Book review: The Road to Le Tholonet: A French Garden Journey by Monty Don

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SINCE Monty Don returned to Gardeners’ World in 2011, it’s been the only television programme all sensible people take care, in season, never to miss. He is simply the most likeable of all presenters – even without the assistance of his adorable retriever, Nigel.

The Road to Le Tholonet: A French Garden Journey

by Monty Don

Simon & Schuster, 304pp, £20

Moreover, filming most of his contributions in his own garden at Long Meadow in Herefordshire gives the whole show a rootedness and authenticity it sorely lacked in the two years when it was presented by Toby Buckland and favoured idiotic makeovers against the clock.

His travels abroad in Monty Don’s Italian Gardens and Monty Don’s French Gardens, while highly enjoyable armchair tours of places you may never see for yourself, were a bit less satisfying, since he necessarily appeared in them as a short-term visitor – you might even say a tourist – rather than as a hands-on gardener. But The Road to Le Tholonet turns out to be much more than a book of the series (as such it is pretty dimly illustrated, in fact) – it’s a fully written, almost confessional memoir about his own experiences of travelling in France and learning to appreciate the special qualities of French culture in every way, as well as through the medium that means most to him, gardens.

The book is engaging, informative and often surprisingly critical, not to say grumpy. It’s also remarkably partial geographically – heading down through Paris to Provence, he misses out on the whole of South-West France. His loss.

He explains at the outset that, as well as simple pride in being French, there are two important aspects of the French character expressed through their gardens. “The first is the inherent and learnt respect for, and adherence to, prescribed form … The essentials of rhythm, balance, geometric symmetry and harmony are still seen as the starting points for any garden design and not just because they make for beautiful gardens but also because they are in harmony with the essential ingredients of an ordered culture and society.” They never just fling it together and hope for the best, as some of us do over here.

The second is that French gardens issue from a love of intellectual debate and conceptualising, whereas British gardening is much more about tending plants yourself. France remained an agrarian and peasant-based society for much longer than Britain and as a result actual gardening is still often seen as rather a lowly activity – “working the soil, even in a garden, was something that people who could not better themselves did”.

What strikes any visitor to France looking around ordinary gardens and streets is how much more highly artificiality and the imposition of man-made order are valued there, even at the humblest level. Trees are ruthlessly pruned, shrubs geometrically positioned and relentlessly topiarised, plants selected for looking unmistakably cultivated. The brighter the flowers, the better — there’s little call for native species or wild abundance when showing nature who’s boss.

However, Monty Don’s business here is not so much that common gardening culture as the great set-pieces. So he visits Versailles, the Palais Royal and the Tuileries, Vaux-le-Vicomte (“the masterpiece that defines French formal gardening”), Villandry, Malmaison and Chenonceau. To these he adds curiosities such as the Hermès roof garden above the shop in rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré and Le Château du Gros Chesnay, where the vegetables served in the luxurious Parisian restaurant L’Arpège are grown, as well as influential modern gardens such as the formally designed but meadow-planted Le Jardin Plume in Normandy and Nicole de Vésian’s minimalist gem, La Louve, in Provence.

Always his response is personal, the tone nostalgic, prone to disappointment as well as appreciation. He first went to Provence in 1973 when he was 18 and returned a year later for a longer stay, and then kept coming back. Thus, he explains, he enjoyed the decades in which travel became cheaper and easier but before such accessibility had “sowed the seeds of much destruction” in the form of mass tourism. Throughout the book, he grumbles about the contemporary degradations he encounters en route – terrible meals, capsule hotels and badly dressed, red-faced British people in Bergerac airport. He does not seem to enjoy displacement much any more; he is feeling his age.

Yet this very sense of vulnerability to change also informs his responses to the gardens he visits, and his sensitivity to the way they are all in one way or another an attempt at recapturing enchantment, at returning to Eden, while being necessarily transient creations themselves. It is what makes his writing here so much more valuable than any mere travelogue.