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Le Havre before/after. From the military fort of Sainte-Adresse to the verdant Hanging Gardens

It took three years of intense work to transform the old abandoned military fort into gardens. (©MCN/JMH)

Here, thousands of exotic flowers and plants have replaced guns and gunpowder. The image is enough to make pacifists dream, but it has become reality on the heights of Le Havre (Seine-Maritime). Over time, theformer military fort of Sainte-Adresse (so called erroneously, since it was actually in the town of Sanvic) turned into Hanging gardensa small paradise popular with nature lovers.

An object of defense against the sea

Nothing, however, foreshadowed such a fate when the first pickaxes were struck on the site in 1854. Designed as a defense object for an expanding city, the fort was mainly used as barracks during its military existence.

After a construction marked by difficulties in the acquisition of land and strong budgetary constraints, the last works “essentially earthworks to create redoubts, ditches and parapets of land” were carried out in 1870. Because “after the defeat of Sedan and the advance of the Prussian army on Paris, the city of Le Havre is put in a state of defence”, recalls Olivier Le Tinnier, passionate about this history, on his site “Memory and fortifications“.

Even today, we guess with the bastion which takes shape, when we cross the enclosure of the places, the powder magazine or the alveoli where the offices, the orangery and places of exhibition have been fitted out, what could be the military building. Occupied by different battalions before the First World War, it then served as barracks for the gendarmerie.

Under the German occupation, however, the site resumed its defensive function. The fort integrates the Atlantic wall, blockhouses are built there and cannons installed. While it was targeted by Allied fire during the Liberation, a huge explosion of ammunition stock destroyed several cells and the scarp wall.

After hosting the US Army and serving as a return base for troops of up to 2,000 troops, the walls would house a Mobile Gendarme Platoon for a time, before finally being decommissioned and disused in the 1970s.

Decades of abandonment

There followed a long period of abandonment, where brambles and vegetation gradually regained their rightful place. “Left open to the four winds, the fort had become a fairly infamous playground, squatted by punks and skinheads, where deals of all kinds were made, remembers Jean-Marie Hébert, sector manager of the Hanging Gardens. It was also a place for homosexual encounters, and the firefighters came there to train for their exercises in dangerous environments…”

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A lot of projects had come out at the time: a golf course, a luxury hotel, an equestrian center… Finally, under the impetus of Antoine Rufenacht who wanted to leave this space to nature, the city bought the fort in 2000.”

Jean-Marie HebertHead of the Hanging Gardens sector

Three years of work – “a madness, everything had to be cleared and built” before transferring the municipal collections – began, before opening to the public in 2008. “Samuel Craquelin, the designer of the gardens, had surrounded himself with a botanist, emphasizes the current head of the gardens. This was felt in the choice of plants, which come from all over the world, with things that were out of the ordinary”.

A botanical garden with 6,000 species

The move was also an opportunity to highlight the heritage already acquired. On site, “we also preserved the biodiversity reserves that had developed, such as the small wood at the northern entrance, which has just been cleaned,” says Jean-Marie Hébert.

Since then, they have continued their transformation. Now rich in 6,000 species, the Hanging Gardens were recognized as “remarkable gardens” in 2014, then “approved botanical gardens” in 2017. Last year, nearly 200,000 visitors passed through the gates of the old fort to discover its gardens and greenhouses which offer a veritable tour of the botanical world.

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