It was love at first sight although inevitably it was a love affair that would cause a certain amount of heartache for a number of years before we both became accustomed to each other’s idiosyncrasies.
Viewed on a hot still July evening entering into the wide panelled hallway through the double fronted inner glass doors I was immediately transfixed. Through the dusky gloom loomed the immense marble Louis Phillippe style staircase which twisted its way up to the top floor. Beautifully appointed this 19th century Maison de Maitre known as Le Chateau had lain untouched for many years. With spacious rooms lining each side of the hallway and landings its calm and well set out interior charmed me immediately. I was taken by the full length double windows in each room affording views over the surrounding countryside and the light which poured through the south facing rooms. But the moment I laid eyes on the beautiful ornate tiles on the first floor landing and walked along its corridor I could see the potential the house held, albeit perhaps viewed through rose tinted spectacles !
We moved in a week before Christmas. This was mistake no 1. Never, unless you absolutely cannot avoid it, move into a house that has no heating and needs major work, ie, re-wiring, plumbing, etc (oh, and one that has half a front door)
I soon realised my folly when the cold seeped through to our bones each and every day. By night time I would cry as I counted the cost of my foolishness. The bathroom was grim, icy and old with a hole from the leak in the roof which ran up to the stars. The loo was even worse, a cold brick affair situated under the stairs and an awfully long way to go on a bitterly cold night.
I knew precious little about renovating an old house, even less in a foreign country whilst still trying to run a household and look after a family’s basic needs. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by people all putting in their pennyworth of opinions whether I wanted them or not. ‘If I were you I would…’ rang in my ears constantly along with ‘I hope you’re taking lots of pictures’. I wasn’t. I was too weary, too pre-occupied with just getting through each day along with the fact I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be reminded of my ‘folly’ in years to come.
Unless you have a bottomless pit from which to throw vast amounts of money try and oversee all the work yourself. Project managers come in two categories, expensive or useless, or both. I was determined that the children would suffer the least and so it was their bedrooms that were decorated first. Filthy old carpets were ripped up and replaced with reasonably priced and hardwearing sisal matting. Bricked up holes in the wall were turned into built in wardrobes and the doors made with wide tongue and groove.
Next on the agenda the plumbing needed to be sorted along with the wiring, some dating back to the first world war. At one point there was wiring from both wars and some of thirty years ago. It tended to flicker somewhat as we tried to run all our various electrical appliances from the system. ALWAYS choose an electrician who has been recommended. Although ours was from a local firm that had just started out with a fancy shop front we rapidly found that the staff they employed varied greatly. ‘Le Chef’ refused to answer any of our phone calls and from start to finish the job took eight months. We were often left with only half the electricity working in the house. With hindsight, as soon as the incompetence became apparent we should have cancelled the job and complained to the Huissier who can assist when you are unhappy with shoddy workmanship by a local firm. We didn’t know that at the time. Also if we had not been occupying the house then all the vast trunking needed for the electrics could have been dug into the walls instead of running along the outside.
We were luckier with the plumber. Loos needed to be installed along with baths and showers. I was completely overwhelmed by rows and rows of gleaming white sanitary ware. I wore a glazed expression on entering the showrooms. In the end I found, quite by chance, a small brochure hanging on the hook in a Mr Bricolage store and there was just the design that would fit well into a house of this age that I was looking for. It was also a fraction of the cost of some of the designs in smart showrooms. Because I was buying ‘in bulk’ I was afforded a discount. I would ALWAYS go for a simple classic design for a bathroom and it absolutely has to be white porcelain for me especially in an old house.
Meanwhile painting of walls was starting to spruce the place up. Again, hindsight. Paint is a perplexing subject in France, it is so very expensive for a start. Too late I discovered a paint retailer who are agents for Tollens. So this is what I should have done right from the beginning had I known. Introduce yourself to the local paint retailer who will be happy for your business. Explain that you are renovating a house and that you will be purchasing a large quantity of paint from him. Ask for a discount. Next obtain the expensive paint chart that they will have in the shop and ask them to mix up the colour in their own wholesale paint range, a fraction of the cost. I have done a lot of the woodwork in a pale grey with off white walls. The panelling in the hallway though, despite everyone wanting to rush and cover in paint was lovingly stripped back to its honey coloured old wood and then polished. This is an act of love though. And should not be attempted unless, well, you are truly in love with your house.
With two windows to each room measuring 2m x 1m I suddenly found myself rather in need of some curtains. They do so add warmth to a room and give that finishing touch. I was lucky to find an enormous pile of very old linen drapes with embossed initials on and I use these in lots of the rooms. I don’t know how I secured them for 8 euros each but I did. Search Brocantes and Vide Greniers for them but avoid the dealers. E-bay is a good source also. I cannot sew particularly well so use curtain rings with hooks on. Lovely floaty pure white embossed sheets look pretty draped back in the bathrooms. The beauty of these is that in the summer they can be used very effectively drawn across and instantly ‘cool down’ a room and look elegant too.
Meanwhile I bought every D.I.Y magazine on the market both in France and England. In retrospect after a while they all look the same. Every time you see a photograph of a room or a feature that you like cut it out. When my kitchen came to be built I already knew exactly what I wanted. We were very extravagant to begin with and went for a four oven Aga. This, and Aga will of course disagree, is madness for the only function it can perform is to cook. It does no water and no heating. Had I been sensible then I would have plumped for a Rayburn which would have performed all of these tasks. People who buy houses like mine though are rarely sensible.
I spied in a local Brocante one of those enormous glass fronted cupboards so thus based the entire kitchen around this feature. It is absolutely fantastic for it houses all the glass and china and avoids wall cupboards. I don’t like fitted kitchens although in smaller spaces they are practical. I had a tiled surface round the Aga and sink although of course the grouting needs constant cleaning. I did not choose the usual Belfast Sink which is so popular in an older style kitchen because I am short and they are deep and you can lose yourself in them ! There are lots of tile discount places in France but if you are near to or can easily get to Spain then that is the place for tiles.
I have found that second hand furniture even at the Brocantes is extraordinarily expensive. If I had the time I would have hired a van from England after having bought everyday items from a house clearance sale or similar. Keep on popping into your local Brocante however and introduce yourself, there are bargains to be had but I find they are few and far between. Do not be tempted to buy an old French bed as it is likely to be of a size which a modern sommier or mattress will not fit. This is why it is cheap.
And finally the swimming pool. Surely the most expensive investment you are likely to make. Do not under any circumstances have your pool fitted by a friend of a friend who knows a man who fits pools. Not only are you breaking the law by employing people on the black but you are very unlikely to find yourself with a guarantee other than for the parts if anything goes wrong. And that’s if you can trace the ‘chaps’ who fitted it of course. It is a false economy. We plumped for a pool through Desjoyaux who fit pools with built in pumps thus dispensing of the cumbersome pool house. This one has a salt filtration system which is an attractive alternative to all those chemicals. So far, touch wood, we are happy . It comes with a 20 year guarantee for peace of mind. Do not be tempted to lay tiles around your pool for at least at year, let the ground settle. To preserve your marriage and sanity invest in a mechanical robot to clean the pool. If not haggle for one as a ‘freebie’.
Le Chateau is now a beautiful and unique house but most of all it is a loved home and one that we are proud of. I had no previous experience whatsoever but I now find myself in the surprising position of running it as an extremely popular house rental which makes perfect sense, a business I had not even contemplated and one which suits perfectly. Nestling nicely in a small medieval round village of the Aude in the Languedoc it faces south with views of the Pyrenees and the vineyards stretching out before it. In the distance the sunflowers dot the landscape and as it is surrounded by the most stunning natural countryside it is a walkers’ paradise. Most of all though Le Chateau offers a tranquil retreat from the hurly-burly of the modern world.
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