France is a country full of surprises. It is a land of two characters, one a hi-tech modern nation capable of putting satellites into space, a nation that pushes the frontiers of modern medicine and makes the world’s largest passenger plane, and the other an ancient landscape of quiet villages in a countryside where chickens peck at passing car tyres and flowers flow over old crumbling walls, a checkwork pattern of wild and homogenised views, when old women still sell surplus pumpkins and the Sunday roast comes from the hen-house. Studded like fantastical chess-pieces across this glorious melange of a landscape are France’s châteaux, triumphant buildings that echo the fortunes of those who built them, and each has a tale to tell from a chequered past.
The word ‘château‘ is actually defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a large house or castle, but nevertheless when using the word I think for many of us the buildings that initially spring to mind are the magnificent châteaux found in the Loire valley, castellated and spired creations that cannot fail to fuel our romantic imaginations. Closer to home though, are two châteaux near us that could not be more different; although the first lacks a multitude of princess-dwelling turrets, it is a magnificent building,
and the second is more of a defensive fortress.
Two true châteaux, but each with very different roles in history and very different stories to go with them.
The building closest to us is a château-fort built in 1180 by the Lusignan family. It remained their property until 1750 when it was taken over by the Saint-Gelais de Lusignans, a continuation of the dynasty in a different guise. It is a magnificent example of medieval military architecture, and defended the salt marshes it overlooks and local inhabitants from the many incursions undertaken by various water-born invaders and pirates, among them the English, the Saxons, the Vikings, and the Moors. In 1994 the château, which was no more than a ruin at the time, was categorised as an ‘Historical Monument’, and was bought up to be restored, a project that is close to completion some 23 years later.
Today, the old salt marshes below the escarpment are used mainly for agricultural purposes, and where once the salt barges plied their trade there now exist stands of dry land where cattle roam, a series of islands connected – and yet separated from each other – by the old salt ponds and navigation channels.u
Where the tree-line is now, was once the shoreline of a vast inland sea, and deep in amongst the brambles and ferns there exist still the remnants of jetties, where the precious salt was loaded aboard shallow-keeled barges that set out for Rochefort, La Rochelle and other ports.
Where the two dogs sniff today for scents of rabbits and pheasant, was once home to shellfish and crabs, a flat-bottomed bay which stretched out to sea, now some eight miles distant.
The clay cliff here above the farmstead is the basis of the terre cuites that are still produced today along the same geographical lode-line. Centuries ago each village produced its own tiles, from kilns set deep in woods below the escarpment – I think only two remain today, but now they produce tiles for a far greater audience.
To protect the riches of the inland sea, this castle was preceded by a wooden structure even older, perhaps from the seventh or eighth century: its remains were recently discovered by ground radar half a kilometre to the west of the stone castle that stands today – the older remains are being excavated, slowly, and perhaps next year we will know more.
A stroll alongside one of the original navigable canals
leads to discoveries that have no answer. A shepherd’s hut? A storage building? A defensive position? These are questions that can only be answered by the rustle of reeds and the faint cry of curlews.
It is a fine place to walk and lose oneself, deep in thought, and it is easy for the more sensitive visitor to be moved by the sense of history. The sight of Moorish pirates and their white billowing lateen sails on the horizon must have sent salt-workers at a run to the hill and safety atop in the castle.
At day’s end the marsh is a fine place for sunsets too, though as the cloak of darkness falls it is wise to head home before it gets dark enough to slip unknowingly into a ditch.
The second building I want to show you is the Château de Buzay in the village of La Jarne, near La Rochelle. The Château de Buzay was built relatively late, in 1770, and offers one of the finest examples of the richness, finesse, and balance that made 18th century France into a universal artistic reference. Aspirations of military grandeur are largely missing from this building, for by now the machines of war included artillery that could make a mockery of the strongest fortification, and the furor of Napoleon’s Empires was still to come.
At this time the nearby port of Buzay was growing at a fast rate thanks to its solid trade links with the New World, and one of the region’s most successful inhabitants, Pierre Etienne Harouard, was the architect of the Château’s construction. Pierre was a shipowner, advisor, and secretary to the king, all of which gave him privilege and wealth sufficient to embark on his magnificent home.
Built to match the status and vision of the shipowner, the seemingly compact château was designed in the Louis XVI style, and this can be seen in the perfectly proportioned lines (influenced by the Palladian masters of Ancient Greece); these soften the many details that show such great finesse. For example, the marine allegory on the pediment of the north façade is almost certainly a veiled reference to the business interests of the shipowner-landlord of the premises.
The inside of the château is a similar story to the façade. The furnishings, wood panelling, beautiful furniture, family portraits, and a grand staircase can still be seen in all their former glory.
Meanwhile, the exterior parkland consists of a network of paths forming geometrical patterns, all meeting at circular junctions interspersed with flowerbeds and water features. The landscaping was designed with reference to Dézallier d’Argenville’s ‘La théorie et la pratique du jardinage‘ (The Theory and Practice of Gardening), which typically places a building at the centre of a landscape around which the rest of the property must be geometrically ordered. It should surprise no one that this has also been classed as an ‘Historical Monument’ since 1950, as it is a perfect example of all that is beautiful and important in the history of French architecture.
I can do no better than show you some pictures that should make those of you who aspire to grand designs grin with pleasure.
Here are some minute details, the scrolls containing flowers above the doors.
The avenue that once would have grandly led visitors on carriages to the château
and those gates.
the walls that surround it,
and the cottages that were once a part of the huge estate.
Both of these châteaux sit very comfortably within their own skin, and both seem to blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. There are other similarities too; both are privately owned and both are actually occupied by their current owners.
There is a footnote of course to today’s blog – the story goes that during WWII the furniture was hidden for safety at Chateau de Buzay from the advancing German occupying army. I will try and find out more and next time I shall show you photos of the interiors of both of them.