Victor Hugo, award-winning clematis, natural beauty, and fabulous food
As many of you reading this article will know, Silver Travel Advisor runs a very popular Book Club.
But how many of you bookworms know that Victor Hugo completed his most successful novel ‘Les Misérables’ whilst living in exile from France for 15 years on the island of Guernsey?
Having spent two all-too-brief September days on the island, courtesy of Visit Guernsey, a little group of us are now much more ‘au fait’ with Monsieur Hugo’s life and work and the impact of the people of Guernsey, its landscapes, seasons and sea, on this titan of literature and social justice.
Hugo bought his large house and garden in St Peter Port, Hauteville House, in 1856 just a year after arriving at Guernsey, thanks to the massive success of his poetry collection, ‘Les Contemplations’. He then proceeded to develop and decorate it as only a 19th century Romantic intellectual might: chinoiserie, chandeliers, exquisite wall hangings, symbolic carved wooden doors and panels, described by his son Charles, as ‘a real autograph of three floors, a poem in several rooms’.
Away from the bustle of his grand house, Hugo created for himself a private bedroom and study, high in the attic space at the top of the house, where he could see across the garden, the town and the sea to his homeland, France. He actually wrote here standing up, as was the custom of the time.
As brilliantly conveyed in his novels, throughout his life Hugo was a campaigner against capital punishment and a crusader against poverty. He opened his household kitchen to the local poor school children, to give them at least one good meal a week. He travelled widely across the island, to granite quarries, fishing ports and bays, and to the island prison. He chose to travel by his own horse and cart, directly embracing the atmosphere and especially learning the local news and stories from his cart driver. He fiercely opposed hanging and conceived of this ceramic clock in his house as a macabre reminder of the hour of 4 o’clock, the habitual time for public hangings.
Hauteville House is presently closed to the public, but will re-open for guided public tours from April 2022.
However, the Victor Hugo Garden, located within the sweeping expanse of Candie Gardens in St Peter Port, was installed just this year and is open year-round. Commemorating Hugo’s time in Guernsey, the garden showcases the many plants and flowers described in his novels and letters. It is located alongside the massive and dynamic statue of Hugo, unveiled in 1914 and standing atop a rock of iconic Blue Guernsey granite.
Our all-too- brief weekend break included a visit to the Island’s clematis nursery. Oh my, not just any old nursery but the RHS Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal-winning, internationally renowned Raymond Evison nursery.
Located in over six acres in the parish of Vale, Raymond Evison has been breeding and developing beautiful clematis here for over 50 years, initially learning from his father before him. Super busy preparing for this year’s Chelsea Flower Show which actually takes place later this month, Raymond spared some of his precious time to take us on a tour of his vast sheds and hangers and even coolers, which control the growth of the plants when necessary. He explained the precise and painstaking skills and experience that goes into lovingly cultivating around two million clematis plants a year, for distribution to wholesalers and nurseries in the UK and across the world including to China where Raymond runs a joint venture, given that China has half of the world’s species of clematis. Around 3,000 plants are being nursed to perfection now, ready to be transported across the sea to London, to be built into towers of clematis at the RHS 2021 Chelsea Flower Show.
Raymond explained that, like any savvy entrepreneur, his nursery business has to evolve with the times and demands of the market. Hence, he has cultivated more compact and hardy clematis in recent years, to suit customers with smaller gardens, patios and balconies. The nursery is not open to the public, but you can enjoy award-winning clematis, which will flower from early summer to early autumn, delivered by mail order safely to your door.
Following in Hugo’s footsteps to Guernsey came the French Impressionist, Renoir, who worked on 15 paintings during his month-long stay in 1883. On the second day of our visit, led by Gill, our local, trusty and most well-informed, guide, we walked the ‘Renoir Trail’ to see more of the island’s countryside and beaches including this view of the ‘Baie du Moulin Huet’ which can be seen through a cleverly set picture frame, just as the artist himself before us.
Last but not least, here’s my shout-out for the welcoming team at La Fregate Hotel, St Peter Port, for all their kind attention and their super comfortable, ocean-view rooms. Special thanks to Head Chef, Tony Leck, who created this lunchtime selection of mini desserts – I’m sure Monsieur Hugo had a sweet tooth!
P.S. Since my visit to Guernsey and writing this article, I am thrilled to say that at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Raymond Evison Clematis won the 2021 President’s Award for Clematis cultivars. Oh my goodness – what an honour – we knew they looked marvellous!
Lynn Scrivener was a guest of Guernsey Tourism. For all information on the Islands of Guernsey, see www.visitguernsey.com.
Guernsey’s airline, Aurigny, flies to Guernsey from multiple regional UK airports. Return flights from London Gatwick are priced from £100 per person including 10 kg hand baggage.
Standard double rooms at La Fregate Hotelare priced from £215 per room on a B&B basis.