Hex is a historic garden of major landscape importance, with a magnificent horticultural overlay. The house at the centre of the estate was built in the 1770s by François-Charles, Comte de Velbrück (1719-94), Prince-Bishop of Liège from 1772 until his death, and, at that time, by far the largest landowner in what is now eastern Belgium. Velbrück developed Hex as a private hunting box, and stayed there during the spring and autumn seasons. As he was an unmarried cleric, the estate was, in due course, inherited by his nephew, the Comte d’Ansembourg, and has passed through marriage and descent down to the present owner, Comte Ghislain d’Ursel.
Prince-Bishop Velbrück was an enlightened ruler, imbued with a taste for the pleasures of country life. He surrounded Hex with woodlands and laid out a landscaped park, inspired by the work of ‘Capability’ Brown in England. Successive generations have left their mark on the landscape, but the main features today were created by the garden architect Jules Janlet (1880-1973), who was influenced by the Arts-and-Crafts Movement. Janlet began work in 1910, when he transformed the English-style lawn that sloped down from the house into a series of broad, formal terraces. His designs were later modified by Jacques Wirtz, who worked at Hex from 1985 to 1991. As you wind your way up the drive today, it’s clear how well the terraces underpin the house, with added structure coming from topiaries of yew and box.
Formal gardens lead out from the cour d’honneur behind the house, where hornbeam hedges, gravel, box topiary, stone urns and neatly mown grass set the context for beds of seasonal plantings. Off to the sides are several small, formal gardens, also enclosed by hedges. One was developed in the 1930s as a Chinese garden, where a jolly, polychromatic Buddha with huge ears beams out at the world from underneath an oriental baldacchino. Another is known as the Prince’s Garden, and a third as the small rose garden. Roses are everywhere at Hex and, indeed, the the small rose garden was at first a playground for the children of the family, until it was planted with roses by Ghislain d’Ursel’s mother when her children grew up. Comtesse Nanda d’Ursel adored roses, which are a major feature of Hex’s gardens, especially in summer.
Attractive though the formal gardens and park may be, by far the most exciting part of Hex’s estate is its kitchen garden. Visitors come across it in the most dramatic manner imaginable. Walking out behind the house, through the enclosures of hornbeam and grass, your eye is caught by a high terrace along the edge, bordered by exquisite Baroque cast-iron balustrading. From this spectacular vantage point, the whole kitchen garden reveals itself below-rows and rows of immaculately grown vegetables, flowers, herbs and trained fruit trees, edged with box and intersected with gravel paths. In the background is the neo-Classical, brick-built parish church, topped by a Gothic spire. It is a wonderful sight at any time of the year, but especially in autumn, when the season of harvest reaches its climax, and it is here that one finds some of the highest standards of cultivation in Europe.
On the ground, it is full of interest, divided into sections that are rotated on a three-year sequence, to preserve the health of the soil. It’s not a French-style potager, where pretty design takes precedence over what is actually grown in the garden; the lines of fruit, herbs, vegetables and flowers are more reminiscent of an English kitchen garden. Composting and recycling are crucial
to the gardeners’ practices, and they are beginning to explore and implement some of the other principles of permaculture.
It’s worth remembering that the cultivation of fruit and vegetables reached its highest point of horticultural excellence in the early years of the 20th century. Much was lost as a result of the great social changes brought about by the First World War, but the old traditions have been kept alive at Hex, and still determine the systems and methods of operation today.Hex has for years been in the vanguard of the conservation of old cultivars of fruit and vegetables, many of which are threatened with extinction because they don’t crop as freely and dependably as modern selections. Heavy cropping and regular production are not as important at Hex as variety and taste. Elsewhere on the estate, Comte d’Ursel has planted 74 acres of old varieties of apples and pears, chosen because they were traditionally grown in this part of Brabant. Some are widely grown in other parts of Europe, including such apples as Blenheim Orange from England and early-fruiting White Astrakhan, but others have a strictly local origin-Brabantse Bellefleur, for instance.
Within the kitchen garden are further apple cultivars, old and new, including the large eating apple Joseph Musch and the rare Colapuis, originally grown around the Black Sea, but brought to western Europe after the Crimean War. Pears also grow to perfection in the climate of eastern Belgium: early-fruiting Bruine Kriekpeer and juicy perfumed Seigneur Esperen are examples of local varieties unknown in Britain.
The cultivar names of the fruit trees grown at Hex make one realise just how many good varieties-apples, pears, cherries and plums-are never available from British nurseries. All the trees are shaped and trained to maximise their health and fruitfulness and the gardeners are supported in their pruning by members of Nationale Boomgaarden Stichting, the Belgian national orchard foundation that identifies, conserves and evaluates old fruit-tree cultivars. Dessert apples and pears are stored until ripe for eating; cookers are treated in the traditional manner-many of the pears, for example, are bottled for winter consumption. Many other fruits are grown, including grapes, peaches, apricots, strawberries and figs-some in dedicated glasshouses and others in the open or trained against the high retaining walls.
Cellars were excavated under the retaining walls and are still used for their original purpose-the storage and forcing of vege-tables. Cabbages, potatoes, celeriac, leeks and carrots are among those that are kept in the dark at a steady temperature; they survive longer, and in better condition, through the winter months than they would do under the poor man’s alternative, a clamp. Vegetable marrows and squashes are stored on top of upturned flowerpots. Rhubarb, red dandelions, chicory and other salad plants are brought into the cellars to blanch and soften in late winter and spring.
The principle behind the selection of vegetables at Hex has been to concentrate on some 55 varieties that were grown in the days of the Prince-Bishop. Many are well-known-there is a very fine asparagus bed-but others are seldom seen today, including such salad plants as Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus) and the greater burdock (Arctium lappa), a relation of the artichoke, whose fleshy roots, up 3ft long, are boiled as an accompaniment to strongly flavoured meats. Some of the rarer varieties, including cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) and sea kale (Crambe maritima) were, until recently, sold to a Michelin-starred restaurant, but, happily, these delicious and unusual vege-tables are now more widely available commercially, so any excess produce goes to a convent in Limburg, for distribution as the nuns see fit.
The kitchen garden also supplies flowers to the house, according to the season: marigolds, Salvia farinacea, Michaelmas daisies, peonies, cornflowers and, of course, roses. Roses, indeed, are everywhere, and many who know the garden would say that its high point comes not in September, but in June, when the roses bring cascades of colour and scent to every corner of Hex. The roses are part of Comtesse d’Ursel’s legacy at Hex, but she would surely have approved of the way her son Ghislain has developed the cultivation of fruit and vegetables and of the enormous renown that the estate has earned for its Festivals of Rare Plants, Roses and Kitchen Gardens.
Kasteel Hex, B-3870, Heers, Belgium (firstname.lastname@example.org; www.hex.be)
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