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Enchanted French Garden

by Kel Gleeson
Yellow flowers, Kaikoura Range
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I first heard of Wwoofing years ago and had always wanted to try it. While in Australia, and before heading further afield, Dan and I phoned Wwoof Australia and subscribed to their international host list. When the list arrived in the mail it felt like a world of possibilities had opened to us.

We arrived in France before beginning to organise a place to Wwoof. The first task was to plot all the Wwoofing places of interest to us in France, on a map. Having done this, we began phoning. The first few attempts proved unsuccessful, for a variety of reasons; no room, hosts going on holidays, etc. We did, however, have success when we phoned the Chateau Ben Enault, situated near a town called

Carentan in Normandy.

The property had been in existence, in various forms, since at least 1409, and has a diverse and interesting history, including tales of death and survival from World War II.

We arrived at the Carentan train station on a Sunday might and were picked up by Jan, the chateau general manager. After a five minute drive, we arrived at a huge old manor type house. Our accommodation was in a converted barn attached to the Chateau. We shared this with Lucy and Richard, the gardeners, their two year old Maizey, and the chateau cook, Emma.

Later we also met Spencer (the housekeeper) and marketing manager Andrew, who along with Jan had separate accommodation downstairs. After introductions and a chat, we handed our details to Jan and were given a quick run-down on what Wwoofers can expect at Ben Enault.

Work started at 9am the next day. As we’d arrived near dark the night before, we still had no idea what

the gardens were like. We certainly weren’t disappointed. A few metres from the back door, you encounter the "enchanted garden", a maze of paths, caves and gardens set on various levels. A waterway, crossed by bridges, runs through the middle. Beyond this is a grassed area with polytunnel and chook house (the chooks run free during the day along with a peacock), and then the vege garden.

Throughout the rest of the property there are numerous treasures to explore. These include an island with an old laboratory built for a doctor of medicine who once lived on the property. This can only be reached by boat.

Most of the established garden can be attributed to one member of a family which owned the property over eight generations between 1717 and 1903. In the 1800s he set about developing his dream garden - a project which lasted over 40 years and employed more than 200 workmen. The enchanted garden housed many rare and exotic plants and must have been stunning in its day. Unfortunately, later owners of the property sold off many of these exotic plants.

Lucy and Richard began working the gardens of Ben Enault around last September. Their aim is to restore the extensive garden to nearer its original glory, as well as establish a large vegetable garden using organic techniques. This will supply the chateau, which is now run as a retreat centre. The size of the gardens make this aim unmanageable for two part-time workers but means there is plenty for Wwoofers to do.

In the week we’ve been here, we’ve lent our hand to numerous tasks including onion planting, clearing bracken, seed sowing and weeding. Dan has enjoyed making a shelf out of the numerous bits and pieces to be found around the property, and Lucy and I created a stumpery.

In between the work, the discussion often centred around the hows and whys of organic gardening, plants in general, and what has or has not worked for each of us.

After spending the previous three weeks or so traveling from place to place, it was good to stay in one spot for over a week and get out of the cities and into the garden. Our six hour days began at 9am, with a lunch break from 12-1pm, then we’d work on until 4pm. Over the week the cooking and cleaning was shared between the five of us living in the upstairs flat. While there you have the use of a tennis court and bicycles which you can take advantage of on your two free days per week.

Our time at Ben Enault was varied and rewarding and all who live there were friendly and helpful. Good food and good company. What could be better?




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