French cultural heritage on our doorstep

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This is my 100th post. I didn’t quite make the ton for my blog’s first birthday at the beginning of last week. However, I thought I would celebrate the occasion by telling you a bit about our barn, illustrated with some before and after photos.

We bought the barn, which is only 30m from our front door, eight years ago. It had been for sale in a desultory way ever since we had first moved here in 1997, and probably before. In 2003, things started to hot up and potential purchasers turned up, all of them interested in converting it into a house. I decided I couldn’t tolerate another dwelling so close, so we stepped in fast.

With the barn, we acquired a heap of stones, formerly a house, a field and a small wood. The latter is my pride and joy: I cleared it personally, by hand, turning it from an impenetrable thicket into managed woodland. It took me 18 months. I left a wild strip for the birds and animals, conscious that I was depriving them of their habitat.

The barn itself had been neglected for many years and was used only for storing a trailer and a lot of superannuated hay. Part of the roof at one end had gone and we quickly had it fixed; had it gone unrepaired much longer, the rest would have followed. The photo below shows the front, with trees growing right up against the walls. However, it also shows that the walls are as straight as a die and have not budged since it was built.

Barn front – before

The back of the barn was even worse, as you can see below. There was a small well in very poor condition, which was virtually inaccessible because of the brambles. A citerne for catching water was at the other end, in even worse condition with the stonework crumbling into the large, circular chamber below.

Behind barn – before

Barn, ruin and well – before

Inside the barn, however, the beautiful charpente (woodwork) remained much as it was when the barn was first built. The building has been re-roofed on at least one occasion and the laths were probably replaced. But the original beams and joinery remain.

Barn – charpente

We were unsure of the barn’s age and our neighbours, from whom we bought it, could only guess like us that it dated from the 18th century. Looking up at the keystone above the main entrance, Madame F said she could detect something written in the stone, but everyone pooh-poohed the idea. We all thought the marks were simply made when the stone was dressed. Later on one evening, when the setting sun fell on the stone, we realised that she had been right. There is a date incised into the stone – 1734. It could possibly be 1754, but having examined it closely, we think it’s probably a 3.

Date on barn

This, then, cleared up the mystery of its age. One has to be prudent in dating old buildings around here: their builders used to pillage the ruins of older houses for stone and if there was a date on a stone already they sometimes placed it above a doorway. We believe, though, that these crudely scratched hieroglyphics do actually represent the date the barn was built.

We have not found a date on our house, although we have reason to believe that a house has stood on this spot for centuries, although probably not the present building, which is 18th-century. Our neighbour told us that it was common for farmers to build the barn first to house the animals before starting on their own dwellings. They bunked up in the straw at night.

In the eight years since we have owned the barn, we have slowly restored it to its former magnificence. And it is a glorious building. We have mended and re-hung the original oak doors, one of which was simply lying on its side against a wall. That was a difficult job, since they are incredibly heavy, but it was made easier by our friend Claude and his electric hoist.

Barn doors, newly re-hung

We have also cleared the back of the barn, repaired the well (12.5 metres deep) and installed a pump for watering. The Statistics Freak rebuilt the top of the citerne and re-roofed it last year (on the right of the picture), installing a pump in there too. We also had removed what remained of the heap of stones. For several years, this provided us with some excellent dressed stone as well as filler stones for the dry stone walls that surround our property. It was mainly rubble after that. Eight lorry loads of debris were taken away on the hottest day of last summer (39ºC in the shade).

No trace of the ruin

I was a little sad that we have obliterated all trace of what was once someone’s house. However, it had been unrecognisable as such for many years and must have fallen down long ago. We have been pleased to find evidence of the occupants, including a fork and spoon, the key to the door (the door had long since crumbled) and various bits of agricultural implements.

Around the barn, we have also found a handful of strange metal objects with neat holes along one corner.

Fers à boeuf

After some reflection, we realised that these were fers à vache or à boeuf (cow or ox shoes), like horseshoes. The obvious difference is that the bovine hoof is cloven and each side of the hoof needed its own shoe. However, the interior part is smaller than the exterior, so a pair of cow shoes was of unequal sizes. Long before horses were used for drawing ploughs or carts, the farmers used oxen or cows. They needed to be shod to protect their hooves on the stony tracks.

I have read that a set of shoes lasted around three months, depending on how much work the animal did. Shoeing a cow or ox was apparently a more difficult and skilled job than shoeing a horse. It seems likely that the blacksmiths travelled from farm to farm to replace worn and lost shoes. I would be pleased to hear from anyone who has more information about how they worked.

As for the barn, it will remain just that as long as we own it. I feel it would be a pity to turn an example of local patrimoine (cultural heritage) into a house. Barns like this are becoming increasingly rare as they are either converted or fall down. The thought of doing gîtes makes my blood run cold. And, if we converted it, where would we store all our junk?

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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7 Responses to French cultural heritage on our doorstep

  1. Deborah says:

    Bravo, Vanessa! For the woodland, the sheer vision. What a fantastic post as the hundredth: full of insight and transformation. Loved seeing all these pictures and understanding a little of how the story unfolded.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks very much, Deborah. We have really enjoyed the experience of restoring an ancient piece of history. And we are proud that we have saved it from a fate that has befallen so many buildings in the area.

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  2. Stephanie says:

    What a stunning transformation. It must have taken a lot of work, but the results are wonderful. I hope to start some research on our property to find out exactly how old it is. We think late eighteenth century. I had no idea ox shoes existed. I love learning something new.
    And happy 100th post! You really must celebrate. I recommend chocolate cake.
    Bien cordialement,
    Steph

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    • nessafrance says:

      It has been a lot of work, and it’s not finished yet, but we have enjoyed reclaiming it from near oblivion. I would love to find out who built it and who lived here at that time, although some of the records were destroyed around the time of the French Revolution, we understand.

      Chocolate cake sounds a good idea. I’m not cake maker, though. You’d better send down your cake-making daughter who, I’m sure, would turn out something much more edible than I could. I’ll probably settle for just another glass of wine.

      Amicalement,
      Vanessa

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  3. Paul Diamond says:

    To perhaps verify the date on the keystone “3” or “5”, rub the stone with a sheet of paper and some charcoal..you may be amazed at how clear the charcoal rubbing brings out the details on the paper.

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