Showing posts with label Drôme. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Drôme. Show all posts

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Reading an Alastair Sawday guide changed my life

The arrival of Alastair Sawday’s newsletter in my inbox always brings a wry smile to my face. The founder of Sawday’s Special Places to Stay will be completely oblivious to this fact but reading one of his guidebooks completely changed my life.

I’m not joking. Nine years ago, desperate to book a last-minute summer holiday, I bought a copy of his guide to self-catering properties in my local WH Smith’s and began ringing some of the places he recommended. I’d left it far too late and virtually everywhere was booked up, but the owner of a gite in the south of France said she’d suddenly had a cancellation and could offer us one week. We snapped it up like a shot and a couple of weeks later were en route to the Drôme, a wonderfully unspoilt region sandwiched between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps. As we drove halfway down a remote French hillside to our destination I had no idea that this place was going to have a major impact on all our lives.

In the following years we returned time and time again to the Drôme, enchanted by its lush, green landscape and majestic mountains. For some unfathomable reason it’s far less famous than Provence, its tourist-run southern neighbour, but just as beautiful. Lots of people have never even heard of it – and those who have discovered it want to keep it that way.

But more importantly, the owner of the farmhouse where we originally stayed became a dear friend. So much so that when we bade farewell to her after yet another blissful holiday I suddenly heard myself saying “I’d love to buy a small place here. Please will you keep a look-out for us?” Within months she’d spotted a rundown farmhouse for sale 20 miles away and sent me an email saying ““Beautiful place. Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside. Very old farm with heaps of charm.”

So that was it. The next year I bought the House With No Name - a rambling 16th century house with a tumbledown roof, a plague of rats and a heap of rusting cars 12 feet deep in the barn (I’m not exaggerating). And it all began with Alastair Sawday.

Friday, 6 May 2011

How it all began

I'm so excited. Five years after I bought the House with No Name, the first phase of the renovation is almost complete and we'll be staying there this summer. Our architect and builder friends have worked miracles, keeping its character while transforming it into a place of charm. Lots of readers have asked how I came to buy it in the first place so I've gone back to my old diaries and reprint the story here.

With the pound sinking like a stone and endless press reports about the British selling up in France and hurrying back across the Channel, what possessed me to buy a derelict farmhouse near Avignon? It’s got a dodgy roof, a major damp problem and a garden littered with old scrap – and two years after I signed on the dotted line the place is still completely uninhabitable.

I first began thinking about buying a small house in France when I met friends who’d sold up in rain-soaked Cumbria and moved lock, stock and barrel to a rambling house halfway up a stunning hillside in the Drôme, a little-known region sandwiched between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps.

Next I became transfixed by Matthew Parris’s A Castle in Spain, the story of his spur of the moment decision to buy a ruined castle in the wilds of Catalonia. Parris called it “one of those foolish challenges that grip us in middle life.” How true.

Then I was enthralled by C’est La Folie, Michael Wright’s uplifting Daily Telegraph column of how he bade farewell to his safe south London existence and moved to a farm in the Dordogne with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company.

Within months – and without giving the matter nearly enough thought – I’d thrown caution to the wind and done exactly the same thing. Well, without the aeroplane or the cat.

I’d vaguely asked a friend who’s lived in the Drôme for 35 years to look out for a holiday bolthole and out of the blue she sent me an email about a farmhouse for sale. “Beautiful place,” she said. “Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

Much to my horror, and before I’d even set eyes on the place, my husband rashly put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was far lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the 80-year-old owner and her four grown-up children. Only it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up two weeks later to see it, accompanied by my two teenage children, the estate agent and the notaire, the vendors were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in a nearby town.

I took one look at the house and wanted to scarper. I’d envisaged buying a low-maintenance, two-up two-down with a sunny terrace and here I was, halfway to buying a tumbledown six-bedroom wreck with half a roof, water seeping through the walls and a bathroom inhabited by a plague of rats. The garden was a three-acre jungle and the whole place needed, as the estate agent so delicately put it, “bringing back to life.” The notaire, immaculate in a pinstripe suit and snazzy black polo neck, was visibly shocked. He wrinkled his nose at the damp and scuttled back to his car at the first opportunity.

But despite all this, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to wreck the owners’ plans by saying “sorry, it’s all a horrendous mistake. I’m not touching this dump with a bargepole.”

The following day I pitched up to the lawyer’s office in the sleepy nearby village of Puy St Martin and signed the compromis de vente.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

How I came to buy the house with no name

Sitting in Oxford, with the number 7 bus trundling past and Marks & Spencer just up the road, I sometimes think the house with no name must be a figment of my imagination. Am I going to wake up one day and discover that the tumbledown French farmhouse that inspired this blog was just a dream?

Definitely not. It all looked splendidly real when we sat in the courtyard in the scorching sun last week, drinking Clairette de Die, the local sparkling white wine, and admiring how far the renovation process has come.

When I first clapped eyes on it, the place was a wreck. But two things convinced me to throw caution to the wind and buy it. One was the terrace, where generations of farmers had sat under the old plane tree and put the world to rights over a glass or two of pastis. The other was a pretty sunlit field, bordered at one end by a coppice of distinguished-looking oak trees. I could just imagine long summer lunches there, with my daughter reading and my son whizzing about on his mountain bike.

Now the builders have worked wonders, ripping out the hardwood partitions that divided many of the rooms and replacing the dodgy floors and ceilings. I only wish I’d been there when one of them stopped everyone in their tracks by walking jauntily across the joists like the tightrope walker he used to be.

The adjoining barn has been utterly transformed too. Once full of discarded car doors, rusty bits of tractor and several lifetimes of junk, it now boasts two floors and a state-of-the art new roof which cost nearly as much as the house itself. The vast first floor is so breathtaking that we’re all arguing about what it should be used for. It’s the size of a tennis court and I’m secretly harbouring plans to make it my office.

Both my children have been involved in the project right from the start, from the day I signed the compromis de vente at the lawyer’s office to rolling up their sleeves and helping with heavy-duty building work. Two years ago, in blistering heat, my daughter painted the huge gates that open into the courtyard a tasteful shade of pale grey. She liked the colour so much she persuaded the builders to paint the beams inside the house the same hue. Meanwhile my son’s triumphs include demolishing an entire first-floor ceiling. It wasn’t the ideal convalescence for someone who’d recently broken his collar bone in three places, but he was adamant he wanted to do his bit.

PS: Several readers have asked whereabouts in France the house with no name actually is. It’s a tricky one because when I say it’s in the Drôme most people look blank. Even Anne-Marie, our sophisticated Parisian friend, didn’t know it. So, just to clarify. The Drôme is north of Provence, west of the Alps and east of the busy route de soleil that runs from Paris to the Côte d’Azur. The countryside is lush and green, with small farms, olive groves and majestic crags that tower over the landscape. A bit like Provence crossed with the Lake District in fact.
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