Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Chateau in the Woods...

With a few days off work, the warmer, albeit windy weather led me on a walk in the wilderness to track down the remains of a chateau in the woods. Le château de Toussicourt was one of seven grandiose edifices around the town of Hermonville, of which few have survived to the present day. 

Whether grand or minimal, their vestiges offer a glimpse of very different pasts, fates and fortunes…

Whilst I anticipated difficulty locating the elusive Toussicourt, in fact the site turned out to be clearly – even blatantly - visible from the road. However, as the domain was not indicated by any signs, I assumed the chateau must surely be set in the heart of the woods, far from the intrusions of the 21st century.

View from the main access route - front of the chateau grounds with wild boar prints in the mud.

The unwelcome attentions of ramblers and urbex-ers are naturally discouraged, due to the standard hazard risks posed by game hunting, dangerous masonry and of course for trespassing issues. 

As a result, I set off for the hills and finally came across the high stone wall flanking the side of the grounds, complete with a grand gate –chained up - that led tantalisingly onto the land. This reminded me of The Secret Garden, with all the anticipation of what lay beyond the ivy-covered entrances and the frustration of not gaining access to it. 

As I was not prepared to break into the grounds, I just wandered further along the lane, feeling a bit disappointed. I was very surprised to find a very wide clearing at the back of this whole area and could barely contain excitement that transported me back to childhood. I would have loved to have made such discoveries back then! 

Brick walls, in varying degrees of ruin, still remain of the chateau outbuildings. Brambles, thickets and trees of all shapes and sizes have taken over the land, whilst ivy has grown up and over all the building vestiges. I can imagine this could be quite dangerous to visit, especially for any kind of activity other than simple observation and would be damaging and disrespectful for the grounds too and all that they represent. 

Atmospheric visions of window openings and doorways have been created, all leading nowhere, offering no views but suggesting numerous secrets and stories that are now buried in the rubble and undergrowth. 

I kept wishing I could be transported back to the 19th century, just to be able to experience its gentle past glory that can only be glimpsed at in the old black-and-white photographs that always seem to lend themselves to flights of imagination. 

Working my way towards the front of the grounds, I came across where the former gardens must have lain, with their lawns stretching out. Wild boars now leave their mark ; cloven-hoof prints in the mud and upturned soil heaps creating half-hearted molehills and trenches. 

The land here is curiously devoid of trees, bushes or even saplings, which leaves you to assume it has been cleared regularly, and so preserving some spirit or essence. 

Of the body of the chateau itself, there are but a few vast metal girders that protude like massive bones from undergrowth where piles of bright green, mossy stones lay amassed.

Several distinct features of the cellars are still visible, and to the left, on what was once the side façade, stands a relatively well-preserved fortified structure that resembles a low turret, with its slit openings, and crenelated crown. 

This dates back to the chateau’s later years and can be identified on photographs prior to the First World War. The images that remain from the turn of the last century attest to the beauty of the Toussicourt domain and to the peace and tranquility of the pre-war period.

The grand façade once looked down towards an ornamental pond which has certainly been maintained over the years and now adds to the eerie emptiness of the grounds.

Reeds grow elegantly from the water and the stumps of truncated columns rise up at the top of the structure and beyond stands the main entrance to the chateau.

Situated at the end of what must have once been a majestic tree-lined alley, we can still imagine the original stature of Toussicourt. Today the fields that flank this path-way are plain, feature-less expanses of arable land.

A large wrought-iron gateway dominates the view, serving as a vanishing point, although it is now the chateau beyond it that has simply vanished.

The gates are not, of course, the original ones and perhaps nor is much of the stone wall that encircles the front of the domain in a curious manner. The impressive height and width of the gates, is not equalled by the walls. 

Although entry is in theory barred to the public, any visitor can simply step over the lowest parts of the stonework that offers no fortification whatsover. This seems to add to the strange atmosphere that reigns here, and highlights the void beyond, where the chateau had once stood. 

Nothing could give the slightest indication to the devastation that was soon to befall the region in 1914 with the onset of the Great War. Nor could it be imagined that the the chateau itself would be actively used during the hostilities, or that it too would be a casualty. 

Like so many individuals of the Lost Generation, the chateau would never see the end of this war ‘to end all wars’. 

As French chateaux go, Toussicourt was not, in fact, by any means 'ancient'. A chateau in the Louis XVI style was constructed at the end of the 18th century between Hermonville and Villers-Franqueux, at the behest of the head of the wealthy Cliquot family.

Indeed, the ‘Seigneur de Toussicourt et d'Hermonville’ had been ennobled by Louis XV at Versailles in 1765 and needed a country property worthy of his fine position – up until the French Revolution in 1789. 

The chateau entered into the possession of the Arnould family in the early 19th century, until finally becoming one of the homes of the baron Guillaume Krafft and in turn, his son Hugues. During this later (and final) stage of the chateau’s existence, the domain was built up in line with the aspirations of the family made rich through their contributions to the champagne trade with the Louis Roederer house. 

The park was made more elaborate still, with further gardens and the impressive central drive-way. Nothing could indicate that within a few years these same lawns would soon be used to accommodate French troups of French footsoldiers, who camped out in the grounds whilst the officers took refuge in the chateau itself. Like the château itself, few would survive the ravages of the war…

Hugues Krafft

Indeed, Hermonville – and therefore Toussicourt – was situated near the fort of Saint Thierry and the Front, with the strategic site of the village of Loivre and the fort of Brimont. Artillery was installed in the highest zones in the area, a centre for special espionnage and reconnaissance missions for pilots was inaugurated in Hermonville, and medical facilities and a cemetery were likewise set up.

Although it freed itself from enemy troups, the village was subject to assault and after the prolonged onslaught, the chateau was left in a pitiful state. The centre of the edifice appears to have been ripped apart by a direct bomb hit in 1917 and whilst it could perhaps have been restored to its former state, funds permitting, this did not happen.

Agence de presse Meurisse. Agence photographique

At the end of the hostilities, Hughes Krafft took the decision not to use the money given as a war indemnity to restore Toussicourt, preferring instead to use this sum to finance a project closer to his heart; the restoration of L’Hôtel le Vergeur. More about that another day….

From this period, the domain of Toussicourt went from a certain Mr Charbonneaux, to a farmer from the neighbouring village of Villers-Franqueux in 1958. Since the abandonned chateau was considered to represent a danger to the public, the remaining architectural structures were knocked down, leaving what we see today, and letting us imagine what its past had been.

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