When my daughter was about seven, we were at a loose end one day and decided on a Magical Mystery Tour. I opened up a map of the local area and asked her to shut her eyes and point. Her finger landed on “Fontenay”, apparently a tiny hamlet near Saint Baud in Touraine. We drove there and were thrilled to find a ruined château, dating back – as I later discovered – to the 15th century and last occupied at the time of the French Revolution. We trudged round it, battling through dense undergrowth, and explored the moat and ruined tower. Some kids were playing there and had seen us. They were hiding, but we could hear their fake animal calls. The place was charged with atmosphere and reminded me of a poem I wrote when I was about 16, the subject being a ruined manor house called “Thistledown Hall”, but also of the château in Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes which, though not ruined, was an equally mysterious domain full of magical phenomena.
Yesterday, I was driving around looking for a place to stop and walk the dog when, by a circuitous route, I found myself beside the Fontenay château once again. All of the undergrowth had been cleared, the centuries-old trees chopped down, and the 15th-century tower appeared to be occupied, with proper windows and curtains, while the later 18th-century part of the house was being restored. Three workmen were on high, building the timber frame for a new roof, steep and tall. I was so surprised that I stopped the car and stared. The workmen seemed equally surprised and stopped what they were doing to stare back at me.
When I got home, I told my daughter about this, saying that it was nice that the château had found someone to bring it back to life – half-heartedly trying to convince myself that I actually believed this. She was crestfallen and said that no, it was a tragedy, because we loved it the way it was. I had to admit she was right. It may be a hangover from Romanticism to love ruins, but there is something wonderfully doomladen about human edifices being gradually eroded and engulfed with vegetation, the victory of nature over the works of man. Does everything have to be “saved” and “restored”? Can’t we just let a few secretive châteaux take on a new, overgrown life, a home to foxes, badgers and crows rather than boring old human beings?