It happened like this … an English family move to France. Part 11.
Bruce bleaching the exterior of the house. Industrial bleach is vicious stuff and you can burn yourself quite badly. At the top of the photo you can see where the bleach has worked, and it was such a transformation. From grotty dirty grey to a lovely off-white. The surface area of the outside walls is about 6000 sq feet, so it was quite a job. And before the bleaching started there was a lot of sanding of the stonework because of crusted dirt, old bits of pipes and wires and ariels, repairing bits of broken stone … it took at least a month. It needs to be re-done every 5 years or so. We had an Englishman called Kevin helping. He was a funny bloke, Kevin. He badly needed work and we tried to give him some, but he was really pretty hopeless. We found him lying down to do the weeding, slowly picking bits of grass out of a flower-bed. He couldn’t understand it when we fired him. Those shutters have been re-painted six or seven times now, and we have found that “satin” paint works best. Gloss tends to peel or crack in the sun (the south side of the house gets very hot) whereas satin paint holds its own. The shutters are now fixed in the open position. They were so frequently left banging around in the wind and, being English, we use curtains anyway. So they got screwed back and are simply decorative. Actually one of the things that makes French villages so dull is all the closed shuttered windows that line the streets; it give everything a blank look.
A huge pile of rubble in the entrance hall! The fathers of the previous owners, two brothers, had split the house in to two, making a pair of semis. There was a thin brick wall dividing the house across the hall (hence the rubble which was removed, one barrow load after another, by our daughter by now aged 14 or so). There was also a 1920s staircase which, in London, would have fetched a good price – but here in France, at that time, it was worthless. We used the staircase in another building a year or two later. The door way to the right had been closed-off, making a cupboard on the other side, the other side being the dining room. An old mattress, one of several left in the house, propped against the far wall, waiting for A Strong Man (ie Bruce) to take it out to the skip.
This is the living room. In fact it had been split up in to three small rooms, presumeably for economy of heat during the winter. The partitions were easy to remove, but the floor underneath was badly damaged – a mixture of woodworm, damp and age. At first the room was very dark because of a huge tree growing just outisde, which – sad though it was – we removed. Somebody had painted the stone fireplace a brownish yellow and, just below the surface of the paint we could pick out an old fleur-de-lys, which I have since managed to paint back in. We covered the floor in hardboard, having neither the time nor the money for a damp course.
You cannot be a perfectionist
That is something of utmost importance when you take on a huge project as this was, particularly when you have a tiny budget as we did: do not fuss too much where fuss isn’t really needed. You cannot be a perfectionist at times like this, otherwise you will never get the job done. We know a man who spent four years trying to install his central heating; he was so careful about everything, so precise … he never got the job finished and in the end they called a plumber in, which they might as well have done in the beginning.
And it also depends on your version of doing something “properly”. Some French friends bought a pretty house in nearby Fouras – that 1900s seaside architecture I love – though just a small (sensible!) house. With great pride they told us they had done everything “properly”, even though it had taken them years. But I look around their house (which I like) and wonder where the “properly” bit is … Many would disagree with me of course. We all have different ways of doing things. Furthermore a house like ours had plenty of lumps and bumps in it just because of its age and its style. That suited me just fine.
You have to be decisive
You also have to be decisive. Some dear friends of ours went through agonies while trying to decide the colour of their kitchen work surface. We decide that kind of thing within a few minutes. You have to know what you are about, you have to have a good eye for what you are doing, you have to be decisive. And there is no point in regretting a decision. If Bruce came to consult me every time he put up a radiator or a balustrade, and I had been fussed as to whether it went here or there, the entire project would have gone on and on. Likewise I never consulted him about the colour of the paint or the curtains, or where I hung a picture. We trusted each other’s decisions implicitly. That is essential.
There are quite a few things that have not got that professional finished touch but it doesn’t matter to us. The house is nonetheless great, most people love it, and those who don’t – well, that’s fine, they don’t have to.
This is now the library. It is too big to call it a landing (the picture shows about a third of the room). The hole in the floor was where the 1920s staircase was. We diverged from the original architect’s plans and created a mezzanine/atrium in that void, otherwise it made the hallway below terribly dark. The cast iron uprights that now serve as a balustrade all the way round are a mixture of antique stair rails we had found in the loft of House Number One and Bruce’s expertise with working iron in to something that looks ancient even if it is not. The door leads on to a balcony – you can see where the ceiling had fallen away above it. On the right there is an alcove in which stands an old statue of Mary, mother of Jesus. We read in the archives that a previous owner had declared the statue was to be left there forever, or be buried with her. So we have left it there to be on the safe side! The door to the left led through to what became our bedroom and bathroom.
It sounds old-fashioned, but we quickly learnt to divide our labour in to boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs. When a man is working hard, as Bruce was, it is essential to him to know that there is a hearty meal waiting for him when he stops, a couple of cold beers, a comfortable bed to collapse in to, clean dust-free clothes to put on. That was my department. He did the Big Heavy jobs that I didn’t know how to do – and didn’t want to know. I did the more feminine jobs like painting and decorating and making endless curtains – most of those windows are almost three metres high, floor to curtain rail. To this day we divide our labour accordingly and, without having to consult each other, we each deal with different things.
That is another thing that is important when taking on a task like this. You have to understand each other and neither party should tell the other what to do. If you need to be told what to do, you shouldn’t start on the project. You have to be able to see it for yourself and make your own decisions. You have to be able to just get on with it, whatever which way you can; and if you can’t do it you need to know how to side-step it – if only for today.
Sometimes things were overwhelming.
Truly overwhelming, especially when there was nowhere to put anything. Everything was heaped in to two huge rooms, except for the larger pieces of furniture which went straight in to the room they were – theortetically – destined for. I am a very tidy person, and all the boxes were labelled, and I just went back and forth, back and forth, carrying things to different rooms regardless of whether or not they could be unpacked – which they invariably couldn’t. This involved negotiating my way over planks, especially on the top floor where the children’s rooms were to be created, because the old floor was badly perished and unsafe to walk on. The disadvantage to doing this was that, when there was a lot of work going on, in the case of the children’s bedrooms walls and floors needed to be repaired, replaced or created from scratch, the boxes get in the way. But a judgement has to be made one way or another, especially when one needs access to the contents of the boxes. You just have to work round it somehow. I went up and down those stair cases and in and out of all those rooms all day long for four days; when I felt there was some semblance of order, and when I knew where everything was, I was satisfied. If one of the childrenn asked for cellotape, or scissors or a dictionary, in that huge house and with all that mess, I knew exactly where to locate it.
The children were amazing. William in particular learnt a lot of DIY skills and today, like his dad, he is way above-average … though equally untidy, if such a thing were possible.
The children joined in all this upheaval. When I look back on it I realize we laughed a lot. We had our own silly language and our own funny little routines. Routine is important to children and despite all the big changes (a new school for a start) we kept all the rituals and routines that made up the heart and soul of the family… each child choosing in turn what we would eat, for example, bed time stories, Sunday cycle rides and so on.
Our elder son’s bedroom, though he hasn’t slept there for a long time now. At first all the walls were orange but as he got older and spent less time with us I was able to re-paint most of them off-white. To date he has not noticed – men !!
I was probably somewhat strict – there was “grown ups time”, when they were packed off to bed and they understood from a very early age that children’s time now happened in bed and it was grown-ups time downstairs. I was also strict about toys – toys remained in the children’s areas, though there were also outdoor toys and, later, pool toys. We never ever had toys all over the house and I cannot understand people who do. Come to think of it, there were “kitchen” toys, ie paints and felt tip pens, which were used in the kitchen only.
Men and mess
I drew the line at tools. We all know that men carry tools around with them and put them down “somewhere – I -had-it-in-my-hand-I-know-I-did”. Tools were not my domain, though I did announce at odd intervals (and the announcement was either not heard or forgotten within seconds) “I will put any tools lying around in my way by the hall door”.
Something I learnt on the very first day of our marriage (almost) is that when Bruce says “it won’t make much mess” – ignore that completely. It will make a terrible mess. Does this apply to all men or is it just my man ? Cover everything or it will soon be smothered in brick dust, stone dust, sawdust, and every other kind of dust and everything in-between too.
Another old photo of the house, circa 1880, judging by the clothes. Mark you this part of France remained extremely backward till the 1990s, so the photo may well have been taken later, though I cannot imagine it was after, say, 1918. Once I had time on my hands I was able to wade through a lot of these old photos and identify, using church and town hall records, the people therein. The family immediately before us had nothing of any interest to relate, but a few generations back there was a lot of interesting stuff, much of which is on display in the property today.
Despite feeling overwhelmed from time to time it never occured to me – or to Bruce – that we couldn’t do it. I don’t think this was because we were overly self-confident, but we were self-confident, very energetic, very speedy, very imaginative. The only way forwards is precisely that – forwards. You put one foot in front of the other, even if there is no money to do it. You just find a way. Round it, or over it, or under it … whatever it is. I have never looked back and thought “we were crazy!” in a regretful or negative way.
when you work hard it is crucial that you play hard (me in the multi-coloured outfit). The elder two children already taller than I am. Jake was on skis by the time he was four and, some years later, so were our grandbabies.
https://www.facebook.com/catherinebroughton2 join Catherine on Facebook!
Interested in France ? Book your holiday near La Rochelle. Full details on www.seasidefrance.com