Review of The Road to Le Tholonet
A French Garden Journey
Posted by Mark Armstrong 1st August 2014
Author: Monty Don
If you purchased this as a coffee table book add-on to Monty Don's BBC TV series about French Gardens, you maybe somewhat disappointed. It's not that he doesn't revisit these gardens in the book it's just that it is far more than that.
In fact, it's a difficult book to put in any pigeon hole. I have seen it under gardening, but it could quite equally be classified under history or memoirs. If you enjoy Monty's style of expression, you will love this book, as you can hear his voice as you read it, which is a complement to his easy, expressive and informative style of writing.
Monty meanders through his own memories of visits to France when he was young and his accounts of French gardens are intermingled with historical background as well as his own views on rural France and French culture. He manages to express great feelings of nostalgia for his younger days, so the book comes tinged with a level of sadness and loss for his own youthful days of discovery.
Monty is a regular visitor to France and each visit reminds him of how big the country is. "The range of landscapes is astonishing and ....... there are still vast tranches of the country that are unspoilt, sparsely populated and staggeringly beautiful." And in relation to the French people, he says that "if you treat them with a modicum of politeness and respect, French people are astonishingly friendly and helpful and have maintained a rhythm and balance to life that has been all but lost in the UK."
Monty has enjoyed exploring not just the tamed French gardens, but the wild countryside of France. He finds the 'empty vastness of France' compared to the 'pretty clutter of Britain,' 'stimulating and exciting.' In 1981 he walked across the Cevennes with a friend who was writing a book on walks in France. He took some of the route taken by Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote an account of his walk in 1878 called Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
In the book Monty Don expresses his feelings on walking: "Walking through any landscape, feeling its stones and slips beneath your feet and the meaning of gradient in your weary legs tells you so much more than any map or scrutiny from a car window can ever do. Walk a 100km and you know something of that land. Drive through it and you merely know where it is."
He again joined his friend in 1982, this time for a walk in the Auvergne, going north from Murat to Volvic, just outside Clermont-Ferrand. He tries to recall his memories from this walk, but remembers only a little: the thigh burning steepness of the walk from Super Besse along to Le Mont Dore; wading through knee-high snow up the ridge of Puy Mary; and drinking the most delicious Orangina he had ever tasted after glissading down.
His nostalgic look back causes Monty to reflect on these feelings: "There is an innocence in this, a sense of a pure past that is now unreclaimable and I suspect, increasingly hunts you down with the ache of loss as the years pass, but which is for me irrevocably associated with that corner of France."
Nothing in life can be totally compartmentalised. If you express your feelings on gardens, this links in with the history of the land, the history of art and culture and your own personal experiences. And this is what Monty achieves in his book. So, yes it does meander about a bit, but we see his love for France from a very personal perspective and it's an all the more enjoyable read for it.
Review of Cicerone's Walking in the Auvergne