Sebastian Faulks’s trench warfare epic “Birdsong” begins gently enough. Sketching a world soon to be lost in the carnage of war, Faulks chooses an extraordinary subculture within a sleepy Picardie town-centre as a cipher for French petite-ville normality. Amiens’ Hortillonnages – or floating gardens, are, even at the time Birdsong is set, wonders to be marvelled at from the very first page.
First cultivated by the Romans for troop fodder – the name comes from ‘hortus,’ or ‘garden’ – the area was excavated for peat, before finally becoming gigantic market gardens supplying Paris during the Middle Ages. A 1542 map shows over 1000 hectares in production, becoming even bigger in the 19C.
By the time “Birdsong” is set in 1910, however, it was in decline, suffering a double-blow from the railway – first stealing land to lay the tracks, then relieving the maraîchers of their livelihood by flooding the capitol with cheap produce from the South.
A new breed of leisure gardeners after the war saved the day, gradually taking over from the professionals leaving to work in factories.
One of just two water gardens left in the town centres, (the other the delightful Marais in Bourges,) today the Hortillonnages can be visited via traditional flat-bottomed boat, through 65km of canals or rieux, organised by an enthusiastic Friends Group.
Three hundred hectares of wild, uncultivated plots, tiny grassed-over islands with higgledy-piggledy weekend cottages for dedicated amateur gardeners – and just eight professionals, it is a popular destination for French horticultural societies. Revenue gleaned from visitors charmed by the wildlife, iron footbridges, tiny idiosyncratic sheds, and folk art ranging from the sophisticated to the downright kitsch helps to fund the Forth Bridge-like attention the canal banks require.
Retired electrician Daniel Delval is building an empire in the heart of the Hortillonnages. He has spent every waking moment of the past 28 years on his allotment, now covering three plots joined by wooden bridges built from reclaimed timber.
“I hadn’t wanted to retire, and I had to find a new life,” he explains. “I had always dreamed of taking a plot on the Hortillonnages – it’s a favourite fantasy of people from these parts. My uncle was a tenant on this plot, and when he died, I persuaded the owner to sell.” One plot comprises a nursery, another an immaculate Peter Rabbit-esque potager which would do Mr McGregor proud; the third a formal garden designed by M. Delval in the style of the French chateaux. “I don’t see any reason why I can’t design something grand on a smaller scale,” he says.
A spectacular photo opportunity for the visitors sailing past, M. Delval’s plot has won so many awards, that he is now banned from taking part in the society’s competitions “I have to wait three years to give the others a chance. But it’s not all planned – see that pumpkin which has grown into the tree? I didn’t train it like that – it just went up there. I’m constantly changing things – these bushes symbolised the Olympic rings – they’re a bit overgrown now.” Brought up in a make-do-and-mend culture, he enjoys wood turning – a statue here, a gnome there, a windmill there. “This cart is made from old shutters,” he announces, “the table and chairs are an old telephone booth. It’s what the Hortillonnages are about.”
During the 1970s, Nisso Pelosoff discovered that the Hortillonnages were to be turned into a ring road; his plot first under the bulldozer. A native of Rhodes, but Amiens resident since 1946 after being the only member of his family to survive Auschwitz, he is passionate about the little patch of land he gave his wife in 1954 as compensation for the fact that they could never afford a proper holiday.
“I couldn’t allow it to be devastated,” Pelosoff shrugs. He founded The Society for the Safeguard of the Hortillonnages and successfully fought the scheme, the road safely relegated several km out of town.
Now 82, still president of the society but having recently lost his wife, the familiar bump as the boat meets his beloved, if slightly overgrown plot, is a bittersweet experience. “It is a sanctuary to me – a place of a thousand memories. I planted these trees fifty years ago,” he murmurs in a distant reverie, plucking a spotted apple from a lichen-covered bough and shielding himself from the attentions of his new companion Fanny, a boisterous German Shepherd.
“Of course there were no trees when the professionals worked this land. I’d had my eye on it – the cottage was already here. My wife loved it.” Now a little decrepit, the hut provided a retreat a stone’s throw from Pelosoff’s job as a photographer in the town centre. “It was a fine place – a roof, four walls, a little light at night, and a book – pure happiness,” he remembers. “Actually these apples are still good. I think I’ll take some home…”
Back in the boat, he points out another, secluded island, off the tourist trail. “The Isle d’Amour,” he winks. “Where couples would hire a boat and go to be alone…” An early erotic moment in “Birdsong” surrounds a daytrip to the Hortillonnages where the hero first acknowledges his attraction for his boss’s wife.
Pelosoff’s latest mission is to ensure that the Hortillonnages survive. Most of the gardeners are elderly and new blood is essential. A centre for school children has been built and newcomers are encouraged. There are always plots up for sale, ranging between 3,000 and 45,000 Euros but the hard work and basic facilities are less inviting to a generation used to convenience.
Among the professionals there is hope. Marie-Hélène and Bernard Parmentier are of the old school. “I was born right in the heart of the Hortillonnages, and played in the boats as a child before learning to love it as a way of life,” says Bernard, whose father was a maraîcher, most of his eleven children continuing the passion in some way or other – either as maraîchers, trading or just taking a plot for pleasure.
Although it is a hard life – after the exceptional floods of 2001 which nearly ruined him they felt like giving up, they cannot consider the thought of doing anything else. “It takes at least two of us – Bernard oversees the production and I run the farm shop,” says Marie-Hélène. They created this particular farm, on the edge of the Hortillonnages – the central canals are too difficult to negotiate on a professional basis – and their children play the same way that Bernard did, showing every sign of wishing to continue in their parent’s footsteps.
Jean Luis Christen is a relatively new maraîcher but proudly insists on farming in the old tradition, farming by the lunar calendar, and using ancient organic methods. “I was born in the country but moved to the city to become a farmer,” laughs the former potter. “It was something I’d always wanted to do – and so in 1985 I just went ahead and fulfilled my dream.”
The Hortillonnages forbid mod-cons – to prevent development there is no electricity or water and any new buildings must be wooden – which means that pollution is low and organic quality high. Christen’s plot covers around 2 hectares, but each little area has its own personality and has to be farmed slightly differently. “It’s labour intensive because we can’t get heavy machinery on these fragile islands, but it brings out the inventor in me – I love finding the solution to problems.”
The black soil is extremely fertile – the silt, mineral deposits and leaf mould supplemented by regular floods suit organic farming because yield is unimportant and quality easy to ensure. Maraîchers are well-supported by the community who buy their goods as a matter of course –visiting farm shops, attending the twice-weekly farmers’ market at the Quai Parmentier and patronising local hypermarkets who give the Les t’cho Legumes des Hortillonnages trademark pride of place.
On the third Saturday in June there is a river market where maraîchers dress in historic costume and the whole town turns out, including local politicians. A way of celebrating Tradition? Maybe – “It’s an amusement once a year,” grins Jean Louis Christen, “but for me it’s a way to meet politicians and plant a few ideas in their heads without them being able to get away.” He disagrees he is part of a dying culture. “On the contrary – I am part of a new breed. In the 60s there were only six maraichers left. Now there are eight of us. That’s progress.”
Boat trips to the Hortillonnages take place every afternoon from April to October and cost 4,58 Euros Adults, 2,20 Euros, Children.
A version of this feature, by Sandra Lawrence, originally appeared in the Times