For as long as I can remember I wanted a home. Not merely a house you decorate and live in between work and socializing outside, but a real home, full of homely noise like dogs barking, cockerels crowing, the sound of my husband chopping wood for the fire, the kettle whistling. I suspect I have moaned often in this blog about the lack of ‘home’ when I was a child; the constant changing of furnishings to follow a trend leaving no room for sentimental object history; of not being able to put pictures on my bedroom wall, of the beds always having to be perfectly made as if Ideal Homes photographers would be arriving at a moment’s notice! There was little kitchen ritual like cake baking, learning to make pancakes or being able to scrape the bowl after a sponge was made. The house was sterile. Decorative objects came and went; discarded into cupboards when a glossy magazine informed my mother that they were not in trend, or old fashioned. At eighteen I moved out to live with my boyfriend in Kent, an hour’s drive away and into my own home. It was a small house, but pretty, on a hill with a view across to the Chatham Dockyards and historic Rochester, where Charles Dickens was inspired to write Bleak House.
I was a banker back then in the eighties, but I wanted to be an interior designer. I enrolled at Rhodec to do an equivalent of a degree in design, construction and illustration, and on Saturdays I worked with Jackie Horsford at her Curtain Exchange in Abbey Road, London. A whole new world opened up. Antique fabrics, trimmings, curtain headings and above all a wealthy and very educated clientele. My working class roots screamed loudly and it was difficult to change my Essex lilt and even the structure of my sentences. My comprehensive school education hadn’t helped. It was rough and bullying was the norm. Language was in the main crude and offensive. Oddly my parents were professionals, with smart careers in the City insurance business. They spoke relatively posh. I felt cheated and wanted to do something about it.
Jackie trusted me enough to allow me into the main shop to look after clients, discussing their curtain needs and hopefully encourage them to upscale to more expensive hangings so the shop made a healthy profit. I learnt quickly about marketing subtly as the clientele were no fools. They had money, taste and very clear cut requirements either through their own skills in décor or the strict rules of the interior designer they had taken on to remodel their Kensington and Chelsea homes. I also learnt I was an outsider. I did not have the educational background or the experiences other young women from their class had, like finishing schools, pony clubs, socializing in society or connected families who brushed shoulders with the upper classes. My father was an EastEnders from Stepney. He had worked hard to get into the insurance market and become a broker. Mums family came from Bayswater, better, but they were shopkeepers and clerical workers. I didn’t realize at that time that many famous designers, actors and photographers came from the same beginnings and actually used those tough grass roots as a future asset. I just felt inadequate. I decided the only way forward was to improve my language and although many today would think this a bad thing, I tried to soften my Essex twang and learnt to speak slower. To this day I sometimes, when angry, fall back to my past patois, but generally I speak with a flat London middle class accent. Its sufficient for purpose and now it comes naturally.
My studies helped with the technical side of design and provided conversation when my shyness dried up the words. Reading voraciously everything interior design and architecture and pulling together my own portfolio, I began to assimilate myself into this new world. My slightly direct approach garnered good sales and I tested design ideas to encourage clients to think a little out of the box regarding the looks they wanted. My colleague Michael had this aspect down to an art. No one could get a client to change from white muslin to heavy mauve velvet drapes like he could. For a start he was Italian, handsome and always wore leather. He was charming but knowledgeable. We got on well and I fancied him rotten. But he was gay and I was married, so the relationship was work fun and no complications.
I stayed there for three years until my banking career collapse in the early nineties negative equity crisis and having to find a financially stable job, I settled on accountancy. I actually loved that career and eventually became a management accountant and a tax expert on corporation tax and company structuring. Last month I finally hung up my boots and retired after thirty years of non-stop work. But in all that time I continued to love art and interior design. I never completed the degree, but I passed draughting courses at the London School of Design, took various art classes and back in March this year finally took a short course at my dream college – St Martins in London. I had renovated two homes, one very specifically Arts and Crafts and scoured many furniture warehouses in London and antique shops to learn about furniture and renovation techniques. In 2015, all I needed was a home to finally project the self-image I had always wanted to show.
My new partner and soon to be husband had a construction background. His father was a senior engineer in communist Romania and a lot of building methods had rubbed off on Tony. My father was an enthusiastic do-it-yourself, building extensions and re-roofing parts of the house. I learnt everything there was to know about decorating and by the time I left home at eighteen, I could very easily build a brick wall, or remove a ceiling and remake it. Tony had lost properties along life’s rocky path and like me found himself in rented accommodation. We concluded that at almost middle age, neither of us had ever lived in a finished home and now neither of us actually had the financial stability to even buy one. The year 2015 was our turning point.
Finding France and build costs
The euro was running extremely high. We invested every last earning into that currency and found a barn in France. Turning our back on England was lifesaving. Both unhappy with never having enough income to pay the rent and living costs, France was a no-brainer. Near enough to return to England if we needed too and with a known historic relationship and both part of EU, France was social and the demands on people’s income less punitive than back in England. Rural Creuse had an abundance of crumbling farm buildings and little amenities, save a few small towns scattered within a fifty kilometre area from where we settled. That meant the properties were cheap, seriously cheap. As an example our barn cost fifteen thousand euros plus two thousand legal costs. The septic tank would cost approximately six thousand to buy and install and re-roofing the barn another sixteen thousand. Allowing another ten thousand at most for repointing materials – sand and lime, and new wiring and plumbing, the barn would be liveable and comfortable. New windows renovated from second hand brocantes and shutters if wanted, another four thousand. That left the interior, but this could be completed over time as and when we sourced locally. So you budget say seventy thousand. OK push yourself to one hundred and be extravagant, but back in England, you needed a minimum of four hundred thousand and you certainly didn’t have the brocantes to supply cheap or even free materials.
In other words, most of my friends could sell today, invest that one hundred to get a finished four bedroomed property, and bank over two hundred in cash for rainy days; or better retire and use that money to explore new hobbies or careers. If you’re in your forties, two hundred bucks will last a long time. But as much as I cannot understand why the French do not renovate these buildings, so too I cannot comprehend why some of my friends struggle financially, when by moving here, their financial situations would be solved! It comes back to self-image. Confidence and belief in what you can do. Coming out of a known comfort zone even if that zone is stressful. I used to say that being in London and fighting the system was actually easy. Being angry was easy. Following a dream and being happy can be difficult. Its like winning the lottery. You expect everything will be simple and obtainable, but that isnt so. I inherited enough money to not work, but you have to do something. That something we looked for was ‘home’ and it turned out to be very hard work.
Most of the buildings in Creuse were inherited by families who now lived in towns and didn’t want to be bothered with renovating under modern rules. Most French in recent years have turned their backs on renovating, preferring modern buildings. I find it odd, but the Brits, including myself cannot fathom this and love a renovation project. It’s the French dream for us. Low prices meant low inheritance or capital gains taxes to pay and some properties had literally no known ownership at all. An elderly, childless owner had passed and the building had remained derelict for near on thirty or more years. The brambles were resident and nature was reclaiming. Our building was structurally sound, but was still an unconverted cattle barn with no hot water or septic tank. It was simple living, but it was home.
Investing in property and my dream
The money I inherited couldn’t stay in the bank. Uncertainty around Brexit, inflation, and the banks pursuing their money laundering and cash hate tactics aggressively, we decided property was the safest bet. With the small outlay to buy, but with dedicated hard work to do all the renovations ourselves and regular trips to brocantes to supply all materials, the money stretched to buy an adjoining barn to our original purchase, plus an acre of land; a factory and house in town, a farmhouse with two hectares of pasture and a mountain cottage. In square meterage, I had effectively bought the same area as the whole of my mother’s road in surburban South Woodford. Now that took some comprehension and really brought home to us how overpriced property was back in London. Yes I get that these properties will never have the value of those London ones, but over the next five years we would have doubled our investment if we resold and really its more about space and living. Now with the virus upon us, I can walk my fields and have a change of scene from property to property, but some of my friends are trapped in small one bed apartments and that’s no fun at all.
I am not gloating in all this. We took risks and we had a lot of luck too, but I honestly know anyone can do as we have and won’t regret it. If you bought a finished barn, then yes you have less cash. If you sub-contract all the renovations to local French artisans, you will have less cash. If you buy all your furniture new from stores, you will have less cash. The French dream only manifests if your hands on and a miser with your bank balance. You may even have a little money left to buy land. Clean it, re-fence it and you will resell for a profit. A lot of our land was simply thrown into the price. It was effectively free.
My long journey from London surburbia to French rural has had its stressful times, but I held onto the dream of home and wanting to be an interior designer. Today I sit at a little desk in our soon to be atelier sewing room. It’s in our funny Germanic style house next to our factory. It needs simply re-painting of the walls and floors as the carpets have disintegrated. Downstairs the floors are tiled and suitable for our heavy commercial sewing machines. It is the perfect space for sewing projects and upholstering furniture finds. In time, after completing the other properties, I will be able to showcase my decorating work, open my own online brocante and start working on interior products. My husband designs lighting and both of us have a passion for printing and fabric.
The frustrations of my childhood and first marriage still make me bitter sometimes and I feel I missed or wasted many opportunities to follow my dreams, like turning down job offers with designers, or simply saying no to remain living in Kent, when really all I wanted to do was live in London. I Should have found a way to study at Camberwell. I mean I worked fulltime and could have accumulated enough funds, but my husband was conservative with money and would never have agreed to me “playing student” as he would say. Luckily I am patient and those thirty years of financial career have meant I know how to run a business. Cart before the horse maybe, but I am ready to pick up the paint brushes now and pursue the dream. With a home around me, I am finally where I want to be.