IN THE WAKE OF the disappointing news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union in the recent BREXIT referendum I was in need of a distraction so I went to one of my favourite gardens in Paris, the Parc de Bagatelle.
Located on the western end of the Bois de Boulogne, the 24-hectare (59-acre) Parc de Bagatelle is a naturalistic English landscape style garden complete with a neoclassical château, an obelisk, a pagoda, grottoes, waterfalls and sham ruins.
Château de Bagatelle
The Château de Bagatelle was built on the site of a former hunting lodge originally built for the Maréchal d’Estrées in 1720. In 1775, the hunting lodge was acquired by the Comte d’Artois, younger brother of Louis XVI, who planned to demolish the decaying structure and replace it with something grander. Work began on the new château in September 1777 but in rather unusual circumstances.
Louis XVI’s Queen, Marie-Antoinette, wagered the Comte d’Artois, her brother-in-law, that the new château could not be completed within three months. The Comte accepted the wager and engaged the neoclassical architect François-Joseph Bélanger to design the building and begin construction. Some eight hundred workers were drafted in, around three million livres were spent and the new château was completed in just 63 days. Included in the design was a formal garden surrounding the château, which was subsequently expanded by the Scottish botanist and gardener, Thomas Blaikie, into the Parc de Bagatelle.
Having escaped the ravages of the French Revolution, the Bagatelle changed hands several times before being bought in 1835 by Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford, a British Tory politician and art collector. When he died in 1848, the Château de Bagatelle was inherited by his son, Richard, the 4th Marquess. Lord Hertford was brought up in Paris by his mother who had become estranged from his father. They lived in a large apartment in Paris and also at the Château de Bagatelle. Their London home was in Manchester Square, now home to the Wallace Collection, which houses the Hertford’s art collection much of which came from the Château de Bagatelle.
Lord Hertford died in 1870 whereupon the Bagatelle passed to his adopted son, Sir Richard Wallace – the same Richard Wallace who donated numerous water fountains (Wallace fountains) to the City of Paris.
Richard Wallace added the Trianon, two sentry pavilions and two terraces around the château.
In 1905, the Château de Bagatelle and the park were purchased by the City of Paris and the French landscape architect, Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, began redeveloping the gardens while retaining their style.
One of the sentry pavillions
Walking around the Parc de Bagatelle was a perfect way to escape my post-BREXIT referendum depression. I even found a new friend to confide in together with a ‘small model’ version of a Wallace fountain.
Sounds of the Parc de Bagatelle:
The soundscape of the northern half of the Parc de Bagatelle is dominated by the sounds of waterfalls and the distinctive sounds of the magnificent pride, muster or ostentation of peacocks (depending upon which collective noun you prefer) that roam freely over the park.
As well as its neoclassical château and renowned gardens, including a magnificent rose garden with 10,000 rose bushes comprising 1,200 different species, the Parc de Bagatelle has other claims to fame.
In 1777, to celebrate the completion of the château, a party was held in honour of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette during which a new table game was revealed. It comprised a small billiard-like table with raised edges and cue sticks, which players used to shoot ivory balls up an inclined slope with fixed pins. Count d’Artois dubbed the game bagatelle and it was soon to become fashionable throughout France. This 18th century French invention was to evolve into the modern day pinball machine.
And to continue the game theme, the Bagatelle hosted the first French Rugby Union Championship match in 1892 and some of the polo events in the 1924 Olympic Summer Games.
In 1906 an historic event took place.
Three years earlier, across the Atlantic, four miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.
On 23rd October 1906, the pioneering Brazilian aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont, repeated the feat. In the grounds of the Château de Bagatelle he succeeded in flying a heavier-than-air aircraft for a distance of 60 metres (197 ft) at a height of about five meters (16 ft). This was the first flight of a powered heavier-than-air machine in Europe to be verified by the Aéro-Club de France.
Alberto Santos-Dumont flew here
On 12th November 1906, also in the grounds of the Château de Bagatelle, Santos-Dumont set the first world record recognised by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, by flying 220 metres (722 ft) in 21.5 seconds
The 14 Bis, the canard biplane flown by Alberto Santos Dumont in 1906
A less well-known fact is that Santos-Dumont was indirectly responsible for the invention of the wrist watch.
While dining with his friend Louis Cartier in Paris, Santos-Dumont complained of the difficulty of checking his pocket watch to time his performance during flight. He asked Cartier to come up with an alternative that would allow him to keep both hands on the controls. Cartier went to work on the problem and the result was a watch with a leather band and a small buckle to be worn on the wrist.
You don’t need ‘green fingers’ to enjoy the Parc de Bagatelle. For those with a keen interest in gardens and gardening the significant trees and plant species are clearly labelled so you can discover new things and add to your knowledge, but for the rest of us, the history, the wildlife and the tranquillity is sufficient to escape the tribulations of everyday life.
And it’s certainly a perfect antidote to BREXIT – even the peacocks seem to talk more sense than most politicians.
MANY PEOPLE VISIT GARDENS to look at them and maybe even smell them but few I suspect go to listen to them. It wasn’t what I had in mind when I left home, but I spent part of a recent Saturday afternoon doing just that – listening to a garden.
I had decided to go to le Marais, a part of Paris I know reasonably well but don’t go to all that often, save for my regular visits to the Musée Carnavalet of course.
I emerged from the Métro station Saint-Paul into the Saturday afternoon bustle of le Marias and spent the next three hours or so walking the streets, dodging the showers, listening and hunting for sounds to add to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.
Towards the end of the afternoon I found myself in an unfamiliar street, Rue des Blancs Manteaux. I’ve since discovered that the street takes its name from a monastery where, in 1258, Louis IX settled beggar monks belonging to the order of the Servants of Mary. The monks were noted for the white habits they wore hence, Rue des Blancs Manteaux.
Walking along the street I discovered the square Charles-Victor-Langlois, once the site of the monastery, a church, l’église Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux and a theatre, le théâtre des Blancs-Manteaux.
But it was at N° 21 Rue des Blancs Manteaux that I came upon a complete surprise.
Behind a large wooden door was a passageway leading to a garden, the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux.
L’Association des Jardiniers du 4ème (4th arrondissement Gardner’s Association) opened a small garden here in October 2010, which was extended in 2012. Nestling at the bottom of a former schoolyard, the 100 square metre garden is maintained partly by the Gardner’s Association and partly by the Paris City gardeners. The garden is divided into separate plots including vegetable plots based on the theme of ‘urban agriculture’, with peas, tomatoes, herbs, potatoes and maïs amongst other things.
I went to investigate the garden and was immediately struck by how quiet it was. The quietness was enhanced because, with the bustling streets of le Marais just a few steps away, quietness was not what I was expecting.
So unusual is quietness in the heart of the city that I couldn’t resist capturing it. As I began to record it started to rain so I had to scurry off for shelter under a rickety wooden roof covering the compost. It was from there that I listened to and recorded the sounds in the garden.
Sounds of the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux:
Listening to the garden was fascinating. The sounds of light rain falling intermittently, dead leaves rolling on the ground, the gentle rustle of the plants swaying in the wind and two ladies walking round the garden talking and passing right in front of me standing amidst the compostage were overlaid with the faint rumble of traffic in the distance, a light aircraft flying overhead, distant birdsong and remarkably, the brief sound of a demonstration drifting on the wind all the way from Place de la Bastille.
In the introduction to her fascinating book, ‘City of Noise – Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris’, Aimée Boutin quotes John Sanderson who first set foot in Paris in July 1835:
“As for the noise of the streets, I need not attempt to describe it. What idea can ears, used only to the ordinary and human noises, conceive of this unceasing racket … All things of this earth seek, at one time or another, repose – all but the noise of Paris. The waves of the sea are sometimes still, but the chaos of these streets is perpetual from generation to generation; it is the noise that never dies.”
As a professional listener to Paris I have some sympathy with John Sanderson and his first impression of the city. But in the Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux the sounds of the street, the ‘noise that never dies’ just a few steps beyond the wooden portal, if not in complete repose are at least subdued enough to let the garden speak for itself.
Jardin Partagé du Clos des Blancs Manteaux
21 Rue des Blancs Manteaux, Paris 75004
Open: Saturday and Sunday from 11am
Nearest Métro: Hôtel de Ville or Rambuteau