Our Notaire is a very jolly guy and I think with a bit of wicked sense of humour. Unfortunately I have yet to master French and with our rather ambitious renovation projects of doing up four properties, my head is more full of the finer points of a 1-3 lime mix than whether I can conjugate the verb for I am knackered, or crack a French joke not involving the Brits and Napoleon!
The sellers had shown us around the farm house in what I could call a blur of alcohol. All members of the family were inebriated and talked over each other. I just smiled and nodded and really wasn’t bothered that the rusty old bar-b-que could still be used for another summer party, or that there was a bar in the hallway. Odd place to have it, but if you think you need a drink as soon as you set foot in the house, in the hall where you throw your coat, it is an appropriate place!
The father had died before the completion of renovating the property. He had Portuguese roots and a French wife. The conflict of cultures meant the two daughters had names, one Portuguese and one French and the house had a distinct identity crisis. Parts were terracottafied with tiles that looked as if they would fall if there was even a slight puff of wind, let alone the hurricanes we get, with slippery marble tiled areas and white painted walled areas. One monolithic wall ran across the front of the original farm cottage cutting the façade in two. You could land a plane on it! Solid concrete, just to go up three steps to the front door. My instant reaction, inside my head of course, were they have to go. The French part had shutters, quaint roof dormer window and remnants of the once cow barn carefully included into the architecture. The father obviously knew what he was doing construction wise, but maybe a little too much red wine had on occasion skewed the outside aesthetic and interior design vision.
Giggling and forgetting on numerous times what room we were in, the sisters completed the tour and we said yes to buying. No we didn’t need to think about it. English, quick decision, no need to have a drink, we were fine thank. Shook hands. Waved goodbye.
French paperwork is time consuming, but it all makes sense and although the French have no idea about boarders, and the bonnage markers are often lost in the weeds, and the cadastre is as suspect as hell, getting a large eleven roomed house and garage and two hectares for under one hundred thousand euro is a snip. We didn’t put in a counter offer, we just knew it was a good price. It had been on the market some time. No one wanted all that land. Farmers didn’t want the house. We needed both. It also had a smaller house on site, perfect for my studio. We quickly sketched up ideas. Poultry and the orchard on the house hectare, with the vegetable garden, parking and a vast wild meadow and a place for me to build tree houses and a wigwam on the other hectare. Yes a long term dream from childhood was to have a huge wigwam or tepee, if your posh, where I could camp in the hot summer nights, looking up at the stars.
The farmhouse needed reorientating. No exit to the rear garden and a huge hanger with, about to wet myself, a huge hay cart in pristine condition. Wow, the perfect entertaining area. Long tables, wild flowers, lights, French porcelain and home cooking. Bliss!
We had just agreed to take in seven rescue kittens and added to the recent adoption of another lonely cockerel, we needed to get the growing gang of wings and paws into a home. The area is north of the Auvergne where the volcanoes, Evian and Volvic hang out and numerous spa towns, the area is pasture and very wet. A huge lake was feasible for the geese.
The new duck house. Maybe I can share?
Typically of me when it comes to sitting in lawyers offices, I am either recovering from a migraine and am totally doped up on pain meds, ones that block neuro transmitters in your head, or in my case making me feel like a zombie, or I have been over working outside and struggling with back pain and really cannot sit for long. So I wiggle about and feel very restless.
The notaire did his best to sound enthusiastic and keep the reading as short as possible. The seller party once again were a little red-faced and tipsy and the mother had trouble keeping up with the sections being read out. But everyone was happy and especially us, as we had pushed it through before the Brexit fallout. OK it never happened, but we didn’t want to get caught up in any French-English you said, I said rows.
Fast forward six months and the geese have their pen, the chickens are waiting in their very muddy temporary coop for the new build to start[meal worms are going at an alarming rate in the bribary stakes] and the ducks have a posh Mies Van der Rohe style duck house. Mud became a symbol of living here. Some areas of the garden flooded if it rained and the whole front was churned up by our neighbour’s tractor. No one had laid any gravel down in the road and the ditches were failing to carry water quickly from the upper fields. The sellers had likely run the mower over the few strips that facilitated staggering out to rear garden to fling an empty wine bottle or two, or to fry a few sausages on the bar-b-que by the little house, and chuck the ash over the wall.
Plastic bin bags seemed to be utilized on any areas that had once been allocated as flowerbeds, to stop weeds. In short, the whole place was overgrown. The plastic might reduce the weeds but when you cut the grass or cut down any shrubs, dumping them onto the flowerbeds just seems to defeat the object. Weeds, brambles, nettles and odd lumpy areas hid a rubbish tip. Wire, glass bottles, cans, bricks, ash, plastics, tools, old ladders manifested as we hacked back the greenery. The poor fruit trees had never been pruned or renovated and many were damaged due to the high winds we have across here. This central part of France is just above the mountains of the Central Massif and a plateau of pasture land, forests and lakes, with heavy rainfall, hot summers and strong winds. It’s one of extreme seasons but creates a stunning landscape. A cross between the Peak District and the Highlands of Scotland.
This week after finally having completed all the grass mowing and tree pruning, we tackled the Petanque area. The family must have been enthusiasts as the petanque alley is huge, running from the garage across to the hangar, probably a good 18 metres in length. You could see the concrete edge just about, but the rest, as the front of the property was completely submerged in overgrown soil. Luckily we have a tractor. Tony steadily dug out the earth and brambles and dumped them up in the upper field where we have growing piles of composting, tree branches, logs and an assortment of things to go to the local tip.
I busied myself digging out the edges of the petanque, to find it had once been a dry stone wall, probably demolished and then slopped with cement to make a straight edge. From the garden the stones look pretty and I will plant bulbs along the edge and probably rebuild the stone edge a little better. The Jack Russell’s had a great time snuffling through all the new smells as we dug more soil. Seven cats made tractor manoeuvring difficult. They insist being into everything. On the tractor, in the scoop, rolling about in front of it. With a lot of arm waving and hooting, we finally uncovered a gravel base. Lovely. This means we have a walkway to the hangar and no mud. We are not into petanque. I used to like boules but pentanque needs teams and the steel balls are too heavy for our tendonitis hands. Funnily back in the games history [1907 is the earliest mention], a Jules Lenoir, an enthusiast, suffered with arthritis. The running with the boule stopped in favour of standing on the spot and throwing or rolling it. The name Pentaque came from Provence dialect, meaning feet planted on the ground. I am not sure our previous owners would have managed that, but they probably had fun trying!
So our next project is to complete the laying of gravel at the front. We have tractored a few tonnes of soil away and I had my masonry moment and laid stone all along the front wall to infill with gravel and provide a dry pathway. As in all the properties here, as you clean your land expands. For example the future duck house building, we thought sat right on the edge of the land. It now stands over two metres from the edge having cut back the overgrown hedging. Next to the hangar is an area two metres by ten metres that we cannot access at the moment due to bramble growth, but having seen how sunny this space is, I am hoping to clear and put two bee hives in this quite spot for pollenating the fruit trees and veggie garden.
So ended another day of moving mud and weeds but the end of the garden now has a purpose. We sat on straw bales under the hangar, with the dogs and cats chasing each other in and out and then snoozing in a heap of tails and paws. We felt extremely lucky. For us this garden is our dream as we both love gardening. Landscaping two hectares needs some big views and compartmentalising to make it more intimate and provide a sense of journey round the property. I have always wanted to work on a large scale garden project and luckily we have some foundations here – mature trees, a few structures and pretty views beyond the hedges that can be incorporated into our vistas. I like the idea of the English Ha-Ha, a vertical walled ditch to stop the sheep entering the garden, but no fence, so your land appears to connect to the fields beyond. An uninterrupted view. It’s a simple trick of perception.
And finally this week, the top of the Portuguese wall running along the front of the house, fell off. Such a shame as it really completed the monolithic nature of this edifice. I will just have to replace it with a pretty chalky blue fence, sweet peas and a little gate. Returning this home to French style will be a pleasure.