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These pages chart the progress of the project which is currently
IN ABEYANCE

January 2004
In the beginning
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.

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.

La Chaire (1852-1910)
By the time Samuel Curtis and his daughter Harriet took up residence at La Chaire in 1852 the infrastructure and first plantings of the twelve-acre garden were in place. Groups of Rhododendron arboreum, R. falconeri, R. edgeworthii, R. campanulatum and a fine hybrid raised at La Chaire between formosum and edgeworthii were flourishing. As were dozens of acacias, Eriobotrya japonica, (which was already flowering), Thea viridis, (a variety of the Camellia tea plant from China) and members of the olive family, Olea sativa and fragrans. Along paths winding up from the house were masses of South African, Mesembryanthemum tricolor, very much at home amongst the steep, sunny rocky crevices.

In November 1853 Samuel Curtis wrote,
“We have thousands of chrysanthemums still in blossom of which we prefer the small pompom varieties. I have lately turned my attention to the half hardy shrubs and plants, such as require protection in England. Kew and the botanic garden in the Regents Park keep me well supplied with curious plants and I am trying to make some new rock work and want all the best plants for it, but at present, until it is planted, it looks like Sebastopol! I have more than thirty tall stems of Yucca gloriosa in blossom at once.”

In June 1855 La Chaire is visited by members of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society, a report of which appeared in the Jersey Times:
"The third and last visit was to the extraordinary garden of Samuel Curtis of La Chaire. This may be termed a wonderful proof of what taste and skill can effect. The site was originally mere rock, scantily covered with furze. The ground has been cleared and leveled and a neat residence erected thereon. Behind and on every side it is surrounded with terraces most romantically situated among the rocks bearing flowers, fruit and vegetables of great variety and in the highest perfection. Numerous rare exotics heretofore in England to be found only under glass carefully tended are at La Chaire by skilful management and judgment in choice of situation produced luxuriously in the open air. The spot seems a species of fairy land."

In 1854 Curtis is experimenting with sugar cane and wrote in October of that year, “tell everyone that my sugar cane, sown in April is eight feet tall, so dense a mass that a cat could not get amongst it". He goes on to say, æmy Yams or Chinese potatoes look well. I have about 120 pots planted and to plant out, so next winter I hope, if I live so long, to prove their worth”.

By 1858 Curtis's health is failing and he has difficulty with his eyesight which restricts his ability to do much in the garden, but he continues to take a keen interest in all that goes on. His journal records, “today we made 12 bottles of jam from our Madeira whortleberries, I think it excellent. No one else has it.”.

Curtis died on January 6th 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
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.
Tony Russell
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Plants identified (so far) at La Chaire Gardens
Euonymus myrianthus – top terrace near field boundary
Acacia dealbata – naturalized throughout garden
Trachycarpus fortunei – lower terrace near pool
Phoenix caneriensis – south terrace
Cedrus deodar – south terrace
Acacia longifolia – near gun emplacement
Acacia melanoxylon – La Rive
Acacia pravissima – Magnolia cottage
Olea europea – near gun emplacement
Myrtus apiculata – Magnolia cottage
Cordyline australis – south terrace
Cupressus macrocarpa – top terrace – possible champion tree.
Nandina domestica – near gun emplacement
Acacia rhetinoides – near gun emplacement
Quercus ilex – naturalized throughout garden
Grevillia rosmarinifolia – south terrace
Muehlenbeckia complexa – south terrace
Jasminum azoricum – lower south terrace
Eucryphia cordifolia – Magnolia Cottage
Styrax japonica – woodland garden
Feijoa sellowiana – lower terrace near big wisteria
Laurus nobilis – near gun emplacement
Magnolia grandiflora – west terrace
Eucalyptus spp. – south terrace
Rhododendron spp. – woodland garden
Camellia spp. – lower terrace
Arundinaria spp. – stream garden
Magnolia campbellii – Magnolia cottage
Davidia involucrata – La Rive

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