Today is 24 years to the day since we moved into our house here in Southwest France. We had actually arrived in France six days before, but the previous owner wasn’t ready to move out. We used the time to make various purchases and complete numerous bureaucratic tasks. With great excitement we drove here from the village, where we had been staying, to rendezvous with the gigantic pantechnicon that contained all our worldly goods.
I’ve written before about that day, so I won’t dwell on it. Instead, here are some before and after shots of things we have done to the place over two and a half decades.
We were fortunate that the house was already restored, having been brought back from near-oblivion in the early 1970s. In fact, this was one of our requirements when we were house-hunting. We were both working and travelling a great deal, so we were not looking for a restoration project. Also, a French estate agent taught us that it’s very easy to over-stretch your finances when doing up a ruin.
Having said that, two of the three previous owners since its restoration had used the house as a maison secondaire, virtually camping out in it during the summer holidays. The third owner made certain improvements, such as installing a central heating system, which we soon found wasn’t adequate, converting the top floor attic into bedrooms and installing a swimming pool. It was still in a rather basic state.
Over the years, we have made our own changes to turn it into a more comfortable all-year-round home.
First off was the kitchen. When we arrived, there were no units. The work surface was a piece of MDF board slung between a pair of breeze block pillars. It had warped and developed a distinct curve in the middle. We lived with it for a couple of years, not having the time to do much else. Then we commissioned a local menuisier to custom-build a kitchen. This was necessary, because there isn’t a straight wall in the place. No IKEA ready-made units, then.
I don’t have a photo of the original kitchen, but this is how it looks now. And it’s stood the test of time for the 22 years since we commissioned it.
We also lived with our downstairs bathroom for some years before deciding to give that a makeover, too. The problem was its shape: it was large but narrow, and the existing units, colour scheme and lighting made it look even narrower.
That all went out. We opted for a walk-in shower at one end, a more modern bath and basin, and new wall and floor tiles. We also installed recessed spotlights, which improved the lighting no end. Fortunately, the plumbing was all there already.
When the house was restored in the early 1970s, the bolet, or covered balcony, was in a terrible condition, judging by photos we have seen. Half of the integral pigeonnier had collapsed onto it, and the stone paving slabs were crumbling.
Although the first owner had the pigeonnier rebuilt, the original stone slabs remained. They had become an uneven hazard at the top of the steps. Moreover, the cracks between the paving let water seep into the bedroom below. We had the bolet floor redone on a concrete base (some of the paving was reusable) and the steps up to it tidied up, secured and replaced in places.
We also had the bolet completely reroofed. Here’s how it looks today.
The barn that we now own didn’t come with the house, since it belonged to neighbours a kilometre or so away. Originally, of course, it was part of the hamlet, of which our house was probably the main dwelling.
When the neighbours put the barn on the market, and people began viewing it, we decided that we couldn’t live with another house within 30 metres of our front door, even if it was only destined to be a second home. So in 2003 we bought it plus the field behind it and some woodland.
It’s a beautiful building (about which I’ve written before; link below), very solidly built sometime in the 18th century. We have no desire to turn it into a gîte. For us, it will remain a barn.
However, it was many years since the building had been used or maintained. Behind it was a completely overgrown mess, while the existence of a former house could only be inferred from a large heap of stone in front of the barn. We salvaged what decent dressed stone we could from it. The remaining rubble occupied eight large lorry-loads.
We had the barn roof repaired and turned the rutted track into a proper drive. We also added gates and fences to keep out straying cattle, which are a problem around here.
Wall and woodland
At the same time, we rebuilt the 82 m long wall that bordered the field and the woodland and cleared 3/4 of the woodland, which was almost impenetrable. The remaining 25% we left as a haven for the wildlife.
We have done plenty of other things too numerous to mention but not so significant, such as overhauling the swimming pool with new paving and a new liner.
We love our house. It has its inconveniences: not enough bedrooms for its overall size; the main staircase is in the wrong place; the roof insulation is poor and can only be fixed once we re-do the roof. Maybe someone else will address these failings if we never get around to it. After all, we are only the custodians of a house that has seen generations of people born, live and die within its walls. I hope future generations will cherish the place as much as we do.
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