Over the centuries there have been times when the Entente Cordiale has been anything but cordial and the French have been not a little dismissive of things English, truly taking only Shakespeare and rugby to their hearts. But suddenly and inexplicably, a third Anglo-Saxon passion has slipped across the Channel and lodged itself firmly in the Gallic breast ' the English Country Garden.
It's not that the French have no interest in their gardens, far from it, but their approach to their patches large and small has had at its heart a little country gaff 10 miles from Paris. The great formal gardens of Versailles have always been a national treasure and inspiration. All over France, from the greatest chateaux to the humblest semi, recreating their own version of this Versailles has been the aspiration. I have even seen box hedges in window boxes.
But all appears to be changing and the French, if not exactly forsaking geometry for gnomes, are now embracing all those unique qualities of English gardens that we so take for granted but which are the result of a long and gradual process in which the whole nation from the thousands of unknown cottage gardens to the great landscapers have played their part.
The key difference between the English and French and approaches is essentially simple. The traditional French garden was intended as a very clear and powerful statement ' just the kind of statement one would expect from a man who styled himself the Sun King. What its creator was saying was: "Look at me. Look at how I have tamed nature and bent it to my will. Look at how it now glorifies me." The English garden, however, does not say, look at me. It says, more gently, look at nature.
An appreciation of the English viewpoint is now spreading and, all over France, nature is invading gardens large and small. But, nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in Picardy, a department that probably has more keen gardeners per hectare than anywhere in the country. Recently, I visited just a handful of Picardy gardens ' largely privately-owned but all now open to the public.
Jardin A Fleur d'O
In the village of Davenescourt, near St Quentin, is a lovely example of a family garden that just became too good to keep a secret. Created single-handedly by Odile Hennnesbert and her husband, and covering some five acres, it has at its centre-piece a large lake around which are a huge variety of perennials, shrubs and trees.
Odile's basic inspiration for the garden is the English style ' there's hardly a box hedge to be seen. Instead, a riot of wildly differing species jostle and jockey for position both along the water's edge and the paths that wind around the property. "I love the English style and have tried to take it further here by combining species you would rarely see together," she says. "In among the traditional cultivated species, you'll find wild flowers and shrubs native to Picardy ' I like to welcome the flora of the surrounding countryside into my garden."
This welcome, however, isn't restricted to local species and there are a host of exotic surprises. Turn a corner and you're just as likely to bump into a native of the Amazon or Indochina. At the far end of the lake, for instance, are huge South America ngunneras, which she carefully nurses through the tough Picardy winters.
These winters are the bane of Odile's life ' she's a native of the Loire and she finds the winters a challenge both personally and horticulturally. "A garden should not just be for summer, it surrounds you year round and it should give as much pleasure in the winter as it does in summer," she says. Her solution has been a wide range of evergreen grasses, shrubs and trees that provide colour and cover from the time the last rose fades to the first snowdrop.
With only her husband to help her, Odile also tries to source interesting and beautiful species that are also relatively low maintenance. She is also a keen vegetable gardener and the section of herbs is particularly impressive boasting, among much else, no fewer than 50 species of mint.
Les Jardins du Chateau de Maizicourt
When I die you can keep heaven, I'll be happy with eternity in these 20 stunning acres in the village of Maizicourt not far from Abbeville. Created by Catherine Guevenoux and her husband in the grounds of their small but beautiful 18th-century chateau. And I am not alone in my admiration of her work ' Catherine is a winner of the Garden of the Year Prize awarded by the French Association of Gardening and Horticultural Journalists.
A hugely successful synthesis of styles ' English, French and a dash of the Orient ' the garden is homage to a happy childhood spent partly in England and partly in the East. "I bought the property in 1989 and I've tried to recreate something that reminds me of my childhood," she says. At the time it was derelict and the gardens no more than a wilderness. While the house was being restored, Catherine set to work on the garden and as the acres matured so its fame spread and in 1995, the Somme Tourist Board begged her to open it to the public. It took two years and some gentle persuasion on the part of her husband to get her to agree.
Catherine loves not only the English style but the English attitude to gardening, "In England, you have a real sense of nature," she says. "When the English visit a garden, even if it's raining, they take their time. Alas, not like the French."
One might expect box hedges to provide the traditional living stage for the elegant front facade of the chateau but Catherine has opted for asymmetric curved beds of hollyhocks, foxgloves and feathery astilbe, backed by evergreen shrubs to give colour in winter. The result is that the gentle sweep of the beds perfectly complements the classic symmetry of the architecture.
The garden has been designed as a variety of themed areas ' a childhood apple orchard with geese and pretty bantams pecking industriously beneath the boughs, a walled pond garden, a paddock full of wild flowers, a rose garden, a children's maze, a Japanese garden, a shady wood of soaring Japanese maples, sycamores and chestnuts. All flow effortlessly into each other linked by shady avenues or secret winding paths.
Everywhere you look, the attention, even to the smallest details, is extraordinary. The dappled shade of the avenues, the distant, ancient wheelbarrow, the glimpse of an arrogant cockerel striding across a gravelled path ' everywhere the eye is drawn and delighted. This is a garden as much about form and light as horticulture. "A garden is a work of art that's in perpetual motion," she says. "Monet said: 'My finest painting is my garden.' My greatest reward is when people come back."
Open from 1 April to 30 October. Monday to Wednesday: 2 pm to 6 pm. June and September entry free, otherwise €10 adults, children free. www.jardinsdemaizicourt.com
Les Jardins de Valloires
Les Jardins de Valloires, also near Abbeville, are a real gardener's gardens. Designed by Gilles Clement ' who has since become one of the best-known landscape architects in Europe, they are now run by Vincent Delaitre who has a very clear vision of his mission. "I want this to be a place where people are inspired," he says. "Somewhere which helps them realise what could be possible in their own gardens. I want us to grow ideas."
The backdrop to the gardens is the lovely Abbaye de Valloires, the only example of a complete 18th century Cistercian abbey in France, and the temptation to complement it with a traditional French garden must have been considerable. Clement, however, had other ideas and instead created a garden that is both a delight to stroll around and which delivers bedloads of practical inspiration.
This is due to the layout of the gardens which arranges flowers, shubs and trees in a logical and accessible plan. For instance, the monks' old vegetable garden directly in front of the abbey is now the rose garden with species and varieties arranged by colour and clearly identified. Away to the right is a water garden. To the left is the Garden of the Five Senses ' designed by Parisian parfumier Jean Francois Laporte ' where the plants are presented according to the senses of touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell.
Delaitre is a serious admirer of English gardens and makes regular visits to the UK, so it's no surprise to find that one of Valloires' most interesting areas is the English Garden, a labyrinth of 'islands' of trees and shrubs also arranged by colour. There's a 'soft thorn island' for prickly shrubs, 'winter island' for trees with red, green, pink or white bark, 'silver island', 'golden island' and 'purple island' for plants with decorative foliage, and numerous others.
Then there are features which are there just to be admired and enjoyed ' the most glorious, an avenue of Mount Fuji flowering cherry trees. "People call us from all over Europe asking if the cherry blossom has arrived in case they miss it," says Delaitre. The timing, though, is unpredictable and advance warning is now posted on the gardens' website.
Open every day from 10 March to 11 November, 10am to 6pm. Admission: adults €7.50 (low season €5.70); children (6-16) €4.50 (low season €3.70 ). www.jardinsdevalloires.com