We restored a huge old house in France. Part 8.
The property had originally owned all the surrounding land for many miles in each direction, but the previous incumbents had sold off most of it, leaving just 3 or 4 hectares immediately around the house and in the woods behind.
There is a 12’ wall around the entire perimeter (though not in the woods), much of which had crumbled away. This was a very major task not just because of the man hours involved in re-building the broken parts, nor the expense of buying the appropriate tools, but because getting hold of clean uncut stone was not easy. There were several old farms in the area selling off piles of stone all right, but they were invariably attached (the stones that is, not the farms) to cement and concrete, layers of very hard mud and stones. Cleaning them off and making them useable doubled – if not tripled – the man hours needed.
The interior of the house was vastly more urgent, or so we thought till we were burgled. It seemed that just as we moved out stuff in, a group of local lads decided it would make an ideal place for a quick robbery. We probably seemed very rich to them!
Both our elder son and our daughter, aged 11 and 13 respectively and completely accustomed to hard work on their home, joined a couple of men and worked steadily, hour after hour, wheeling piles of stone back and forth, and buckets of cement. It took several weeks. The back gate, which had completely fallen off its hinges, was reinstated, and the front gate repaired. Both gates date to the original property, huge iron things that I painted royal blue.
A road runs along the front of the property, in the summer quite a busy road because it leads to the island of Oleron. We were well protected from this by big fine old trees, mostly pine, that lined the wall. Then, at the end of the millennium, came the Big Storm in which 36 local people were killed, 762 seaside businesses destroyed, almost all roofs lost – and almost all trees.
That was devastating. Not only did we then have the massive task of re-building the house we had spent the previous five years working on, but all our lovely trees were gone too. Once again, the interior of the house was more important – the storm had been so bad that windows had been blown in, carpets ruined, pictures unhinged from the walls, ornaments smashed to smithereens. Cry ? No, I didn’t cry. We were far too busy for that.
When we finally got to the wall we really had no choice but to build it higher using boards. We couldn’t afford more stone, let alone the labour. It is not ideal to this day, but it works. Every year we plant two or three more trees.
One very interesting old feature outside is the dove cote. It dates to the 1600s and is far older than the Chateau. This part of France tends not to have cellars in old houses, but this ancient dove cote did have a cellar. It is quite likely that ice was kept down there, brought by horse and cart from the mountains at the other side of France. It makes one realize how tough life must have been in the days before fridges!
At some stage, however, the cellar had been used as a septic tank-stroke-garbage dump. There was only the one outdoor WC when we bought the place, but in the dove cote we could see traces of what may well have once been a Wc, quite possibly a double WC. In this area I have on more than one occasion seen planks with two, or even three holes cut in to them so that loo-attendees could sit and do their doings in unison, Roman-style. Indeed, this was a Roman area, so may well have been influenced by precisely that.
Children being children, of course, felt that the best possible place to play was down in this stinking cellar and they thought I was really very unreasonable to tell them not to. Down there, however, they did find two most attractive candlesticks, dating from 1880 or so, which I cleaned up and which are now on display.
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