We were picked up from the Hotel du Mail by an enthusiastic young man, Nicolas, who turned out not to be our driver for the five hour journey to Bourganeuf. I felt a bit sorry that we wouldn't benefit from his extrovert style, but he was only to drive us to the bus station in Saumur (home to the most beautiful, fairytale castle of all), where he was traded for the elegant and diminutive Anne Marie who drove us impeccably all the way in shiny, black, very high heels! But not before he'd swung past his home town of Brissac and its impressive chateau that sits comfortably on the main street. It has been in the same family for 600 years, and the area is known for its production of sweet white wine.
And so to Aubusson, the Manoir and the truly incomparable week of our tour! It was a warm, summery day and the countryside shimmered in the sunshine, all blue skies and golden fields criss-crossed with banks of verdant trees and the presence of the river never far away.
Countryside around the Manoir
The Manoir is buried deep in the country, five kilometers from the village of Bourganeuf in the Creuse district. As we wound around small, curving roads in our big coach I was delighted to be able to recognise the turn off immediately, much to the relief of Anne Marie.
Situated in rolling fields with a stand of immensely tall trees for protection, the 250 year old Manoir is indeed magnificent. Built of grey stone in three storeys, its white shuttered windows yield to the sun on both sides and deciduous ivy patterns the outside walls. Entering through the heavy front door we were swept away by the sheer size of the interior space and the luxuriousness of its contents. The caretaker, Francois, walked us through room after room of furniture dating from the Renaissance to Louis XIV and XV. Heavily carved yet beautifully proportioned cupboards and wardrobes hold all the daily household needs and there are velvet covered settings in two sitting rooms with high, gilded mirrors and tall French windows to let in the light. Traditional tapestries woven in Aubusson abound, and nearly every room in this eight bedroom abode boasts one. I particularly love the stone - floored rustic kitchen and its great collection of catering sized pots and pans.
Formal sitting room
Kitchen with Aubusson tapestry
Downstairs bedroom with"bateau - lits"
We wandered excitedly through the many rooms and I suggested bedrooms for each person. By the most enormous luck each one had instinctively gravitated to the room I had in mind for them, which was a great relief to me. Everyone had fallen in love instantly with the impressive house and its bountiful surroundings.
The grounds have a careless charm, un manicured except for a grassy path bounded by young lavender leading to a secluded rotunda of foliage - a place for sitting under a huge, shady tree and contemplating the property. Tucked behind a grove of hedges a swimming pool gleamed pristinely in the sunshine, and proved to be a focus of much pleasure in the warm evenings, the natural gathering place for drinks and feeling the last of the sun on our faces.
The Lavender path
Tai Chi by the pool with Sally
Soon our lovely caterer Valerie Largorsse arrived with a note of welcome and some tapestry frames from my wonderful, indispensable contact in Aubusson, Susanne Bouret, who had very generously liaised with the Aubusson weavers and arranged our two days of visits to the town. Susanne is an esteemed conservator of textiles and a wonderful translator because she knows and understands both the language and technique of weaving so well. I couldn't do this part of the tour without her depth of knowledge and her willingness to be involved.
Valerie produced a marvellous meal for us, and as well as catering for every evening meal she came each day laden with bread and fresh fruit and vegetables, homemade pates, terrines and rillettes for our picnic lunches, eggs and cereal and confiture for our breakfasts. On the second day Francois arrived with an enormous box of fresh farm produce to supplement our provisions, including tomatoes with a flavour that could only be imagined. Valerie and I had discussed menus before our visit and I asked for them to be simple but characteristic of French cuisine. Night after night she delighted us with the variety and excellence of her efforts, also catering thoughtfully for three people who had food allergies. Betty sat in the kitchen with her each evening and compiled a list of her recipes to share, Valerie explaining patiently the details of ingredients and methods. We all grew very fond of her during our week together.
Our time here was divided between a workshop to learn and explore tapestry techniques designed to accommodate the skills of the participants, and visits to the studios of Aubusson weavers, the Cite Internationale de la Tapisserie and the Atelier Pinton, in nearby Felletin. After settling in to the lovely surroundings and waking to the fresh, country air we warped up our frames on the second day, using the large dining room as an ideal studio, scattering the enormous table with our materials. As I had students from several levels of accomplishment I tailored the workshop to their individual needs. Inspired by the wealth of tapestry that we had seen so far, the beginners were very keen to learn the basic technique and the more experienced weavers had very definite ideas about what they wanted to pursue. These included explorations of Mediaeval tapestry techniques and weaving "en plein air", picturing the surrounds of the Manoir.
Workshop in the Dining Room
Stephnie working "en plein air"
Samplers and small tapestries
We passed the week in a wonderful haze of work balanced by leisure, with morning and evening walks down picturesque lanes bounded by farms and old stone houses, long evenings of conversation, dips in the pool and lots of laughs. The group had bonded extremely well and shared this whole experience in very good spirit. I felt lucky to be one of them.
The river and bridge close to the property