The water gardens of Annevoie

It definitely felt like time to get out of Brussels last weekend. A static and at times dreary winter has taken its toll, and while it’s still not possible to leave the country to travel abroad or back to the motherland, we can move around within Belgium. A firm believer in the saying “a change is as good as a rest”, and with a promising spring-like weather forecast of 17 degrees C and sunshine for Saturday, I knew that the moment had come to pack my picnic.

Annevoie is the country chateau of the Montpellier family, and lies nestled in the hills of the Ardennes, a stone’s throw from the Meuse, one of the great rivers the winds its way through the wooded valleys and rocky escarpments of this part of the country. There is water everywhere even before you reach the gardens, from babbling brooks tumbling down the hillside along the road, to the languorous stretch of river snaking its way along the valley floor. So no surprise then that in 1758 Charles-Alexis de Montpellier decided to make the most of this plentiful resource and channel it, quite literally, into a beautiful water garden.

La Cascade francaise, the first creation of Charles-Alexis Montpellier
Looking back from the top of the cascade.

The garden has a French classical style, with plenty of symmetry and clean lines, but it also incorporates elements of English Romantic landscaping, where the water flows in more naturalistic streams, such as this rocky cascade through a wooded part of the garden.

This section was also beautifully planted up with hundreds of crocuses, a rare carpet of colour that was much enjoyed by the bees. Some snowdrops also hugged the banks of the stream, but for me the crocuses really stole the show.

The photos here can only convey part of the experience, as the sound of water is a major element, from roaring cascades, bubbling brooks, vigorous fountain jets, or quietly meandering streams, and sometimes totally still pools like mirrors, helping to give a different sound and therefore a unique feel and mood to each part of the garden. This was a large part of the magic of the place for me.

The chateau itself appears to levitate above its quiet pool. Do you notice something strange about the fa├žade? It’s actually not quite straight, as it follows a slight curve along the valley. The building is currently undergoing renovation, but thankfully the scaffolding is around the sides and not along the handsome frontage.

Another highlight of the garden for me was the magnificent vegetable garden (for I can not call this a patch), laid out with perfect symmetry and enviable organisation. I like the curved lines of planting, with neat borders of straw, within each quadrant.

Space is not an issue here!

Now a little knowledge quiz for the keen gardeners reading this. Can you guess what this is? I will give you a clue: it is a seed pod of a certain garden plant that has featured heavily in recent garden blogger editions of Six on Saturday (the weekly garden round-up which many of my fellow gardening bloggers participate in).

What am I?

Are you ready? The answer is: a Helleborus niger seed pod. It’s a sculpture by the British artist Anne Curry. It was nice to see a bit of my country after all in this very French-style garden! Below are some more images of the vegetable gardens; just imagine how handy it would be to water the veg from the taps conveniently placed in each quadrant, to examine one’s plants from the tidy slate paths, or to stock the elegant lean-to curved glass house with a collection of exotics. We can but dream! Even the insects have it good here, with a deluxe insect hotel.

Near the vegetable garden is a quieter, more intimate area, where beech has been trained to cover a quiet walkway. A statue of the Roman goddess Minerva is tucked away in a little alcove at the back. Through it all, the Montpellier family rest in their crypt, perhaps continuing to enjoy their garden and its ever-flowing water.

And here is the main reservoir of water that powers all the water features in this garden, the grand canal, 400 metres long. Amazingly, there is no machinery to make things work, everything relies on the differences in level of this hillside location. Water has apparently been flowing naturally here for more than 250 years.

A section of the grand canal, looking like an infinity pool disappearing off the hillside.

So we’ve come to the end of my tour. If you’re passing though Belgium one day, you might like to stop off here to soak up a bit of the watery magic of the Ardennes.