Thursday 31 August 2006

On the Road Again

April 9 - 12 , 2006

The second trip happened while Susan was in Australia visiting her parents. She was at Ayers Rock, and I decided that it was time to test the waters again. I rang my mate, Bryan the Artist, and asked if he was interested in a trip. This time we were going to Loches in Indre et Loire

Bryan lives in Cockermouth (oop north), so we arranged that he would drive to Stanstead Airport, and we would fly to Paris together, driving from there. The flights, hotel and car were booked - then the French Air Traffic Controllers went on strike and all flights were cancelled. This was a problem, because Bryan had a meeting the next week he couldn't miss. Then, luckily a window opened, and we arranged to fly out on the Sunday and back on the Wednesday. This would allow us time to visit the market in Loches on Wednesday. This time Bryan was flying from Durham with BMI, and I was flying from Heathrow with BA.

Amazingly, both flights were on time, and we even managed to meet up in the agreed place. Car hired, we hotfooted it around Paris (in the rush hour), spending a lot of time following a circus van that was carrying an alligator. We found a hotel in Amboise (eventually) where one or two beers were partaken of before bedtime.

The next day it was, as on the previous trip, a parade of uninspiring properties, albeit with some amazing views and interesting signs in between, including Valencay, and an threatening set of clouds. Although we were getting fairly hungry for lunch (Monday and all the shops and restauants being closed), we weren't tempted to have burgers.

Storm clouds near Valencay

I was pretty dispirited by the houses I had seen so far. There were places being advertised on the internet that looked promising, but once again, they had been sold the day before I arrived in France. It appears that some people arrive in the country and just make an offer on a house without having any kind of survey done. Susan and I had always intended to have any house we were really interested in surveyed properly before making an offer. We weren't going to buy somewhere just on a whim only to find out later it was totally structurally unsound - or needed a new roof....................

Luckily, a good dinner and a digestif restored my faith in what I was trying to do, and the views of the chateau and old town of Loches are enough to restore anyone's spirit.

Next day we went to Loudun (via Richelieu, which looks worth another look when we have more time). There we saw a great old possibly 15th century building, well within the price range, but needing a lot of work having been used as a bit of a doss house for a while. We also saw a property at St Jean de Sauves which instantly appealed. The price was perfect, the village was interesting, and it had a garden with a well, along with an allotment plot. I liked this place a lot, but without Susan being there, felt I couldn't make an offer. (Needless to say, it was sold a week later, before Susan could see it).

The House at St Jean de Sauves

Loches and our hotel
We then went to Descartes for lunch and another appointment, where the lady in the Immobilier's told me that our budget was unrealistic, and no way would we find somewhere. With that news (and not believing her), we returned to Loches for some sightseeing. Loches is such a pretty little town, with a great chateau and church, really pretty gardens, and some very attractive shops and houses. It also has one of the best boulangeries I have ever been to.

That evening we dined at the Gerbe d'Or in Loches. A simple meal, just an entree and main - until the man at the next table ordered a desert. We then both decided we had to have the Cointreau Souffle. I have never taken a photo of a meal before - and may never again - but this was worth it. Magnificent.

Angel Food at the Gerbe d'Or
Wednesday and Saturday are market day in Loches, and what a brilliant market. Everything you expect from a French market and more. This only reinforced the feeling that I HAD to live near here. I knew that I would be returning with Susan and that Loches' market would be a regular event in my life.

Lettuces in Loches
On the way home we visited the gardens (well - the car park) at Chenonceaux, and then retraced our route to Charles de Gaulle airport. This time we were even more in the rush hour, and it felt like we were going to miss every turn. All this while trying to find somewhere to fill the car up with fuel. Absolute Bedlam, and I vowed never again would I fly into Paris. Bryan didn't miss his flight, although I'm not sure how, and I was 4 hours early for my flight.


Tuesday 22 August 2006

Not the perfect start!!

March 10 - 12, 2006

When we decided to actually get serious about France, we started looking in the Charente. We had spent a magic week at Bas' place near Confolens, and naturally this was the first place we looked. Finding a house in our price range wasnt going to be easy though. There were a number of houses shown on the various internet sites, but they were in a condition even more perilous than we were prepared to take on.

Susan at dinner with Bas, Terracher
There were a number of criteria that had to be met. We needed a large garden of at least 2000 square metres for growing our self sufficiency vegetables. It had to have guest accomodation for paying guests. And it had to be in the country, far enough away from a town that it was quiet, but not so far away that the market was inaccessable.

For various reasons, all of them too distant in the past to be able to justify properly, we started looking at a small town called Argenton-Chateau in Deux Sevres. There was a nice large ex-forge overlooking the river which was just about in our price-range. After emailing the immobilier we waited......and waited. After a while, we received an answer, and arranged to see the property. Then 2 days before we were due to leave we received an email saying that it had been sold. We decided to visit Argenton-Chateau anyway, as our flights and accomodation had been booked.

The flight (from Gatwick to Nantes) was delayed by 4 hours and 59 minutes, meaning that we arrived at past 2.00am in France. BA had given us food tokens at Gatwick, but only one restaurant was open (and that soon closed) so I bought about £30 worth of biscuits and bottled water. At Nantes, BA booked us a hotel for free because the car hire place was, understandably, closed.

The house and it's view near Thouars
We went to the immobilier in Thouars, who took us to see a couple of properties. The best one was part of a farm complex, the rest of the farm still being in operation . It didn't grab either Susan or myself, even though it wasn't expensive, and the agent said the owners were willing to make a deal. The main problem is both houses were small, and it was out in the sticks. The garden consisted mainly of a huge concrete hardstanding. It had a great view though - a derelict chateau standing (but only just) about 100 metres away. On reflection, we may have been expecting a bit much!

The house at Argenton Chateau
That afternoon, with another agent, we visited a few properties closer to Argenton Chateau. Once again there was no enthusiasm from either of us for any of the properties. I then asked about a propery that I had seen advertised, but which filled none of our criteria. It was a house which had been converted into a hairdressers at some time in the past, which stood exactly opposite the church, only 50 metres or so from the Market square.

For some reason this place really appealed. We told the agent we were seriously interested and left for the day. We spent the whole of the next day in and around Argenton Chateau, and on our return to London, decided to make an offer. We rang the agent, decided in consultation with him as to what our offer would be, actually put the offer in - and then the vendor decided not to sell.

This put us both into a bit of a sulk. The next trip was to be more inspiring.


Sunday 20 August 2006

How it all started

Well, this bit of the adventure, anyway.

After four trips to France to find the right house in the right place, we've now paid a deposit on a house in the Loire valley. It has a hole in the roof over the staircase, hasn't been occupied for 35 years and is absolutely filthy. The garden is a mass of brambles (Rubus fruticosus agg) - which last time I saw them were as high as me - and a thriving elder tree (Sambucus nigra) which is preventing the garage door from opening. In addition to the house and garage there is a stable cum grain store, tasteful stone dunny (a la turque) and a woodshed.

Our surveyor has produced a report and somewhat Eyeorishly told us that it will take twice as much money as we were expecting to restore (and therefore twice as much money as we actually have). We are funding the project with the proceeds of the sale of my house in Australia and I am determined not to borrow any money, so Plan B is to do the roof and restore the house and then take a deep breath. Anyway, although we have ideas about converting the garage and the stable/granary into living space, we have not enquired yet about planning permission, so this may be pipe dreams.

We always said that we would not take on a house that needed a new roof, but now that we have had a little time to get used to the idea, we can see there are positives. If we are very lucky, fixing the roof will fix a lot of other problems as well - cracks in the walls, heat loss, general damp. Thus, once the roof is done, the rest is just decorating! Hmm...

The negative is that this will be the single biggest outlay on the house and we have to do it first, with inadequate French language skills and no experience of dealing with French tradesmen. Hmm...Pretty scary, so now I am deliberately blocking this part of the project out, and mulling over ideas for the garden. Getting the roof fixed is clearly bloke stuff, so I will delegate it to the bloke half of the partnership. It will ensure his French comes on no end.

I had an email from my friend Chris today, reminding me that her father approached the restoration of their house by first making sure there was somewhere pleasant to sit and have a drink in the evening. That is obviously my responsibility, and working on the garden plan is therefore entirely appropriate.