Paula Morris, the 2019 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow, meets New Zealanders in the French town where you'll find the grave of the founder of rugby, the ghost of Katherine Mansfield and mountainside gardens called Kauri, Rotorua and Three Kings.
It's late June in the South of France. Alexandra Boyle's mobile is ringing. She glances at it but doesn't answer. Another call and then another. Text messages flash. Boyle is a New Zealander – Christchurch-born, the family farm in nearby Oxford – but her domain now is a steep, terraced market garden, Le Jardin des Antipodes.
Her 2ha property is in Garavan, the lush eastern end of Menton that nudges the border with Italy. Chefs at some of the top restaurants along the Cote D'Azur – and from the palace in Monaco – call her to order baby cactus leaves, citron caviar or peppery kawakawa for their next-day menus. But these calls aren't orders, they're gossip.
"Mirazur," she says, talking about the restaurant around the corner (it has three Michelin stars and is the most expensive place to eat in Menton). The 11-course degustation lunch menu is 260 euros per person, not including wine – or even coffee. "It's won."
The award is for Best Restaurant in the World, announced in Singapore and representing the votes of more than 1000 culinary experts of The World's 50 Best Restaurants. Other recent winners include Osteria Francescana in Italy, Eleven Madison Park in New York, El Celler de Gran Roca in Girona, Spain and Noma in Copenhagen – this year's runner-up. Boyle grew vegetables for Mirazur for three years, until chef Mauro Colagreco bought his own garden plot along the hillside.
Boyle – soft-spoken, owlish and hardy – has owned this land for 20 years, after decades working in Paris and London, running a publishing business and re-inventing herself as a tech consultant. Her last London home was a 1906 property straddling Regent's canal – re-designed by her late partner, architect Douglas Stephen – where she concealed the banks with giant gunnera. Their holiday house in France was built into a village wall and had no garden at all.
Visiting Menton with friends, Boyle found two tiny, dilapidated houses, peppered with bullet holes from the last months of World War II, when a Free French regiment across the street traded fire with the German army. Around them were 11 small gardens stretching up towards the limestone cliffs, bought in the 1920s by an American woman in the big yellow villa next door.
In Menton, Boyle saw the then-ruined gardens of Les Colombieres, designed by artist Ferdinand Bac in the 20s and now one of the region's historic attractions. She also met William Waterfield, doyen of the English-speaking community in Menton, whose garden at Le Clos Peyronnet has been famous for decades. Boyle dressed up for afternoon tea to find Waterfield stumping towards her in dirty shorts and T-shirt. "He was really gardening," she says.
Menton, she decided, with its balmy microclimate and legendary landscapes, was the place to create her grand plan. This was a New Zealand garden that included "regional plantations". These now number six: Northland, Kauri, Heaphy, Lord Howe Island, Rotorua and Three Kings.
Waterfield offered another point of connection. For 40 years he's been the ebullient local point person for the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow . This suited Boyle. After all, she says, "I moved here partly because of Katherine Mansfield."
For many New Zealanders, Menton is inescapably bound to Mansfield. Anyone walking from the waterfront to the Garavan train station will encounter avenue Katherine Mansfield. Continue under the railway bridge and there's the Villa Isola Bella, where the writer lived in 1920 and 1921, in the south of France hoping for a cure for her tuberculosis - or at least some respite.
In 1861, a Dr James Henry Bennett had published a book called Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean, claiming his own TB had been cured after staying in Menton, the sunniest spot in France. Thousands of ailing patients from Britain and elsewhere, including Russian royals and German counts, flocked in; the cemetery in Menton, Guy de Maupassant said, was the most aristocratic in Europe. But Mansfield was beyond a cure by the time she moved here. She was frail and irritable, nearing the end of her life. In Menton, she wrote Daughters of the Late Colonel in a blaze of effort, aware that she was running out of time.
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The Villa Isola Bella has been dissected into private apartments, a pool squeezed on to the hillside behind it, any view of what Mansfield called the "slipping, sliding, slithering sea" compromised by modern blocks along the front. The Mansfield fellow – this year that's me - works in a studio that was once storage for the gardener, its outside wall studded with plaques in English and French.
Mansfield fans who make the pilgrimage are disappointed that there's no museum and nothing else to see but plaques and weeds. When I became the fellow, for the first half of this year I couldn't work out how to lock the iron garden gate from the inside. When Mansfield pilgrims made it to my door, hoping for relics rather than plaques, I didn't answer. I should have left a sign outside: "Nothing to see here."
There's little left of Mansfield in Menton apart from her name on various road signs. We have to imagine her on the terrace above, wrapped in a shawl, coughing. Her ghost is part of the magic of the place, encountered every year by the Mansfield fellow: she looms above us, invisible and ephemeral. Some visitors think she's buried here and trek to the small cemetery perched above Menton's Old Town in search of her grave. Actually, Mansfield died elsewhere in France – Fontainebleau, near Paris – in 1923.
But there's another grave in Menton that New Zealanders visit, including New Zealanders who don't know much about Mansfield, or care whether she lived here or not. For some it's their sole reason for visiting Menton. If you walk up avenue Katherine Mansfield to reach the train station, you'll need to turn left on rue Webb Ellis. For in the Cimetiere du Vieux Chateau you'll find the grave of William Webb Ellis, alleged founder of rugby.
Webb Ellis was not a New Zealander, though many of our British visitors this year in Menton were confused on this point. Wasn't rugby a New Zealand sport? They came to see us, temporarily in residence from New Zealand, they visited me at the studio and read the Mansfield plaques; they met our new friend, Alexandra Boyle, with her New Zealand garden; they met our New Zealand neighbour, Heather – bizarrely, like Alexandra, an old girl of Craighead School in Timaru – who has just retired to Menton after years in London. It's not surprising that to them Menton seems like a New Zealand outpost in France or perhaps a place that New Zealanders go to die.
There's no evidence that Webb Ellis ever gave much thought to New Zealand or even – for much of his life – to the game of rugby. He and his brother attended the famous Rugby School in the Regency period. It was 1823, when Webb Ellis was almost 17, that he ran with a ball instead of kicking it. Other schools laid claim to similar games and kill-joys insist the whole thing's a myth, propagated by another Rugby old boy, Matthew Bloxam, in the 1870s. It wasn't until 1871, a year before Webb Ellis' death, that a Rugby Football Union was founded in England.
After Rugby School, Webb Ellis studied at Oxford and took Holy Orders. He was evangelical rather than High Church and became a chaplain, then a rector, at various parishes in London and Essex. Webb Ellis was outspoken in his criticism of the Crimean War; his own father, a Dragoon Guard, had been killed in Spain in 1811 fighting Napoleon. I don't know when he moved to France or if he came to Menton for the same reasons as Mansfield 50 years later – because he was sick and Menton promised some kind of cure. He died here in January 1872, aged 65.
Until the late 1950s, his grave site in Menton was unknown to rugby devotees. In 1958 it was rediscovered and there are suitably warring stories about who found it: local player Roger Dries or the English sports journalist Alan Ross McWhirter – co-founder, with his twin brother, of The Guiness Book of Records. (Ross McWhirter, a conservative activist, was assassinated by the IRA in 1975.) It remained in a bad state, like much of the cemetery around it, until the French Rugby Football Union agreed to restore it in time for the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
We make our own pilgrimage to see it on a sunny spring day, trekking up the steep, narrow lanes from Menton's Old Town. There's me, my husband, and two young New Zealand women – my niece, who lives in Germany and a friend who lives in Switzerland. They aren't that enthused about our mission; they'd rather be drinking wine in a cafe. I'm not sure if they've even heard of Webb Ellis.
At one entrance to the cemetery there's a statue of a young Webb Ellis, in trousers and a ruffled collar. The plaque beneath, in French and English, is the shape of a rugby ball. Small signs point the way to his grave. But when we get close, the area is blocked with yellow tape and metal gates. Landslides are an ongoing problem with the old cemetery. Like other pilgrims, we are not deterred; we climb over the tape to reach the sloping grave.
The white stone dates from 1972 and is a gift from Rugby School. Other plaques lie or stand propped against the plot's white iron fence: one is from the 2007 All Blacks team. Jumbled among them are tributes from visitors, including deflated rugby balls, wilted plants and a straw wreath topped with ceramic flowers. A recreation of the Webb Ellis trophy has been fashioned with the help of a Gilbert-branded ashtray and mini rugby ball. Our New Zealand neighbour, Heather, has told us to keep an eye out for her art work at the gravesite. I was expecting some kind of sketch, I think. I hope it isn't the ashtray World Cup.
More narrow paths and steps, this time in Boyle's garden, which seems to have been designed for mountain goats. An old mule path up the mountainside divides the eastern plots from the western. The highest hectare of land is forest. When Boyle set up a camera to spy on a badger, she got footage of a pole cat and of a wild pig breaking down one of her new fences. Peregrine falcons, buzzards and swifts swoop around the cliffs. Some refugees who've arrived in Italy by boat try to get into France along the clifftops. A few years ago, a West African fell 100m into one of Boyle's trees and only broke his hand. The police drove him back to Italy. He said that the other migrants walking with him just kept going.
Not everything is a New Zealand plant here. Boyle grows dates, avocadoes, pomegranates. Peach trees are so heavy with fruit they droop on to a lower terrace. We pass nīkau and hibiscus, purple jacaranda blossoms littering the ground. We're too late for the pohutukawa: it bloomed in June.
"And now," she says, pointing to houhere (lacebark) and a rimu, "you're in Rotorua." Boyle's regional gardens are oases from home, the plants and seeds sourced from New Zealand – in the past, before the "red list" and long quarantines – or from a specialist nursery in Cornwall. The akeake (switch sorrel) has white flowers you rarely see in New Zealand, she says, "because the rats eat them." Here she grows passiflora tetandra with small yellow flowers and kiwifruit that need cold to ripen: she harvests them in October and November, then keeps them in the fridge.
We climb higher and higher, past a tōtara planted in 2004 and into Northland, where there's a whau with prickly pods and pūriri stretching tall. The kauri region is shaded with black screens to keep the soil cool. Her low-branched kauri tree is 14 years old.
"This is getting very wild in here," Boyle says -hers is not a tidy garden. Slim canals of sluicing water are refilled weekly from an aqueduct in nearby Italy, 80m above sea level. It's carried water into the gardens and farms of this region for 200 years. Three Kings lies on the 20th terrace up, home to the yellow-edged harakeke native to those islands. Boyle sourced the seeds from the flax research centre at Lincoln. There's also a cabbage tree from the Three Kings and a special kawakawa called Balthazar. Boyle's of a certain age, one she makes me promise not to reveal. She wants the garden to go on. It needs to be declared un jardin d'exception to save it from Menton's marauding developers and a mayor who recently gave public land to build a five-star hotel.
By 8pm, we're drinking wine on Boyle's terrace while two of her workers cook us dinner – Alexei from Uzbekistan, who's a scientist in Moscow and Lucas, a travel blogger born in Argentina and based in Majorca. Boyle takes a call about wild garlic flowers. It's a chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice, placing an order for the next morning. At the height of the season, in early April, Boyle and her workers picked 1500 wild garlic flowers a week for restaurants. Last week, a chef asked for 6kg of baby cactus leaves to make spaghetti. Last year Boyle's team picked and packed 42,500 tiny lemon sorrel leaves for the Societe des Bains de Mer, which manages luxury hotels in Monaco. Sometimes she's still getting calls from kitchens at midnight.
The chef wants to know what's "coming in" now. Pea flowers are over, she says, and the chives aren't in yet. The chef moans that the borage flowers he bought a few days earlier are starting to wilt and Boyle reminds him not to store them on paper or keep them too damp. Swap them with chicory flowers, she suggests and he agrees.
"They look like cornflowers," she tells me afterwards. "But they close at night. I hope he wants to use them at lunch."
At 6am, Boyle and her helpers will be up. She'll go for a swim in the Med, then join her workers in the high vegetable garden. The terrace of her pock-marked house is encased with foliage and feels more like a gardener's patio than a place to watch the "slithering sea". Boyle tends to look up the mountain rather than down to the sea, the same direction as the grave of Webb Ellis.
"A friend visited," she says. "An architect. He said, 'Typical of you to block out the view.'"