It happened like this … an English family move to France. Part 19. Starting again.
Barns ripe for conversion
There were a lot of old barns to one side of the land, facing away from the Chateau. They were solid in that they were built of stone, 3 ft thick in many places, and had huge oak timbers to support bits of crumbling roof. But otherwise they were derelict in the proper sense of the word. The children played in them, along with loads of other children, and if they had a party it was in what they called “the party barn” which, many years later, became our house. The grounds were two acres of so of scrub land, where William and his friends would go round and round in figures of eight in an old car we bought for him. The car wouldn’t go very fast (we made sure of that!) but they had a lot of fun.
My father had, off and on ever since we had bought the property, said we should convert the barns in to holiday cottages. We had indeed made a few tentative enquiries, but it was agricultural land and could only be used for agriculture.
This is now cottage 6. On the far left you can see the remains of a bread oven – there is a better picture in Part 20. (Or is it Part 21?)
So, on the whole, we took it no further, despite my father periodically mentioning it again, and the barns fell further and further in to dereliction, and the children made more and more mess.
I bought the children “tamtams” which were little gadgets they could keep in their pockets and which would buzz if I wanted them to come in for supper – or whatever. I seem to remember all I had to do was dial a number and the thing would buzz. I soon replaced them with “tattoos” which were slightly more sophisticated in that I could dial a number and give a message to a bod on the line, and he would then transmit a written version of the message to whichever child I wanted to contact.
It seems crazy, but it is a very large property, and locating the children could take a long time. Mobile phones, late to arrive in France and at first excruciatingly expensive and not very effective, soon replaced these little gadgets. Pagers, I suppose we’d say in English.
I put Les Cypres on the market. I just wanted to go home. I didn’t care if we ended up in a flat. I just wanted to go. I felt we had been sort-of jinxed ever since our arrival, and I became obsessed with the idea of returning to England at last. I packed things in to boxes, trawled through Sussex estate agent details, phoned mortgage companies … when I look back on it now I realize I had a kind of nervous breakdown. My determination to get us back to our roots, to get away from all the troubles I had endured, was overwhelming. I hated, with a venom that was completely unreasonable, anything and everything that was French. I made no further attempts at befriending anybody at all, regardless of their nationality. This country, which in fact is a great country with every kind of convenience and beauty, seemed to me to be out to “get” me. What do you mean, “get” you ? asked my father. I don’t know, I said, I don’t know…
Nor did I know how I would sell Les Cypres – way too big and needing far too much maintenance for 99.9% of buyers – and we would go and we would never ever come back. It ate at me. The way things do when you are hurt, and feeling very low, it ate at me.
One cannot reason with a person who has had a breakdown – not really. Prompted by my father and Bruce, I made lists of all the good things about France – and the list went on and on for pages and by far outweighed advantages to moving to England. I knew I was being nonsensical but I couldn’t help it. It was plus fort que moi, as the French say.
Meanwhile, however, we needed another income.
This was Bruno, one of our workers. Actually he was quite frightened of George, but patted him bravely for this photo. Dear Bruno! Bruce sacked him over and over again, usually because he was drunk, and he would scurry round to me and ask me to get him his job back – which I did. Sometimes he would stagger in with an appalling hangover, and if the weather was fine he would lie down on the front lawn, out of sight under the japonica bush and sleep it off. He hoped Bruce wouldn’t see him, and he knew that, at one stage or another, I’d creep over with coffee. He hung on to that job really only because I liked him so much and because, when he was sober, he was a very good worker.
This is now cottage 7. We blocked up the window and opened two new windows each side – so that each bedroom had a window. The original window had a timber shutter and would have been for throwing hay (or similar) out on to a cart. There was a fine stone manger in this barn/cottage but, imaginative as we may be, and creative as we are, we just could not find a way of incorporating it in to the features of the house. We kept the timber section, which now hangs on the wall there, but the stone section had to be hacked away. There were also very nice old cobbles on the floor and, had the cottage been for our own occupation, we’d have kept them. However, they were too uneven for holiday-makers and we couldn’t risk people tripping and breaking a limb. I almost wept when the men poured the concrete over them, and I expect the 400 year-old cobbles wept too.
A French mayor
A new mayor was elected to the village and, persuaded by my father, we went along and asked again what the possibilities were for converting the barns in to holiday cottages. With us we took a few outline sketches and plans, and a few guesstimates as to how many tourists the cottages would attract.
The Mairie in our village is a large, square, unadorned and totally boring building, and the two ladies who work there have worked there since the year dot, complete with twin sets, thin lips and very short hair died mahogany-red. Monsieur le Maire, a nice little man of uncertain age, sat behind his desk and listened to our idea, stroking his moustache and nodding and, to our surprise, replied that he would support a building application.
The village mayor has a totally different role in France to his UK counterpart and, although this has changed considerably in recent years, in those days he could wield quite a lot of power in one direction or another if he so wished. He may not give building permission per se, but he can give his personal approval which, in turn, puts the onus on the local building authority. They can refuse the application – which in our case they did – but the mayor can simply overturn their refusal – which he did.
Tourism in France
Tourism was by now an important aspect of the local economy. From a smelly backwater, the whole area was rapidly emerging in to a desirable holiday destination, with excellent beaches and great weather. Grotty little places like our village needed the tourist tax that holiday cottages would bring in, and needed the tourists to frequent the local (usually closed) restaurant and the village shops.
Step One, of course, was to find the finance for the project. We mulled over figures, changed them, added them up, deducted, multiplied, divided, then started again. It was a huge project, the conversion of totally derelict barns in to eight holiday cottages. Everything needed doing. Everything – roof, walls, floors, plumbing,wiring … And as is so often the way, such a lot needed to be cleared away or even totally demolished before we could start. It was difficult to price out because there were so many unknowns… beams that appeared to be solid may not be, tiles that we hoped to re-use could break, walls and floors that seemed dry enough could be damp (in fact in what became cottage 6 we discovered several inches of water when it rained months later – previously we hadn’t noticed it because it soaked away again in to the mud. But with tiles in situ it sat in delightful puddles all over, and the tiles had to be pulled up again , a diversion trench dug, and then the floor done all over again. Disheartening ? Oh yes.)
To save money we rented out the Chateau to holiday makers and we moved in to the one barn that we were not intending to convert. Seriously, it was a barn.
Sometimes I come across somebody who tells me they have been working hard on their house … and I look at them and smile to myself, for they generally mean they are re-decorating or changing the kitchen. This kind of work, I mean the kind we intended to take on, was a whole different ball game.
The discussing and negotiating with the banks was a whole different ball game too. We were no longer asking for a loan to buy a small house; we needed a big loan, a really big one. Furthermore, we faced two seemingly unsurmountable problems – one, the aftermath of the storm and thence our relationships with banks was well sullied and two, “equity” does not mean anything in France. Not the way it does in the UK.
They use the word “patrimoine” for equity, and we had an excellent patrimione. We had been at Les Cypres five years by this time, and we had paid off a large part of the small mortgage we had used for the purchase of the property in 1995. The property had rocketed in value. But that did not count.
But we also had two things in our favour. One, I knew the banks, I knew who to approach, what the interest rates were, which areas of the project could or could not be financed, how to put the dossier together, which way to go. I was knowlegeable and energetic. Two, because of Bruce’s abilities we were able to start on aspects of the work that made it look as though we had already invested quite a lot of money in the project. Banks like that kind of thing. Actually, of course, we had genuinely already invested a lot in the property – it was just that it hadn’t been with cottages in mind. Furthermore, Bruce could not only actually do most of the work himself, from the point of view of capability, he could oversee all the other work too. The project would therefore cost us around £50 000 less.
It was now sometime around September I think. Perhaps October. There was a lot of mud everywhere. Bruce and his men chipped away at whatever they could in the barn area, slowly advancing it against all odds. All the old jointing on the outside walls had to be cleaned out, then the stones re-jointed and bleached. It was a massive task. We ran out of money. The insurances had finished paying for the storm damage and that, in turn, meant that we could no longer pay the men. What could be repaired on the rental flats had been done, and some of them since sold. If we laid off the men we couldn’t get any work done. If we kept them we couldn’t pay them.
We met with the men and explained the situation – and do you know what ? Each and every one of them voted to keep working with no pay till we got the loan in – when we would pay them. We warned them that it could be months. They trusted us, admired Bruce, liked us. They were amazing. We were a team. We have lost touch with all of them now. I wonder how they are and what they are doing ?
A bank loan in France
I went from bank to bank, sometimes as many as four in one day. Things were not computerized yet in France … they were very late with that. That was a mercy, though at the time the only thing that particularly mattered was that we should not be in “interdiction bancaire” which means one is blacklisted at the Banque de France. Against all odds we were not in interdiction – luck more than design!
Although I was invariably in jeans with my hair usually scooped up in to a pony tail, I was nonetheless very professional. I made it clear within the first two minutes that I was not some silly woman who had no idea. I knew the law, I knew the rates, I knew the possibilities. My French had become very good. Sometimes it occurred to me that I knew better than the bank manager. That has been the case many times since. I had the facts and figures at my finger tips. I am not saying that in order to impress, I am just saying what was. It was precisely this sort of thing that made us a success in France where so many fail. You cannot be hesitant and unsure, you cannot be a shrinking violet, you have to be strong, self-confident and determined. And that applies to all walks of life, all situations. It is the difference between success and failure.
But the weeks went on and no bank would go with us. I made appointments, got together revised paperwork, new estimates, discussed things by phone, faxed a zillion forms, on and on and on to each and every bank in the area. I drove to banks in La Rochelle, Saintes, Royan and everywhere in-between. We went down to Bordeaux to meet a financier who promised us the earth and gave us great hope – and then we simply never heard from again. We contacted a financier in the UK, travelled to Portsmouth to meet him, only to find he was a trickster. It was exhausting and very disheartening. What made it so much worse was that the bank manager I saw was usually unable to approve such a loan himself (or herself, though I think they were all men) because, by local standards, the £200 000 we needed was a massive sum of money.
Often enough the manager I saw was keen on the project, liked the idea, liked me, even came to look at the property. But Head Office, wherever that may be, invariably turned down the application after months and months of waiting. They always took months. They never asked for more information or for an interview or to see the property – so what the months were about I have no idea. In some cases I think the dossier got simply shelved and forgotten about.
It was an extremely fraught time. I had to find a bank somehow. The men had to be paid, we had to be paid, we needed a new income and – equally importantly – I could see, within the confines of the project, a passport home.