It happened like this … an English family move to France. Part 20. The cottage rentals emerge.
The children were growing up. The elder two caused that usual adolescant mixture of joy and fury, temper and sulks, utter and complete selfishness and sudden and unexpected spurts of kindness and cooperation. And more. Much more. I won’t say those years were “normal” because they weren’t, and some of the events took me years to recover from – in fact, were the greatest tests of my life – but I have written a whole book about it and I won’t go in to it here.
I continued with my rounds of the banks. Phoned to see if they had got an answer for me, phoned the next one, then the next. I saw a financier in La Rochelle who put far more energy in to trying to (unsuccesfully!) get me in to bed with him than dealing with my dossier, and another on the island here who told me that no bank anywhere in the world was ever going to loan anybody such a massive sum.
“It’s not a massive sum!” I wailed, “it is the price of a very ordinary house in England!”
“But this is France,” he replied with a logic that was infuriating.
My father put up some money so that we could continue with the work. It was now March. The first signs of spring were arriving and, if we didn’t start to advertise the cottage holiday lets very soon, we would miss the season altogether. And then another year would go by. I was beside myself. We owed so much money to the men, to my father, to the suppliers, and to our very selves. We had to get this loan one way or another and we even travelled to Paris to see a north African gentleman who, we discovered, wanted to launder his money through us.
” Typical!” I spat. “At last we find somebody willing to put up the money – and he has to be a b….y criminal!”
My mother, bless her, trying to encourage me, said:
“Don’t worry about your looks, my dear, they will come back once you can relax again.”
Oh, thanks mummy! I had no idea my looks had “gone” !
The stone walls. Each and every stone had to be picked around the joints so that it could be re-pointed, and then cleaned off. This picture shows about two thirds of the extent of the walls – it was a labour-intensive job. And just clearing away all the junk ! – there were mountains of it.
And it was that same week that at last we got the loan. Of all the big nationwide banks I had applied to, and all the local banks, it was a small unheard-of bank in Rochefort.
We have never moved so fast. We placed advertisements in the UK and very rapidly had bookings for all the cottages for the summer. Internet was in its infancy and ads went in to glossy magazines. The phone rang constantly. We even rigged up a loudspeaker outside for the phone so that we could hear it ring and rush to deal with an enquiry. We worked day and night, seven days a week, for three months. And in those three months we created six cottages – floors, ceilings, roof, plumbing, wiring … all of it, to include raising the roof in two places.
Major building work
There were two really very major works. One was with the drainage because the land is solid rock. I spent time phoning round to find the appropriate builder – they call that sort of work terrassement in France – you need to know this kind of stuff because you can waste hours and hours phoning the wrong people. Initially a man said he would do it with a mini-digger. He came round to look at the site, but Bruce told him he wouldn’t be able to do it, the ground was far too hard. And sure enough the man couldn’t and made only a five-minute attempt. More time wasted. So Bruce hired a big compressor and two road drills – more phone calls, more trips in to town, more time – and it took 4 men 4 days to dig the trenches through solid rock. We were amazingly lucky that there was mains drainage to connect to in the road that ran past.
The pool on the cottage side, and also the one on the chateau side, are situated in the only two places in the entire property where there is no rock. When the first lot of guests arrived the pool wasn’t quite ready. Mercifully they all had that good old British stiff upper lip, and they just bore with us till, on the third day of their stay, we were able to fill the thing up with water. It took an entire day and night to fill. The “hill” the far side of the pool is, of course, simply the earth that was dug out. It now has a children’s fort on the top of it, built by regular holiday-makers. Loads of things like the derlict shed behind and the broken wall to one side had to be left for several years till we could afford it.
The second major item was the pointing and rendering of the exterior walls – and some of the interior ones too. It was a massive job and big old Michel had already started hacking out the old, blackened render. We had thought we would do this ourselves but mercifully one of our labourers had a brother who had all the specialist equipment precisely for that. It cost a huge amount and made a serious dent in our budget, but it was well worth it for it saved many weeks in time, plus a great deal of energy and hassle. Actually, they were a really good team – from Saintes I seem to remember – who turned up promptly every morning and worked hard and fast till the job was done.
All roofs had to come off, already broken or otherwise, to be insulated and then laid with flexible waterproof material before putting the old Roman tiles ontop.
Inside partition walls that we built had a timber frame, then laid with insualtion & plasterboard, incorporating wiring and plumbing as we went. I loathe glass fibre – it gets everywhere – in to your clothes and eyes, and it feels itchy and uncomfortable and the only solution is not only a shower but a complete change of clothes too. The French call it “laine de verre”, meaning glass wool.
Some weeks we had up to fifteen extra people on the site, to include Michel’s daughter who came to help me make curtains, and Corinne, the gipsy I mentioned earlier with her little girls. The little girls ran around the site playing in the debris. I bought a second-hand buggy for the baby and carted her back and forth with me when Corinne couldn’t. We put table and chairs in what is now cottage 2, a fridge and an old cooker, so that the men could make coffee and eat as they wished. While the weather remained cold they lit a fire on the floor, there in the middle of the derelict room.
These were good, fruitful, positive days.
The corner barn with a huge hole in the roof became our home for several years till we were able to convert it. We sort-of camped in there from April-ish to mid-September or so, when the Chateau became available again. The Chateau lettings went very well, despite several initial mistakes, and it was almost always full.
All around was beaten earth and that summer was extremely hot. Jake and I flung grass seed down in all the little front gardens – too late realizing that one packet was wheat !! – and it is surprising how much of it took – both the grass and the wheat! Grass is good stuff. It grows in all sorts of places, hot or cold, and survives all sorts of abuse. I like grass.
Jake and I were also in charge of buying the wherewithall to furnish the cottages, and we dashed about after I had picked him up from school, frantically ordering beds and mattresses (you couldn’t do things on line), dozens of cups and plates and pillows. We had a Chrysler Grand Voyager at that time and we were able to pile a great deal in, Jake frequently balancing buckets and plants and curtain rails on his lap. We would unload it in to one of the cottages, where it always got in the way of the workers, and dash back to the shop for the next load. Back and forth, half an hour in each direction. Sometimes things were delivered, but usually delivery was too expensive or – more importantly – too slow.
Jake was great company, a smiley, happy little guy who joined in all this activity with as much energy as I did.
Everything had to be inexpensive and serviceable; it also had to be easily replaced. A year later a really good shop opened in a neighbouring village, where you can buy almost anything and everything needed for a holiday cottages – from teaspoons to floor tiles and more. But at that time I had to drive to Royan or Saintes and make my way to the relatively few suitable stores there were.
Thundery-looking day that spring. A large part of the roof re-done and the exterior stonework cleaned up. I see there is a new door-frame in place (cottage 5), though none of the windows are in. Mud and/or dirt everywhere. When Jake and I were finally able to clear up the grounds, the cigarette ends alone filled a bucket or two despite my constantly asking the men to dispose of their butts properly.
Ready for occupation. We made a mistake with that fencing, and once guest said it looked like pig-pens!!! We cut them down to a better height the following year. No grass – just scrub really. It is interesting to look at this picture now when the trees we planted along the fencing have all grown up and the hollyhocks provide splashes of colour all summer long. It was so bare then.
I opted for either yellow, orange or green everywhere downstairs and blue in the bedrooms. All crockery had to be easily replaced, bearing breakages in mind, and for the same reason had to be cheap. The cuttlery suffered from Yuri Gellar syndrome but – despite its flexible abilities – it is still going strong to this day. Saucepans and bowls, bottle openers and kitchen implements, bins and doormats … it is amazing how much we had to buy.
The furniture was inexpensive flat-pack pine – much to the fury of the men when they realized it all needed to be assembled. Amid a hearty mix of grumbles and laughter, they cracked on with it. William did a lot of it himself … he’d have been 16 I think. He was a brilliant help. Sun loungers, garden furniture, parasols. Pots of geraniums, curtains, tea towels. Bedding! That first year – in fact for the first three years I seem to recall – the sheets, towels and pillow cases were all bought in charity shops when we were in the UK, and were an extraordinary mixture of colours and patterns. It was all we could afford. When guests arrived they were somewhat taken aback, but very few minded.
The first few years were incredibly hard work. With little money to spare I did all the cleaning of the cottages and Francoise (here, in red) did the Chateau. Gosh, she was a tough little thing, tough as nails, hard working and strong even though she was small. We went hell-bent-for-leather on changeover days. During the week all the bedding had to be washed and ironed, regardless of the weather. Nowadays I have an entire batallion of cleaning and outdoor staff and I farm-out the laundry. But those first few years it was extraordinarily hard work. But fun. Lucrative fun.
The last cottage was ready just half an hour or so before the guests arrived. The previous night we had worked till very late, painting walls, assembling furniture, putting curtains and pictures up. We decided the simplest thing was to sleep in there and I stained and varnished the staircase as I worked my way backwards upstairs. In the morning they were still sticky and I used a hair dryer to dry them off!
People could see we were working very hard. The weather was great and the beach not far, so most guests were satisfied. That first year there was just one woman who complained – I hadn’t thought of coat hangers and she made a major issue out of it. It is a pity when people make an issue over something small for it sort-of devalues any other issues that may crop up. Oddly enough it is always the same type of person too.
At the end of that first week we stood in the darkening grounds one evening and looked at the lights in the pool and the barbeques sizzling in the little individual gardens, and listened to the low drone of voices of people as they cooked their meals and talked about their day … and we felt proud. Very proud indeed.