At the centre of the ‘mystic triangle’ formed by the cities of Reims, Soissons and Laon, within the ancient provinces of Champagne and Picardy lie the grounds of Vauclair. Surrounded by forest, set in the valley of the river Ailette are the ruins of the 12th century abbey ; L’Abbaye de Vauclair.
I had not even been aware of its existence, although it is situated just a short d istance from a Center Parc site. Therefore, having deposited the young ones in my charge for their day of swimming and sun-bathing, I retraced my steps back to the road sign indicating Vauclair, and set off to explore…
The peace and beauty of the region today belies the brutality of its not-so-distant history ; this was the scene of some of the worst losses in the First World War. Not that you could even imagine such a dark, monstrous past now, especially given the present context, as the greenery, sunlight and warmth are in total constrast to our drawn-out weeks and months of Covid confinement.
The wooded landscapes and rolling farmland have long since erased the ghastly images associated with the inhumanity of the ‘war to end all wars’. The deathly, pock-marked lunar landscape of the trenches have long been cloaked over with life and vitality and the enchanting name of Chemin des Dames has recovered its initial, pre-war prettiness. It should have been of no surprise, I suppose, to learn that the fate of Vauclair Abbey was decided by the insanity of war, just as countless other sites which were fatally damaged or even obliterated during the 1914-18 hostilities.
Initially a Neolithic settlement on marshy land that was later inhabited during the Gallo-Roman period, Vauclair was founded by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134. The name (Vallis Clara) was a direct reference to the mother monastery itself (Clara Vallis) – Vauclair being the 15th daughter house. Both sites benefitted from sunlight all day, due to their positioning, and during my visit this was no exception, with light pouring onto the grounds, heating up the stonework, drying already parched grassy stretches.
Prior to the foundation of Vauclair, the site was known as Curtmenblein and possessed its own parish church, the rights of which were handed over to Bernard. A group of monks from Clairvaux, took possession of the site and under the direction of its first abbot, an Englishman no less, erected the Cistercian abbey of Vauclair. The abbey rose and ran along the lines set out by the precepts of the faith – for prayer, work, contemplation and community life.
Vauclair was soon recognised as one of the high places of Christendom and as it prospered, the construction of a greater abbey was deemed appopriate in the mid-13th century. Ironically, the stone required for the edifice came from the quarry within the Caverne du Dragon (along the Chemin des Dames), the very cave that would offer protection to the soldiers of both sides during the Great War. Wartime hostilities ultimately led to the devastation of this same masonry as Vauclair was in the direct line of artillery bombardment. While Vauclair abbey was inaugurated in April 1257 - some 660 years later - in April 1917, little remained of the site but rubble.
Vauclair had, of course, been beset by other issues during the intervening centuries. Plague had killed off a certain number of monks at the beginning of the 15th century whilst the Hundred Years' War, the 16th-century French Wars of Religion and the pillaging of Spanish all took their toll. Nevertheless, it managed to survive until the French Revolution in 1789, when the monks were dispersed, and the site was finally divided up and sold off as ‘national property’ to become a farming hamlet for commoners. The laybrothers’ building was listed as a Monument Historique in 1911 but to no avail for it was destroyed by the Nivelle offensive in 1917, along with the remaining Cistercian architecture – including the, chapel, sacristy, abbot's chapel, monks' hall, gatehouse and dovecote.
Vauclair was classified as part of the Zone Rouge of North- eastern France in the post-war years – deemed too hazardous for any human activity and thus leaving nature free to take the upper hand. When excavation work was carried out at Vauclair almost fifty years later by a local association – Les Sources – led by a young Belgian Jesuit, Père Courtois, the site had been long overtaken by plants, trees and greenery.
Simply clearling the site of this unwanted vegetation must have been a mammoth task, of which we have little appreciation when we stroll over the grassy expanses today. The Sources’ archaelogical mission followed the work of predecessors who had likewise wished to make Vauclair reveal its history.
However, this project went far beyond previous attempts, going up to Courtois’ death in 2005 and continuing in the present. For over thirty years, Courtois devoted himself to this endeavour, living in the woods on site, in the shadow of the Cistercian monks and soldiers of the Great War before him.
The site was classified Monument Historique in 1970. The mid-70s saw the re-establishment of an arboretum, conservatory orchard and medicinal herb garden in the abbey grounds. This was in keeping with the custom of Medieval monasteries to care and cure pilgrims and peasants alike of their ailments and injuries, with the careful cultivation of herbs, medicinal plants and roots to enable them to do so.
The garden today is laid out according to the design of the first monastic physic plots – largely based on the chessboard lay-out from the Saint-Gall abbey in Switzerland.
Each square is separated from the others by a stone slab, enabling ease of movement to those tending to the plants – or simply admiring them ! The grounds of the garden here are divided into four sections – for medical plants ; shrubs and bushes, plants of the shade and undergrowth and aquatic plants and pondlife.
Unfortunately the museum was shut when I visited so I will return, preferably in the autumn or winter, as shrouds of mist, frost or snow would create the most haunting atmosphere!
In the meantime, the sunlit garden and grounds alone are magical, with the busy insects’ hum uninterrupted by the intrusive noise of traffic.