Chateau La Chaire

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Chateau Le Chaire

Famous gardens

One of the most outstanding features of Chateau La Chaire, a small hotel in a manor-type building in Rozel Valley, is its extensive gardens and grounds which cover some 8½ acres.

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The gardens were once the finest of their day, created in 1841 by Samuel Curtis, the famous botanist and a former director of Kew Gardens. He also built the first house on the site of La Chaire. The name means 'pulpit' and was used to describe a large rock overhanging the hillside. Little trace of this remains as it was demolished during the Napoleonic wars so that Rozel might be commanded by a battery of 24 pounders. However the site of the gun emplacement is still clearly visible.

Samuel Curtis was born in Walworth, Surrey on August 29, 1779 and by the beginning of the nineteenth century had established a nursery garden of considerable importance.It was also from here that he decided upon the publication of floral work to be illustrated from nature using full-size coloured plates of surpassing excellence.

From 1827 to 1846 he also directed the 'New Series' of the Royal Horticultural Society's Botanical Magazine with specimens from his gardens being featured in the colour plates.Painted by 2 well-known artists of that era, these plates are now in the library of the British Museum in South Kensington.

Samuel Curtis first saw La Chaire in the summer of 1841. He instantly knew this was the location he had been searching for to create his subtropical plant paradise. His search had taken him all over the British Isles, from Inverness in the north of Scotland to Dorset on the south coast of England. Until he reached La Chaire, no one location had the right combination of climate, geography, topography and geology that Curtis had been looking for. At La Chaire he found a narrow, verdant, steep-sided valley running in an east-west direction. At the eastern end of the valley lay Rozel Bay and the sea with stunning views across to St Malo and mainland France. To the west the valley wound its way through, what appeared to Curtis on first sighting, to be mountainous country which sheltered La Chaire from the full force of south-westerly winds sweeping in from the Atlantic.

A swift-running stream filled the valley bottom, emptying itself onto the shingle beach of Rozel Bay. The south-facing side of the valley was positively Mediterranean in aspect, a steep and rocky cliff face with sun-baked soil and some natural terracing. The north-facing valley side was not quite so steep and covered with lush vegetation comprising evergreen oak, Quercus ilex and Jersey elm, Ulmus x sarniensis. It had the warmth of the Mediterranean coupled with the humidity of Chile or Tasmania.

LaChaire05.jpg

Ideal for sub-tropical plants

Curtis judged correctly that frost would be virtually non-existent and the bedrock, (unlike the rest of Jersey which was granite), was a soft purple conglomerate, or pudding stone, which could be penetrated and disintegrated by tree roots into soil eminently suited to the growing of subtropical shrubs. Curtis had indeed found his garden.

Curtis started work on La Chaire almost immediately, although he did not move permanently to Jersey until 1852. On the south side of the valley he built a small square house under the cliffs shelter and began creating a series of paths and terraces leading to the summit. At the summit was a rocky outcrop, where during the Napoleonic wars a gun battery had been built. This outcrop became known locally as the "Pulpit" rock, and it is said that Curtis preached the gospel to his gardeners, toiling away on the slopes below him, from this point. Whether this increased their productivity no one knows, but the gardens of La Chaire certainly begun to take shape relatively quickly. Letters sent by Curtis to Hooker at Kew during 1841-42 talk about the planting of deep shelterbelts of æIlexÆ, (evergreen oak, Quercus ilex), at both the eastern and western extremities of the garden.

Samuel Curtis died in La Chaire on January 6 1860 and he and his daughter Harriet are both buried at St Martins Church. Towards the end of the 19th century the property was bought by a Mr Fletcher who planned grandiose alterations. He pulled down Curtis' house and built the present one in its place. He also organised a complex system for watering the gardens.

The Fletchers lived there in great style with the house having marble floors and its own private ballroom; however after some time the house and gardens deteriorated due to financial problems. After the first world war the property was bought by a Mrs Rose but by then there were few survivors of the Curtis regime. One of these was the outstanding pink Magnolia - now on adjoining property - which is the largest of its kind in Europe.

In 1932 La Chaire was bought by a Mr A V Nicolle and during his tenure the garden once again became a place of beauty with Mrs Nicolle seeking expert advice from Kew.

The hotel and its extensive grounds viewed from the air

Germans remove plants

During the German Occupation the house was empty with one gardener in charge. He was disgusted when the Germans dug up, for transportation to Germany, some of the prized trees, a Magnolia Campbellii amongst them. However many of them had their roots damaged in the operation and it is thought that they never flourished in their new home. There is also a story that a wartime plane lies buried somewhere in the grounds.

After the war La Chaire was bought by Major and Mrs Henry Wigram who were the first to change its use to a hotel. After a season of operation they were joined by 2 other members of their family, Major and Mrs C Clyde Smith.

The hotel was sold a few years later and from then to the present day has had a number of owners and has also changed use for a period back to a private residence. It was turned back into a hotel by Mr Nigel Humphreys, Mr John Brewster and Lady Ducros, who ran it until 1986 when it was bought by the Hatton Hotel Group.

The gardens make an interesting walk for holidaymakers and locals as well as providing an excellent view of the Ecrehous and coast of France.The grounds are also home to a variety of birds and wildlife including Kingfisher, Nightingales and Red Squirrels.

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Restoration project

From Jersey Tourism website

Plant paradise

Samuel Curtis first saw La Chaire in the summer of 1841. He instantly knew this was the location he had been searching for to create his subtropical plant paradise. His search had taken him all over the British Isles, from Inverness in the north of Scotland to Dorset on the south coast of England. Until he reached La Chaire, no one location had the right combination of climate, geography, topography and geology that Curtis had been looking for.

At La Chaire he found a narrow, verdant, steep-sided valley running in an east-west direction. At the eastern end of the valley lay Rozel Bay and the sea with stunning views across to St Malo and mainland France. To the west the valley wound its way through, what appeared to Curtis on first sighting, to be mountainous country which sheltered La Chaire from the full force of south-westerly winds sweeping in from the Atlantic.

A swift-running stream filled the valley bottom, emptying itself onto the shingle beach of Rozel Bay. The south-facing side of the valley was positively Mediterranean in aspect, a steep and rocky cliff face with sun-baked soil and some natural terracing. The north-facing valley side was not quite so steep and covered with lush vegetation comprising evergreen oak, Quercus ilex and Jersey elm, Ulmus x sarniensis. It had the warmth of the Mediterranean coupled with the humidity of Chile or Tasmania.

Curtis judged correctly that frost would be virtually non-existent and the bedrock, (unlike the rest of Jersey which was granite), was a soft purple conglomerate, or pudding stone, which could be penetrated and disintegrated by tree roots into soil eminently suited to the growing of subtropical shrubs. Curtis had indeed found his garden.

Curtis started work on La Chaire almost immediately, although he did not move permanently to Jersey until 1852. On the south side of the valley he built a small square house under the cliffs shelter and began creating a series of paths and terraces leading to the summit. At the summit was a rocky outcrop, where during the Napoleonic wars a gun battery had been built.

Curtis died on 6 January 1860, but the gardens he created at La Chaire lived on. The plants he selected and planted were chosen with such skill and understanding that in 1910, the "Tropical Garden of La Chaire" (as it was then known), had become one of the principal attractions of Jersey, one that every tourist to the island was expected to visit. The Decline of La Chaire

LaChaire02.jpg

Succession of owners

Following the First World War, La Chaire had a succession of owners, some showed more interest in the garden than others. The original house that Curtis built was pulled down and a grand Chateau built in its place. Manpower within the garden became limited and the garden began an inevitable, gradual decline. By the 1930s much of the original Curtis plant collection had been lost and there was only one gardener employed to look after what was left. The ultimate indignity came during the German Occupation when the Germans dug up, for transportation to Germany, some of the prized specimens still remaining. Many of them had their roots damaged during this process and it is thought likely that the majority would have perished before even reaching their new home.

After the Second World War the Chateau was turned into a hotel and since then several owners have changed its use from hotel to private residence and back to hotel. During this period the grounds immediately surrounding the Chateau have been maintained to a basic level. Elsewhere it is as if the gardeners of La Chaire left the garden in 1910 and have never returned.

Today, there are only clues to the garden of great beauty and horticultural importance that once existed on this site. Crumbling walls and steps, old lead irrigation pipes, weed covered terracing and giant, ancient, evergreen trees; their broken branches and dead limbs telling the story of the last ninety years.

La Chaire, the house which was demolished to make way for the building which became a hotel

Rediscovery

The garden was 'rediscovered' in 2002 by Cheltenham-based businesswoman, Angie Petkovic, while at a meeting at the hotel. She said: “I knew there was something special about the garden as soon as I wandered into it. However, it wasn't until I invited expert Tony Russell to fly over and look at it that we started to appreciate just how important it was.”

It was estimated that it would cost £3 million or more to restore the garden and create a more diverse collection of plants growing outside that can be found anywhere else in the British Isles, but there was little support to designate the work as a tourism project and provide public money to support it and the plan has fallen into abeyance.

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