It was a wet night in April 2000 as I exited the tunnel at Soumatre overlooking Bédarieux. I had just driven from Mirapoix where I had been viewing properties in glorious sunshine.
On entering the town I looked for a Hotel for the evening, as far as I could see there was not much choice, I opted for the ‘Hotel Moderne’ which after checking out the room, I decided was a clear case of misrepresentation. It was about 9pm by now and I went looking for somewhere to get something to eat, each restaurant I checked said that it was closing. As I walked up the near deserted Rue de Republique I saw a small square dominated by the ‘Hotel de Ville’. There were lights on and the place looked very lively, I walked up the steps, inside there were a lot of well dressed people wandering around giving me funny looks, I proceeded to look for he main desk to see if I could get a room in this very smart ‘Hotel’, now speaking hardly any French I did not realise this was the Town Hall! I eventually realised something was wrong and this was an official function of some kind and sheepishly began to back out the main door trying to look nonchalant. I went to a restaurant on the other side of the square, which was empty except for one other couple. I had a very pleasant meal with a bottle of wine for 90 Francs and set off back to the Hotel wondering where everyone was.
The next morning I got up early and went looking for the Immobiliers, I had noticed two of them on my walk the previous evening. The weather had not got any better, if anything it was wetter and colder! I went into France Habitat Cevennes armed with my English-French pocket dictionary. I explained what I was looking for and how much I could afford. I was eventually shown something for 400,000 Francs, which I was told, was an old train station and was ‘isolé’. I was given a map and directions and left. I walked up the road towards the restaurant where I had eaten the previous evening, on the corner was Cabinet Dhuicque, in the widow were faded pictures of houses with hand written details. These details normally consist of a picture of a wall of a house or a doorway with ‘Maison, F4, Jolie jardin, Bon etat.’. No sizes, no location, no information. Now remember this was a wet dull day, the office had no lights on and had it not been for the fact that I saw a movement through the venetian blinds, I would not have realised it was open. I walked into the reception, which smelt of stale cigarette smoke, there was nobody there, I called out and Monsieur Dhuicque appeared from another room. We went into his office and went through the usual ‘How much, what type of house’, he then pushed a ring binder with property ‘details’ towards me. I started leafing through the pages marking the ones that interested me, one of the pages had ‘Ancient Chateau XIIeme Siecle’ with a lot of pictures, I did not take much notice of the price and just flipped the page. M. Dhuicque asked if I did not want to see the Chateau, I told him I could not afford it, he turned the page back and pointed to the price. I could not believe it, I could afford it. Eventually there were about four properties that were of any interest. We made a rendezvous for after lunch and I left.
I decided to take a look at the old train station at Les Cabrilles. I drove out of Bédarieux towards Lunas, the rain was getting worse, through Lunas I turned left to Joncels, the road started up the mountains, the higher I went the worse the weather and the road got. Eventually the visibility was so bad that I could not see more than 15 feet and had to get out of the car to read the road signs. I kept consulting the map I was given, trying to make out where I was. I was basically in the middle of nowhere and saw a small hand-written sign pointing to Les Cabrilles. I drove up a small, unmade road until I got to the Station. I had an eerie spooky feel to it, the walls were still standing but all the floors had fallen through and there were holes in the roof. No this was not the one! I stood there thinking ‘What am I doing here, the weather is better in the UK’. I eventually made it back to Bédarieux. I had to let the Immo know that the property was not isolé, it was un hermitage!
After some lunch I went back to Cabinet Dhuicque for my rendezvous. M. Dhuicque was sitting behind his desk, a cigarette trailing smoke to the nicotine stained ceiling. We did the shaking of hands and I followed him to his car, a white Mercedes. We drove out of Bédarieux on the same route I had driven that morning, we entered La-Tour-sur-Orb and turned left to Boussagues, as we wound our way up the road at breakneck speed I wondered if I would actually make it there alive. We rounded a corner and I saw a medieval village tucked into the hillside. We entered the village through a stone arch in the ramparts and up a cobbled street, how he managed to get his car up the road without scraping his wing-mirrors I have no idea. We parked in the top square and he directed me to a wrought iron gate. In front of me there was an overgrown courtyard surrounded by vast buildings. We descended the old stone steps in the pouring rain, through the courtyard and up onto an old concrete terrace, swimming in water, in front of us was a plastic lean-to and a large door beyond. We entered the ‘habitable’ part of the building. It was pitch black and there was no electricity, M. Dhuicque opened a shutter revealing a view over the roofs of the village, it was a room with a cuisine Americaine at one end with a pine panelled ceiling , the walls were decorated with the usual floral wallpaper, at the other end was the sitting room the ceiling was peeling and a single bulb hung from a bunch of wires, to the right was the bedroom, again pitch black until the shutter was opened, the view of the valley was breathtaking, the room had 60’s floral wallpaper above pine panelling, the ceiling was pine panelled. There were two doors through a wall of panelling which had been erected to hide an en-suite (sic) which included the old fireplace, a free-standing shower tray and bare walls. So far this had not given me the feeling of a Chateau. We walked back onto the terrace trying to avoid the puddles, down a few steps and into another part through a large pair of wooden doors painted dark brown, the bottoms rotting away. We entered a large room full of rubbish, the walls were stone and the floor had old terracotta tiles. To the right through a pair if old doors with panels missing, we stepped into a large room, with assorted old furniture, 8 metres by 5 metres with a wooden ceiling 4 metres high, the floors were of original flagstone and to the left, a fireplace 2 metres high and 2 metres wide, above it the remnants of a 16th century crest. At the end of the room and to the right we entered another room full of clutter, this time the walls were plastered and peeling. To the right yet another junk filled room with a magnificent 16th century fireplace, the walls with rotten plaster and the ceiling collapsing. We worked our way back through the rooms to the large brown doors, but instead of going back outside, we continued through another rotten door into the usual debris filled room, this room had a large plastic sheet over one wall, on pulling back the sheet it revealed a huge fireplace that covered the entire wall 4 metres wide 3 metres high. We ascended a stone staircase into a very dark room and to the left, a room of15 metres long, 5 metres wide with the most beautiful vaulted ceilings. This was it, This was the deciding factor, I had to have it! We went back outside into the courtyard, I got ready to leave when M. Dhuicque said that there was the other side yet. What more! We went through a pair of large, wooden, decaying doors, into an enormous stone vaulted room, which looked like an old chapel, with meutrier windows. To the left up steps carved into the rock we entered the tower, this tower had a vaulted stone ceiling 6 metres high. Back in the courtyard we ascended stone steps on the outside of the tower and went into the room above the chapel, this room again was vast proportions with stone arches, there were entrances to towers at both ends of the room. The left had tower had missing floorboards and blocked up windows, it was not only piled high with old windows and mattresses, but was also full of pigeons. The right hand tower was reached by a wooden staircase, this room was full of old farm equipment and had the original flagstones, a meutrier window and a gemini window of the 12th century with a Romanesque colonnade. On the walls were the remnants of medieval frescos.
We left the buildings with everything going through my mind. While on our way to view the other houses I asked if they would take an offer? "Non". Would he reserve it until I had a chance to speak to my partner? "Non". We drove on through the pouring rain to view the other houses, which were all of no consequence after the Chateau. All through the journey his mobile phone kept ringing, his office was calling to make arrangements for other people to view the Castle. I had to think quickly and make a decision. I thought if I offered him £500 to hold the property for 5 days, it might do the trick. In my very poor French I made an offer of ‘cinq cents Francs’, which is actually £50, he just laughed, I realised my mistake and made the offer of ‘cinq mille Francs’, to which he agreed. If after 5 days I said I did not want to proceed, he would keep the £500. If I proceeded he would take the amount off the price. I made him sign a paper to this effect, and after handing over the money I left. M. Dhuicque had put in a clause that I had 3 months in which to complete, otherwise I would lose my deposit and the Chateau. At this time I had not even sold my house in the UK.
The next day I drove to Uzes to view an old Presbytery which was for sale for £40,000. It was in a really bad state of repair and I decided against it.
I flew back to the UK. Maggie arrived back from her visit to Tenerife where she had been hiding from the world while she celebrated her 50th birthday. I started to show her pictures of all the properties I had seen, keeping back pictures of the Chateau. After a while she said, "Yes very nice. Now show me what you have bought!" I showed her the pictures and asked what she thought. "Great, go for it".
Chateau in 1903
I arrived home and received a call from my Estate Agent to say I had received an offer on my house, this was great news, things were in motion.
We could not wait to leave for our new life. Maggie had also put her flat on the market and had an offer on it in the next month. At this moment in time she had still not seen the place, so we arranged to go down for another viewing. We were met at the airport by friends who were already living in France. They met us at the airport and we spent the night in Montpellier. The next day we drove to Boussagues in glorious sunshine, this would be a first for me as well, as I had only seen it in the wet. On the road that leads to the village, I pointed to the Castle which is the first thing you see, it dominates the village, perched on a cliff. We walked up the cobbled street not wanting to try it in a car yet. We all had a good look round and Maggie was still in favour of going for it, our friends thought we were mad!
The papers all went through within 3 months. Maggie had to stay in the UK for a month as her flat sale had not completed. We had arranged the removals and it was a touch and go situation transferring the money. The money had to arrive before I arrived with the furniture. I left it with Maggie to liase with the Notaire, and for me to sign the papers when I arrived.
The removal lorry left and I followed in my van. I had lost the keys to the van the previous day and had to get the locks changed. I lost the keys to the petrol tank on the day of the move and I missed the ferry. Was someone trying to tell me something.? I caught the ferry the next morning. I kept phoning home to see if the money had been received by the Notaire. About halfway through France, after a stop, the van would not start again, luckily some people gave me a bump-start. I had to make sure I parked on a slope each time I stopped in future. The good news was the money had been received, the bad news was the Notaire was not available for the signing! Panic struck, The removal men could not sit around for a week until the papers were signed, what could I do with all our furniture? Things were steadily getting worse and I was thinking that maybe we were not meant to live here. Eventually on one of my check-ins I got the news that the family had agreed to allow us to move in without signing the papers. After driving for 12 hours I spent the night at Le Caylar, about 35 minutes from Boussagues. The next morning I started early, driving up over the mountains, it was a beautiful morning and the views were glorious. I had to stop a couple of times to take in the breathtaking countryside. Then the exhaust went on the van, it sounded like a tank. What was going to happen next? I started up the small road to Boussagues and my heart stopped. There was a bridge that said ‘4 Mtrs Max’. Would the van go under it? There was a fork in the road, the usual road to the village said ‘5 Tons Max’, it would not get up there, the road to the right was for lorries so I checked it out and drove to the village that way. I entered the village from the top, looking down on it. It was beautiful. There was no sign of the removal van. I turned around and drove back down the hill to search for it. I found it, trying to get under the bridge. Luckily with all the weight on it scraped under with centimetres to spare, (it had to let its tyres down on the return journey). We took the lorry up the right hand road and had to park it outside the village. We would have to offload and tranship everything in my van, as the lorry would never get into the village. There was a back road to the Castle with a sheer drop on one side, this road would only take one vehicle, it led to the square where M. Dhuicque had originally parked on that first visit.
We drove up in my van to square and starting unloading it, the weather was beautiful, the sun shone and the sky was clear blue. There were several vehicles in the square and I was unable to turn around so I had to reverse down the road with the sheer drop. We started to offload the lorry and repeat the same trip. After a few trips a couple of vehicles had left the square and I managed to turn around. We managed to unload half the van on the first day. It took us two days to unload everything. The removal men were great and really helpful.
After they left I spent the evening on my own wandering around the place, one thing I noticed was a large crack between one of the towers and the main building. I started to notice a lot of other things and began to get depressed. That evening I phoned Maggie. I said "What the hell have I done!"
The next day arrived and I felt a bit better, I took the van to Beziers to get it fixed and the day after I had an appointment with the Notaire to sign the final papers. With the papers signed I made my arrangements to return to the UK.
We spent the next month kicking our heels, waiting for the Contracts to be signed on Maggies’ flat. Most of the furniture from her flat had been shipped to France already, All that was left was a mattress and a few other things we could not get on the lorry, so we had to go out and buy a picnic table and chairs to eat off. Time dragged, but eventually the day arrived. Goodbyes were said to all our friends, we packed the remaining bits and pieces on the van and Maggie drove the car with our Basset Hound, ‘Hobson’, keeping her company. We drove to Newhaven to catch the ferry, I was further up the queue and was almost on the ferry when I was told I had to turn around as I had all Hobsons’ papers. I went back up the queue and found Customs officers around the car. Hobs was barking at them and they asked me to use the scanner to check his chip as they thought he was vicious! Little did they know, he is a real softie. The officer asked when we would be returning. I said, "Never!"