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By Brian Franklin
During the last week I was back in France with a friend working on our gardens and pool at 'Le Cuvage' in Perreux.
We were lucky to be there during France's transition from 'printemps' to eté (spring and summer) – just beautiful!
Fresh leaves and grasses, the strengthening sun, warmth in the air, and the increasing numbers of 'papillon' and 'libellule' (butterfly and dragonfly) fluttering and flying past.
This was a good time we found to visit 'La Loge' for a bit of a break from our manual labours. 'La Loge' is a simple, but large, pavillon de chasse in the heart of Mont du Forez, in Le Roannais.
I had been before, but my good friend, Dale, had not. I had also only visited the place once in 'hiver' (winter). A superb experience, despite the cold.
But, this time was magnificently different, and even more fun!
We went with a very good French friend, Fabrice, and met up with a french 'chasseur' (hunter), Michel, a new friend who shared ownership of 'la loge'.
This farmhouse-style building is situated in extensive countryside, and at the centre of several, very large ancient, man-made lakes. Basically, a nature reserve in its own right, with an incredible variety of fauna and flora. A private paradise for gamekeeper, huntsman, and naturalist alike. Simply Stunning!
When you enter the basic and masculine 'loge' or 'chasse' it is 'rough and ready', casual to the point of 'primitive', but comfortable, welcoming, and simple. Ideal for the hunter's week-end getaway.
All manner of birds and beasts hanging from ceiling and walls, pictures of country scenery as well as photos championing successful 'kills' – huge, hairy boar, stags, fox, carp, amongst many other trophies of a good day's hunting.
A strange mixture of animal death amongst the 'painfully' majestic beauty of the place. A world of men, isolation, and escape! (women are only allowed on very special occasions!!)
We walked, and walked, and walked by the side of lakes to the sound of 'gargling' frogs, melodic songbirds, and splashing ducks and swans amongst the reeds.
Our eyes bulging with amazement at the size of this incredible domain.Michel continually checked traps for predators, and especially for the infamous 'ragondin' (coypu) which
creates havoc by its burrowing into the bank of the lakes, which then lose water and eventually fish stocks, too, along with the escaping water.
These ' ragondin' are non-native intruders, immigrants from South America, originally imported and naturalised in Europe and North America, held captive and bred for their fur, (no doubt for French 'haute couture' ), but escaped to breed in their thousands in the natural wildernesses of France. Where they now menace the lakes and waterways, and regularly send gamekeepers, and fisherman-hunters like Michel into a paroxysm of anger and fear whilst they fight the battle to preserve the watery habitats of birds, fish, and animals which they enjoy seeing as well as hunting.
The day was very warm, we returned from our wanderings for typically French countryman's 'fayre' of food and wine, with meat barbequed on a fire which was so simply and basically prepared it would hardly have passed a 'Boy Scout' test. It was wonderful!
Good company, good wholesome food, excellent wine, of course, along with much anglais-francais rapport, humour, and conversation.
We rested, we laughed and joked, we then went fishing in the afternoon heat of the day.
We caught fish galore! (I worried about the mosquitoes, which apparently come out in their innumerable flying, biting hordes at late evening, just for me!!)
From maggot to hook, hook to fish, we reeled them in their silvery, slimey dozens, and threw them back again to fight another day. All this, sat amongst the leafy, reedy beauty of a sublime world of nature, and the sun sparkling in the water, as it lowered itself amongst the trees.
Not so much a day for hunting, but a day for discovering the 'soul'. A day which could have been painted, but was impressioned in our memories forever!
Our fishing rods easily collapsed and restored to 'la loge', we tipped over a boat lying upturned amongst the reed beds, and we paddled and drifted through the landscape and out into one of the lakes. We floated like a schoolboy's dream across a liquid paradise, slowly and mesmerisingly in the glinting evening sunlight.
It was a 'fairytale' of an experience, and one which we will never forget.
After we ate our evening meal under the awnings of the 'chasse' we felt replete in body, soul and mind.
We fell into our beds that night and slept like hunters from the past, and our dreams were filled with the wonders of another time, another world.
(look out for more on 'la loge' very soon!)
REALITY SETS IN ‘LE ROANNAIS’
By Brian Franklin
Following on from our new discovery and our eventual purchase of The Stables there is, of course, much to tell.
Our excitement and eager anticipation at developing our ‘ruin’ was immense.Our uncertainty substantial.
However, we made our decision to apply a clean, contemporary approach, and involved one of our architect friends to create an interior concept that was simple, stylish, and which maximised on utilising the potential living space available to us. How smart!
It was sharpen pencil time! There was no shortage of ideas. We were creative, that was our job in England – interior design, image-building, photographic concepts for kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, and living rooms. In fact, totally in our realm.
Of course, I’m not going to turn all this into some ‘Grand Design’ type saga (that will come a few years later!), but it could turn into a saga all the same. A different type of saga.
A saga of intrigue, and the ‘mentally’ insane. Of the' ups and downs' that occur when you take a runner, a risk.
A small risk it maybe, but a risk all the same, entwined with heartfelt dreams of a new home, and a new life experience.
Yes, we got ripped off a bit (not by the French, I might add!)
Although it is said that the French: 'they see us Brits coming' , maybe it is because they see an easy 'kill', an easy 'euro' or two (it was actually the famous French Franc, then), because our brains are still, temporarily at least , resting, sloppily, on the dockside at Dover!
Our many dealings with the French have been incredibly rewarding, and in our relationships with artisans, shopkeepers, neighbours, and with those that have become great friends, we have found all of them to be incredibly generous, exceptionally friendly, honest, and personable people).
At the same time, all the negatives and positives of this experience were thoroughly stirred into a pot-pourri, a melange of wonderful discovery, fun, and friendships.
We had, in fact, a brilliant time planning and designing The Stables.
Our, discovery, too, of Lyon – France’s second city- was a fantastic experience, and one which we regularly re-visited. (More about this later)
The local Roannais region, too, was, and is, brilliant and has so much to offer. (More about this later, too!)
To be fair, in the early days and the early year or so, things moved on pleasantly, albeit very slowly.
We finally signed for our 'ruin' and full payment was duly made (some of it, I might add, siphoned off to some unknown destination and bank account in England! You have to watch out for this sort of thing, because any money paid outside the transaction is not recorded, so you are likely to pay more capital gains tax on any profit later further down the line if/when you re-sell your property)
Our real fun and adventure with France could now continue with a vengeance!
For a while the distance actually helped between England and France.
Yes, the communication and project control aspects were difficult and frustrating at times.
French language problems were always an initial hindrance, and part of the equation to solve.
But, we were tenacious.
It was something we had to accept as part of the ‘risk’ of buying and renovating in France from a distance.
We had to put it all down to experience – 'The French Experience'
The Stables moved gradually on, and started taking internal shape.
It was beginning to look like a home on the cusp of habitability.
We made decisions, we flew over as regularly as we could, and thoroughly enjoyed ‘The French life’ as we found it.
We also continued to throw more money at the project!
Next: “MORE FUN IN LE ROANNAIS"
A French Odyssey by Michael Wright
Through the smoke from across the crowded room she did look more than a little like Brigitte Bardot and even from only a few feet away there was a passing resemblance – after all Brigitte must be in her 70’s or even 80’s at least by now.
But, if this really was the screen legend with the piled up hair and plunging neckline what was she doing in Thierry’s Bar in the small village of Perreux on New Year’s Eve 1999.
Alas, after investigation “Brigitte” proved to be merely one of the locals dressed up in her finery for the end of year celebrations.
Thierry incidentally is the only man in the world who, without looking, can fill a wine glass with white wine and cassis (a kir ) , leaving a meniscus on top, whilst smoking a cigar and discussing the latest exploits of the St. Etienne football team – all at the same time.
Some 10 or 12 of us from the almost exclusively British enclave of the Chateau des Cresses had paid the equivalent of about £20 a head for a meal, drinks and entertainment at Thierry’s and had thoroughly enjoyed the splendid buffet meal provided.
There now followed music and a fairly rudimentary form of country dancing which is when “Brigitte” came into her own with silky movements that belied her years.
Losing some of our English reserve, thanks in part to the unlimited quantities of alcohol and the encouragement of Brigitte and her cronies, some of us took to the floor………
Was this one of the reasons why we had spent endless hours on the M25?
Endless hours in discussion?
Nights sleeping on the cold , hard chateau floor?
Even putting a red, plastic bucket to a new and untried use, plus a lot more ?
The answer most certainly is “Yes, it was – these have been experiences which we are very glad to have had.”
It all began when queueing up to pay for petrol at a service station in Greater Manchester one winter’s evening.
On the counter was a special holiday edition of Exchange and Mart, not normally a publication I subscribe to but it looked vaguely interesting so home it went.
Later that night Pauline, my wife, drew my attention to an advertisement which offered for sale a number of properties complete with pool situated somewhere in France.It was the word “pool” that attracted her but it was the headline “Why so cheap?” which grabbed my attention!
Why, indeed? Time would tell.
The following morning, Saturday, I made the ‘phone call to the number in the ad. and was given detailed instructions to a property right in the middle of France but in a region we’d never come across – neither Burgundy, the Loire Valley, nor the Auvergne or the Beaujolais but the Roannais in the Rhone-Alpes – surrounded by these better known places.
The whole thing sounded promising however and only four hours later, during which time we’d made ferry bookings, arranged to have the Monday off work, checked whether the car insurance was up-to-date for European driving, advised family members of our whereabouts and finished painting the back bedroom, we were setting off down the M1 for Dover and the evening ferry.
It was a long drive on a Saturday night but the excitement of what lay ahead made the time pass more quickly.
At Dover we did what every English couple contemplating a move to France has to do and that was to place our brains carefully in the box provided and continue to the boat, remembering just in time to buy the headlight stickers for night driving.
Arriving in Calais even at that late hour we assumed that finding a hotel would be straightforward but we had forgotten what date it was – February 14th – and the hotels were fully booked by couples celebrating Valentine’s Day.
After what seemed an eternity and yet more driving we found a Golf Hotel, operated solely by credit card – a great find even with the room smelling of the last occupant’s stale cigarette smoke.
What had kept us going was the dream which we’d had for at least 20 years, that of owning a property in France and this seemed the ideal, almost ready-made opportunity.
Pauline and I had had many enjoyable stays in various parts of France starting with the 6th form trip to Paris and the discovery of Citanes, cold beer and snooker tables with less than the requisite number of pockets, to camping holidays with the children in the Vendee, then on to gites in the Loire Valley and finally more sedate sojourns in small hotels in the Dordogne.
We’d experienced much of France geographically and never been disappointed in what it had to offer scenically or culturally, albeit from a tourist’s perpective.
Now was our opportunity to turn thoughts and vague objectives into reality with a place of our own.
Sunday morning found us driving again on the A26 through Burgundy, passing towns with the familiar sounding names ……. Macon, Beaune, Chablis and Nuits St Georges.Eventually we found the Chateau des Cresses and its outbuildings in a very rural, unspoilt setting near the medieval hill village of Perreux, 10 minutes or so drive from the larger, more industrialised town of Roanne.
The Chateau had obviously seen better days but much of its grandeur remained and even through our tired eyes we could see that the potential of the site was tremendous.
Despite the fact that it was February the sun dazzled the courtyard out of a cloudless, bright blue sky – a big help with the photographs taken in the pre-digital era.
Gerald the owner of the chateau who was selling off the outbuildings round the courtyard, which would ultimately contain the swimming pool, outlined his vision for the future development of the site.
It all seemed to make sense even looking at some of the buildings which were in a state of total disrepair.
There was obviously a great deal to do but with individual energy and the collective will of the owners the plans could surely be realised.
We had a couple of hours or so at the Chateau and then reluctantly started the drive back north. Soon finding a hotel in Chalons – sur – Saone our minds were in turmoil.
Eventually, Pauline and I after much discussion regarding the various properties on offer and broader aspects of the venture, settled on what was called The Butler’s Pantry, a 3-storey “cottage” which until the 1920’s had been the province of the Chateau butler and hadn’t been touched since, although seemingly it had its own water and electricity supply.
It did not share the immediate courtyard aspect like the other properties and was more shaded – we thought this could be an escape from the courtyard if that got too busy or maybe the pool became too noisy – we just didn’t know.
These fears were actually unfounded.
I was also a little concerned about a Union Jack I’d seen in one of the rooms – could this set-up turn into a corner of Little Britain? We would certainly have to escape from that!
The die was cast though and after returning to England on the Monday , too tired to calculate how many miles had been covered in how many hours, a ‘phone call to Gerald confirmed our interest and the buying process was underway!
From now on it would be plain sailing, surely – we were only doing what thousands of Britains had done before us.
And with the help of the English Chateau owner, my complete grasp of the French language right up to O-Level (failed) standard together with our mastery of French building techniques , what could possibly go wrong?
Little did we know that the project would take on all the twists and turns found in a Tom Sharpe novel ….and what was a fosse septique exactly?