The château de Canon has been on my list of places that I wanted to visit for about ten years now, inspired by a photo of a statue in an arched opening that I saw in a book about beautiful places in France. The only problem was that it is a little awkward to get to, being roughly situated about smack-dab in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that may also be why it has survived.
I decided that my recent trip to Trouville-Deauville presented the best chance I would probably get, provided that a day of decent weather presented itself. After several days of intermittent rain, steady rain, and flat-out thunderstorms, a day that was forecast to be only partly cloudy seemed close enough to decent weather for my purposes. I took a train to Lisieux (appropriately enough, since it is a pilgrimage site), and then waited for another train to Mézidon-Canon on the line to Caen (not all Caen-bound trains stop there, so there can be some delays). Once in the very small town, I had to walk about twenty-five minutes to the château, but the route was well-marked and often very pleasant.
Once there, I had a choice of a ticket to the gardens alone or a ticket that included the farm. I opted for just the gardens. Unfortunately for me, although the château itself is now partially restored, it is only open during the high season and I was about a week too early.
In exchange for 7€, I was given a map of the gardens and an explanation of route to follow. The château has no direct royal connection and the property has basically been in the same hands since the middle ages. The building and gardens that exist today date to the mid-18th century, created by a wealthy and well-connected lawyer who had married the heiress to the property, Jean-Baptiste Elie de Beaumont. The couple lavished equal attention on the grounds and the symmetrical building made of pale stone. Thirty workers labored on the site for ten years.
The gardens mark the transition between the French-style of clipped hedges interspersed with marble statues (made by the same artists who worked for Louis XVI) and the informal English-style of garden. This looser form of garden was made popular in France by the writings of Voltaire about the beauty to be found in nature. A stream was re-routed to enhance the atmosphere and little cascades were built to create a soothing babble as one walked through one’s “natural” garden, but artifice has often been called upon to give nature a bit of a boost.
Over time, “follies” were installed, like the Chinese Pavilion and a neo-classical temple, but the most spectacular structures were les Chartreuses (lay shar-truz), a series of walled gardens that allowed the family to grow exotic fruits, such as figs and apricots, in the relatively short summer in Normandy. Apparently the name came from the fact that most of the plants came from monks of that order. It was within this structure that I found the sculpture of Pomone, a Roman goddess of fruits and orchards, whose image first attracted me to come to Canon. Now the gardens are largely full of flowers, but originally, they were part of a farm that allowed the château to provide most of its own food. I kept thinking about Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, a childhood favorite.
The family organized a huge festival that attracted thousands of locals in a celebration of “Virtue.” These celebrations created such goodwill that the château was spared attack during the Revolution. For once, virtue was rewarded. The château didn’t get off as lightly in World War II when it was used as a German military hospital. Tanks hid from aerial surveillance among its mature trees. American bombs flattened part of the farm and refugees housed in the out-buildings after the war took their toll. The Elie de Beaumont family still owns the château and is consistently engaged in its restoration, including those interiors that I didn’t get to see…this time. Maybe in another ten years.