Going sick at the Priory

In the last 20 years, there’s been something like six gardens that I’ve visited in which I’ve come close to losing the plot altogether – that have made me nearly sick with joy – have made me want to set up camp and never, ever leave.

One of those gardens is the Priory at Orsan, France.  Listing all its virtues would be a totally pointless exercise.  You just can’t deconstruct this sort of charm.  Like my earlier post about Isola Bella, on Lake Maggiore, Italy, I’m baffled as to where the magic lies.

But lets tick off a short list of virtues, in order to justify some pics.

OK, there’s the ridiculously romantic buildings around which the garden is set.   Lets get those obviousnesses out of the way.

Then there’s the intriguing design, by the architects who own the joint.  There are actual mazes in the design, but even as a totality it’s labyrinthine.  After two long visits, its layout still eludes me.

There’s the overwhelmingly creative use of sticks to make seats, trellises and various frames throughout the garden, all made with exquisite care, on site.

The attention to detail is like no garden I know.  But it’s more than that.  Attention to detail suggests a micro-focus, but the breadth of attention at every level – the spectrum of attention, from the macros of the design, right down to micros of pebbles, marked with a spiral motif, stacked on almost every vertical pole.  But why is this so deeply satisfying?

The question drew me back to an architectural classic ‘A Pattern language’ (Christopher Alexander et al, Oxford University Press 1977) which explores deeply satisfying details in architecture.  I’d remembered something about a spectrum of detail, so had to hunt down the quote.

The authors say that “our own bodies and the natural surroundings in which we evolved contain a continuous hierarchy of details, ranging all the way from the molecular fine structure to gross features like arms and legs (in our own bodies) and trunks and branches (in our surroundings).”

They then suggest a few mathematic ratios that go a bit far for me, but conclude that “It is this fact which makes in necessary for our surroundings, even when man-made, to display a similar continuum of detail”.

I reckon they’ve nailed it.  And I reckon that’s what is so appealing at Orsan.

But the truth is probably deeper still.  The fact is that no one could be bothered nurturing all that detail if they didn’t love the place madly – if they weren’t willingly investing every bit of passion they have into it’s care.  Surely that’s the real source of the magic.

OK, this post is now over.  You were supposed to finish with that lovely little ‘real source of the magic’.  But I had to add this pic – the most stunningly elegant bit of garden stickery I’ve ever seen.  You may or may not know that most raspberries bear their fruit on canes that grew last year.  From summer onwards, each plant is likely to be a tangle of last year’s canes bearing fruit, and this year’s canes growing up amongst them, which won’t bear until next year.  This frame is made so that this year’s canes are trained up one side of the ‘v’, while last years canes are fruiting on the other side of the ‘v’.  The fruiting occurs on one side this year, and the other side on the next.  How absolutely fabulous is that?


  1. I have to agree with your passion for d’Orsan and thank you for ‘nailing’ it so succinctly.

  2. I am in mourning that I missed this garden when we were in France – and we were so close! But thank you for the picture of the raspberry trellis – I built one today!!

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