gardens in France, especially at chateaux, and in the last three months I’ve seen a lot of them! So the prospect of visiting a contemporary garden in an historic town in Perigord Noir captured my imagination. Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire, in the very pretty if ‘business-like’ town of Terrasson, allured me even more because of the involvement of an internationally acclaimed landscape architect – and its website promise of:
“a garden made to inspire dreams”.
Set on a sloping 6 hectare site with views over the township and the Vézère river, there are 13 ‘scenes’ now enlivening an area that was a terraced park. The gently sloping path up to the garden entrance is modern and sleek, at first straight with paving and walls of stone, then curved to an elevated steel walkway. It is in stark contrast to the characterful golden-warm stone used to build almost everything in this region, but a channel of running water and oodles of greenery neutralise this austerity.
Around the curve the overhanging branches ahead are inviting and once there, feel even better, as it’s quite a warm, sunny day. Much of the garden is shaded, and I’m fair-skinned – no wonder I like this place already! Our group of about 10 wait at the closed gates as visiting is by guided tour only, in French. Our guide explains the garden was designed by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson and architect Ian Ritchie. It came about in response to an international competition in the early 1990s when the mayor of Terrasson proposed the challenging idea of a new contemporary garden. His vision was to add culture and tourism to the heart of the town’s development.
I however read this on the English notes provided for non-French speakers, where I also learn the theme of the garden is ‘working with nature, not against it’, and
“the work is organised around six unchanging elements: vegetation, mineral, water, relationship with the wind, perspective and the path”.
There is much more detail about themes, but it is sounding to me like a design submission to get the gig, so I turn my attention to what’s around us and observe the ‘human’ straight lines versus the ‘wavy’ lines of nature, as intended.
Passing through the gates the mood instantly changes. A thick tree canopy and a path bordered on one side by clipped upright straight hedges and on the other by broad rounded clipped buxus carpet the rising slope. The path leads us to an arbour draped in wisteria, hops, jasmine, hydrangea, and chocolate vine (Akebia kinata), which is visible from a way off and beckons you to walk under it. There is no alternative as the journey is controlled to follow one direction, one path, one guide – but I still didn’t think to look for another way. My mind impelled me to walk under the green canopy.
Exit the arbour and glistening suddenly in a ray of sunshine is a long gold ribbon weaving high amongst the tree trunks. It challenges my imagination – my heart skips a beat. I look around to see if anyone else feels this, and see my non-gardening partner trying to photograph the scene in the deeply-dappled light (tricky). He’s clearly quite mesmerised. Is the ribbon ‘helping us out of the ordinary into the world of dreams’? – my reaction feels like that. There’s an aura about this juxtaposition – the might of the tree trunks rising up with a molten-like serpentine ribbon meandering above our heads. Is this a stimulated primeval reaction – ‘snake’!? Our photos really don’t capture the effect. Probably because it is sensory; a place in which each ‘scene’ immerses you in being there and experiencing it. It’s nothing forced; we aren’t told this is possible or likely, it just happens.
Continuing under the tree canopy and up the incline, we drift into the moss garden. “The moss-covered stone terraces are arranged such as vineyard rows would have been before the vines of France were decimated by phylloxera in 1863” (the Perigord region was subsequently planted with walnut trees). The Moss Terrace looks like it has been here for millennia – it seemed we’d chanced upon a secret undiscovered place, belying its tender age (created for the gardens opening in 1997).
Moving along, we follow a gracefully curving path downslope to the water gardens. Imagine voluminous, invigorating fountain jets spurting up from the grassy slope, and a court with water spurts that’s just plain fun! They spray to varying heights and directions, and the cooling mist is tingly. Now we’re out in the full sun, it feels fantastic. The more difficult, but so delightful, thing to describe is the sound. It is quite lyrical. The combination of the sprays, splashes and bursts, and the running water of the channels is playful and simultaneously soothing.
The water theme carries through to the path of fountains where there are five spring-fed cascades, each of which varies in size, slope and flow. It is another multi-sensory encounter, with the water sounding different from one to the next. Quite wonderful! The water ‘reappears’ in the scene of engraved stones, where it seeps from five square slabs etched to show the deltas of the great rivers of the world. The water flow here is a silent, controlled ooze in contrast to the previous gushing cascades, but it has happened imperceptibly as a gentle transition. It rises to a trickle and is channelled away to five more cascades back near the entrance path, and down into the town.
I haven’t detailed every scene, but certainly the ones that affected my senses and stimulated my imagination the most. While castle gardens conjure up fanciful notions of what ‘life at the top’ may have been like in that era, their structure is somehow constraining. Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire offers an experience that frees the mind and encourages it to wander and dream. It is not a traditional garden of colourful flowers or formal parterres, and while I liked it for that, it’s probably outside the ‘norm’ for many foreign visitors. The French probably love it as they are, generalising, quite drawn to unconventional imaginings as exhibited in ‘artistic’ gardens such as at the International Festival at Chaumont-sur-Loire. My partner tells me that for non-botanical people, this place is exciting, photogenic and at least as interesting as chateau gardens. A claimed 40,000 visitors from April to October each year suggests that the gardens really have captured people’s attention – at least enough to visit – and so been a success for those who ‘imagined’ them.
Here are a few more photos of garden details that I liked and thought added to the overall image of the garden.
Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire was classified as ‘Jardins Remarquable’ by the French Ministry for Culture in 2004. It has also been labelled as an important ’20th century heritage site’ by the French Ministry for Culture for its modern architecture displayed in its greenhouse and hard landscaping.
And a little of the magic of Terrasson itself…