Text and photos: Agnès Villette
So the search for the manoir the l’Anglais was still on. The following day, after a first attempt which had taken us to a wrong manor, I embarked again, my brother, my sister and two of their kids in a packed car. This time, we had been given precise directions to go to l’Eperney. It was not hard to find and I realised afterwards that I had seen the hamlet composed of towering old mansions off the main road on multiple trips to the seaside during my childhood. One has to leave the road leading to Barneville a few kilometres after Bricquebec, where my parents have a house.
The hamlet is an architectural oddity, with a modern 60’s house built in front of a XVII arch entrance, a long alley leading to a mix styled mansion adorned with a medieval round tower. From the description given that evening by the owner of the manor in a London Wetherspoon pub to the actual place, there were discrepancies which seem amusing. Was it to do with memory? The owner’s memory in this case, as he had voluntarily forgotten to mention that his part of the manor was surrounded by other buildings. More specifically that the real noble part of the manor was not his. “You can’t miss it, it has an arch at the alley’s entry.”
Yes, it did have one, but it was not leading to his house. We had a quick look around the block of houses, and it seemed quickly apparent that his part of the building was the one covered by overgrown plants trees and thorns. There were not many ways to approach the building. Armed with a wooden stick, I cut a path among the vegetation, eventually reaching a ruin under tree canopies. The path was covered with nettles, and I had to go back as my nephew who had started to follow me got stung. He is three and he had never experienced such a stinging pain. It made me think how strange and complex the world must be for him as he is starting to apprehend plants and animal around him. I used a traditional remedy I had been told. If you take three different green leaves and rub the sting, it should recede. I don’t know if it did work for him, but he stopped following me and I went back exploring the ruin.
Trees had grown inside the house, the roof had fallen years ago. It was difficult to assess its age, and it did not really look like a manor. I could hear far away voices as I was lost amongst the high vegetation. The strangest of all, was the overground plant which had invaded the whole area around the house. The coincidence was rather striking as the previous day I had collected some of that same plant about which I was going to write for a residency project. The whole place was surrounded and invaded by Japanese knotweed. It is one of the most common invasive plant in Europe, it requires millions of Euros to been destroyed. And it cannot be disposed of outside waste collection stations, as the plant can proliferate from cut twigs. As a lot of non native plants transported away from their natural environment, it was to behave in a very different way than in its native climate.
I had first heard of it in London, when I had red Richard Mabey’s essay Weeds, which narrates the history of invasive plants which have colonised cities and countryside and required extravagant amount of money to be destroyed. In France, Japanese knotweed was first noticed in the wild in 1939. In London, it had been identified as early as 1900. It is a perfect plant for the industrial age, at least in Europe. It particularly likes to invade embarkments, river banks, railway slopes and it can progress from one area to another with great speed. It is known to grow 6 metres per year.
It is a very intriguing plant, as its foliage is heart shaped, and its twigs, in their higher part, are reddish. Quite elegant, its foliage is nicely balanced, and its allure is pleasing, constituting large, dense bushes. It has a striking velocity with its ability to kill and destroy all plants around it. In its original habitat, Japanese knotweed is contained by endemic other species, but in Europe, no other plant can resist its colonisation. The forest ecosystem is one of the rare to oppose its intrusion. The plant grows deep rhizome roots digging down to two meters underground. Despite the tender aspect of its twigs, which in the higher part of the bush can be easily torn, the roots are strong enough to break through macadam.
I heard my sister’s voice calling me back. When I returned to the car parked at the entrance of the path, she was in deep conversation with a tall topless man. Athletic, at ease, and with one of those direct blue eye stare, he was telling her anecdotes about the house and its owner. He did not seem surprised to see us turning up to have a look around. He lived in one of the nearby houses.
As I approached, he turned to me: “The house you were at is not the manor, this is a grange. The house is just behind, you need to follow a parallel path to reach it.” Could I go? “Of course” he smiled back at me. He knew very well the owner, “his wife, and also his kids” and was not the latest surprised when I told him of the encounter in a London pub. “He was bringing quite a few eccentrics, I remember good parties in his house.” It seemed so strange that he had not sold it years early before it all fell in ruins. “Well, he did try for a while, but he asked too much money for it.” I wanted to see the actual house, and left, hearing him recalling one of the parties, when he had met an English female tightrope walker he seemed to have a particular warm memory of.
Crossing through wild green overground edges, I found a way to access an open door leading to a dark shadowed room with a massive chimney. The house lay open, and it seemed paradoxically both to have been recently visited and abandoned for a long time. Rooms after rooms of deserted spaces, which seemed to have been abandoned not long ago. In the kitchen, the open cupboard still had some basic ingredients in faded packagings.
Their was something quite comical about the house decoration, something definitely old fashioned, such as the colourful pattern curtains still hanging at the window, bed spreads negligently lying around, and upstairs, odd clothes still in massive cabinets. It felt as if it had been deserted in a rush, as if the people living here had to suddenly abandon everything behind.
And it felt quite intrusive to be here, peering at Irish woollen jumpers neatly piled in an open drawn, floor spread books revealing the owner’s literary taste, old glasses laying on a desk. Some of the oldest and more pricy house pieces had obviously vanished, as the chimney lintel in the main room… I retraced back my steps back to meet my sister and the neighbour who had kept talking in the meanwhile.
“We talked to the tax man and he reckons it could be sold for 1€!”, he was explaining when I arrived back near them.