By Susie Mesure
In a commune near Toulouse, there is a small corner that is forever Kent. A British couple, inspired by the celebrated gardens of Sissinghurst Castle, have transformed the sprawling grounds of a 19th-century manor house in the Tarn region. The property is in a hamlet of eight buildings near Rabastens, a town on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.
“We had a blank canvas; the garden was a big empty space,” says owner Alison, who prefers not to disclose her surname. She and her husband bought the four-bedroom property in 1996. The couple are selling to spend more time with their grandchildren in England and the house and extensive grounds, which include a 3-acre wood, are on the market for €1.4mn.
“We decided, through the influence of Sissinghurst, to divide the land into garden rooms to try and make it more manageable,” adds Alison. Vita Sackville-West, the novelist and poet renowned for her garden designs, created different areas, or “rooms”, with seasonal planting to bring year-round interest to her garden at Sissinghurst, which is now a National Trust property.
The first challenge was to bring the soil back to life by digging in 7 tonnes of manure each year until the worms returned. “There was no bird song back then but now we have nightingales in the spring, and the gardens are full of blackbirds,” says Alison. The couple divided up the 5 acres of gardens with hedges of yew and hornbeam. “They [the hedges] are very tough, don’t need water and provide shade, which is proving to be our most valuable asset: the last two summers have been quite brutal. It’s not just the heat but the drought.”
Alison propagates plants from seeds in her Hartley Botanic greenhouse, which was erected by a team from the UK and sits in the garden surrounded by stone walls and hedges. All the herbs in the garden started life here. “I was inspired by Jekka McVicar, the queen of herbs. I planted six different beds, lined with box hedges, which I brought over from my old garden in Kent.”
Another area, the so-called river garden, has “thousands upon thousands” of bulbs, providing first a river of bluebells, then one of iris reticulata, and, finally, a stream of delicate muscari. The north sloping field is devoted to wild flowers. At the bottom, it is flanked by a row of firmiana simplex trees grown from seeds bought from a botanical garden near Shanghai in 2012. “They are excruciatingly slow growers but I have 12 trees, about 5ft tall.”
Church field, which is next to the hamlet’s old church, has a row of about 40 Iranian white mulberry trees, grown from seedlings bought at a market in Isfahan (the couple have travelled the world, living in China and Iran). The north field includes an orchard with fruit tree varieties including apricots, cherry and mirabelles. At the west side of the property, there is an area with a barbecue pit with views over the countryside — on a clear day, the distant Pyrenees are visible. “When the sun goes down, the whole sky goes red,” says Alison. She also enjoys the views northwards of the Grésigne forest, Europe’s biggest forest of sessile oak.
The house, which was extensively renovated in 2012, features a stone fireplace and flagstone flooring in the living room. There is a climatised wine cave with space for 2,000 bottles, while outside, the heated 12 x 6-metre saltwater swimming pool is surrounded by 15 mature olive trees. There is also a large garage, a workshop, a potting shed and a dovecote.
Photography: Knight Frank