One thing's for sure: you're going to find this hard to believe.
But where to begin?
First visited France back in the '80s with Georgie. Had a two-week motorcycle tour visiting some of the places she'd been to years before as a kid with her family. I remember being none too impressed with Normandy and Brittany. Maybe because it rained. Or maybe because I couldn't get the hang of driving on the right. Or maybe because I couldn't recall any of the limited French I'd learnt at school. However, by the time we'd boogied through the Dordogne and Lot regions, I was in love with the place. Returned again and again over subsequent years. Spent increasing amounts of time looking in estate agents' windows. Eventually bought a little run-down shack in the Haute-Vienne region in '96. Made it vaguely habitable and had four or five summer holidays there. Two weeks was never long enough. Hated going back to the UK. Eventually sold it when a Parisienne couple bought the barn at the back, thereby ending our valued privacy and solitude. Being disconnected to France felt odd. Decided to look for a replacement wreck to buy. But prices were rocketing. Spotted a couple of places on the internet. Whizzed over immediately on my speedy Honda Fireblade to view my favourite. Arrived at the estate agent's to be told "sorry, it's sold - but we have some others you may be interested in..." Told 'em to stuff it. Roared off in a huff for a peek at the other one. Only went to see it out of courtesy. I'd previously arranged to meet the vendor's son-in-law. Didn't want to let him down.
Viewed the house in the rain. A wreck. Holes in the roof, rotten window frames, broken panes, no proper bathroom, an apology for a kitchen, overgrown garden, wiring was a joke and had obviously been done by an amateur on a suicide mission, being in a hamlet it wasn't isolated, the garden shed had collapsed, blah, blah, blah. But..., it had a great view, it had that 'maison de maitre' character that I so admire, it had big rooms and a degree of originality, it seemed fairly sound despite that colander of a roof, and the price seemed reasonable in a rapidly rising market. If we didn't get back on the ladder now, we probably never would. So I went back to the UK and bullied Georgie and Don into going for it. Bought it in '02 (or was it '03?). Can't remember.
Meanwhile..., back in the UK I had turned into a grump. I was approaching sixty, work had almost dried up and I felt I'd been dumped on the scrapheap. Worse still, it seemed to me that the nation was going downhill. The UK had 'sinking ship' written all over it. I was convinced the huge levels of debt (encouraged by a government I despised) were about to have severe consequences. People were spending money they didn't have, assuming they'd be covered by ballooning equity in their property. I was convinced that balloon was about to burst, leading to a property price crash. It seemed insane for lenders to be dishing out mortgages at five times someone's income, purely based on property prices continuing to rise at an alarming rate. It just couldn't last (if I could see this happening, how come the so-called experts couldn't?). Furthermore, I was even more worried about being one of ten million 'baby boomers' who were approaching retirement age. No way would the country be able to support us (contrary to popular belief, not all oldies have loadsa dosh stashed away in Swiss bank accounts). And what had the government done to prepare the NHS for the huge numbers of elderly who'd soon be needing help? Nothing. Absolutely zero. There's gonna be trouble. Big trouble. So..., I decided to move to France. Permanently.
So far, the story almost makes sense. But now for something completely different...
(I'll try and keep this as short as possible.)
Convinced Georgie that we should move to France. But not to that French house we'd just bought ('house 1'). In a way, it was just a stopgap; a potential holiday home. As a full-time home, it didn't fit the bill. So I started searching the internet for something more suitable. Spotted a place near Tulle (house 2') that looked interesting. Good location at the edge of a forest with a little stream, no immediate neighbours and loads of original features including a stone staircase. Needed renovating but I thought it was just about habitable. Georgie and I went to view it, loved it and decided to go for it.
Sold our UK house, filled a removals van and two cars with junk, and set off for a new life in France (on Friday 13th!) with me and Georgie in one car and Dave (a mate) and Donnie (Georgie's twin sis) in t'other (they'd kindly agreed to help us out). The plan was to arrive at 'house 2' on the Saturday, recover on the Sunday, sign the house purchase papers on the Monday and await the arrival of the removals van the following Saturday.
Didn't go according to plan.
Arrived at 'house 2' mid-day Saturday. Decided the place was uninhabitable (must have viewed with rose-tinted specs) and there was no way the removals van would get over the little bridge and up the tiny track. Adopted 'Plan B'. Drove on to afforementioned colander-roofed 'house 1'. Arrived in pouring rain at midnight (we'd been on the road for 36 hours with no kip). Dossed down in sleeping bags. Had big internal pow-wow on Sunday about next day's signing on the dotted line. All very stressful (as had been the entire previous month). Next day, drove with Georgie to Tulle for the official purchase meeting with the notaire (solicitor), the estate agent and the vendor. Announced we were pulling out of the deal. All very embarrassing. Lost deposit. Drove back. Told Dave and Donnie the news. They seemed relieved, Dave especially - he clearly wasn't enamoured with the place. But Georgie was devastated. Removals van re-routed and delivered to 'house 1'. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we should have gone ahead and purchased 'house 2' and then either put it straight back on the market or started renovating while living at 'house 1' or renting somewhere closer (it's 70 miles away). Ah, hindsight! - marvellous stuff.
Spent that summer making 'house 1' basically habitable and settling into our new life. I had no problems about living in France but Georgie did. We didn't have Broadband so her plan of working freelance for London publishers backfired. And she didn't drive. And she missed London. And her friends and family. And her parents were ill. In short, she wasn't yet ready for France. So she moved back to Donnie's flat in Putney and returned to her old freelance work. Meanwhile, I stayed out here with the dogs, endured a freezing winter and waited for the builders to renovate the roof and fit new windows. This they did the following spring. Improved living conditions considerably (try spending a winter of snowstorms high in the hills, living in a house with a leaking roof and blizzard winds howling through broken windows, with no heating apart from a tiny fire of damp twigs and you'll know what I mean).
Although 'house 1' had improved, it still didn't fit the bill as a perfect place to live. Basically, I wanted somewhere with more privacy and a milder winter climate. So I started looking around. Spotted a barn and ruined peasant's cottage in a stunning (and I mean stunning) two-acre location near the attractive town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne. Access was a problem though. Had to walk up a half mile overgrown track. Was reliably informed the cost of widening and making it suitable for vehicles would be about 6000 euros (about 4000 quid back then), and that the local council would probably pay half. Bought it. Then discovered the council wouldn't pay half. And they insisted on the track becoming a proper road that was capable of access by an ambulance. New estimated cost: 20,000 euros. In the meantime, the pound had collapsed. 20k euros was now 20k quid. And that's just the cost of access. Furthermore, as I wasn't a registered farmer, I wasn't really allowed to own the land and property. Councils are stamping down on Brits and others converting Dordogne farms into domestic homes - they want to retain the little farming culture that still remains, which is fair enough. However, they said they'd make an exception in this instance and allow me/us to live there and renovate. But they insisted we renovate the little ruined cottage first (my idea was to convert the barn and ignore the ruin) and then "maybe" they'd grant permission to convert the barn (or maybe not!). I still have that dream of living there with Georgie and the dogs. One day, maybe.
So, there you go. You're up to speed. That's where we're at. Been out here almost five years. Scribed events in my other blog - http://www.cestlavie.blog.co.uk/ - which, as I mentioned in the previous posting, has now come to an end. The future's here; right here in this blog. And I'm looking forward to it.
A Winters's Harvest
1 week ago