A garden on the theme of war – what would it look like and how would it feel to be in it? It’s not often that a garden poses questions before you’ve even seen it and I have been keen to visit Séricourt, in the Pas de Calais region of France, for some time now. Like many gardens Séricourt has its set pieces, photogenic compositions which always deliver the goods to the professional photographer, and these have become its trademark. The sombre themes of ranked soldiers, bomb craters and gueule cassée (soldiers in WWI whose faces were terribly disfigured), make striking images and good copy – but there’s more to this garden than death.
Séricourt is an ambitious garden made on eleven acres, framed by glorious mixed, deciduous wooded hills. Not far from the town of Arras, it is a region that owner, Yves Gosse de Gore, describes as a terre martyre, a land which has been marked by periods of intense suffering, from the battle of nearby Agincourt, to the bloodshed of both world wars. Gosse de Gore began work here in 1983; originally as a way of showcasing his plant nursery and landscape design business. His love of horticulture was a starting point but, he says, he also wanted to tell a story, to give his plants a voice, to express the things this land has seen in its history.
You get a warm welcome on arrival in an attractive shop, tea-room and adjacent plant nursery. You’re given a plan and told to follow the numbers on a set route through the twenty-nine different atmospheric areas. It’s quite good fun discovering the way and the first gardens are pretty, with a light touch. I visited in September when the hydrangeas were strutting their stuff. It’s a gentle introduction to the serious ideas to come – garden no. 8, Le Jardin Guerrier (the Warrior Garden). Ranks of fastigiate Irish yews, each one trimmed at a different height to emphasise that armies are made up of individuals, are in position for an imminent face-off. It’s a simple but strong idea which works, especially when the light is right for casting bold shadows. Gosse de Gore says he was inspired by the discovery of the Chinese Terracotta Army where each model was simultaneously a real individual person and part of the greater fighting force. By the way, have you read the latest theory that these were possibly influenced by the Greeks? The world has been multicultural for longer than we have previously imagined.
Nearby, in the Mask Garden, cypress hedging has been cut into, revealing crude faces – a little too ‘Easter Island’ for my taste but striking nonetheless. Then we are moved on to the Champs de Bataille, the Battle Field, with poppies instantly making the cultural connection with shed blood. One of the most moving symbols in the garden for me are the bomb craters, beautifully fashioned pits placed in a fairly narrow space through which we have to pass to access the following garden. My son spontaneously jumped into one of these and suddenly it was no longer mere land-art but a real and horrific reminder of the inspiration. Another original idea is L’allee de l’infini; two closely planted rows of cypress, creating a long narrow corridor, which converge at the far end – a dead end. This is one of the strongest statements in the design – war leads us nowhere.
There is no doubt that these representations do have an effect on the emotions. There’s more to follow with the Bois des Ombres – where a passage through a dense copse has been created and emphasised by white-painted trunks. Gosse de Gore thinks of this area as representing the souls of the fallen and, in a garden called The Procession, (La Procession) corrugated iron sheeting has been used to evoke the physical presence of these men in Dalek-like forms with punched out faces. I was really struck by these figures which are open to interpretation, some seeing them as monks going to prayer but, for me, they were zombie-like; the shells of broken minds and bodies.
If all this sounds quite solemn, it is, but we are not just abandoned to gloom. There is more to come, from the Cathedral of Roses (Cathédrale de Roses), which must look gorgeous in early summer, to a host of gardens with lighter themes like The Snake Garden, (L’allée du Serpent) and The Sea Walk, (L’allée de la Mer). There is a little topiary garden which is full of playful elements including a table with chairs which brings a light relief, except, at the moment, the buxus has been hit by blight and a notice tells us it has to be destroyed. But, we are told, ‘don’t be sad because this gives us the opportunity to make something new’. It’s a positive sentiment in the face of what most gardeners would feel was a disaster.
I was excited about this garden and described it to friends as a bit like Rousham in Oxfordshire, which is also a garden about war – and sex and life. But Rousham is controlled, cool and fiercely intellectual, while Séricourt is unashamedly emotional, mixing the ebullient and the sombre. I sympathise with the view that perhaps there is a bit too much going here with, it seems, more planned for the future. I feel sure the garden would benefit from an edit – a period of reflection. However, it is a personal vision which is confirmed by its creator: ‘In life, as in my garden, opposites are a constant – life versus death, good against evil and beauty opposed to the ugly’. So, ultimately I feel it is a treat to be in a garden which expresses a point of view and I defend his right to keep creating, even if it’s not to my taste – that’s one of the things that people fought so hard for in this land. But go see it – I would love to know what you make of it.
Les Jardins de Séricourt : 2 Rue du Bois, 62270 Séricourt, France