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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.

FERRYAt 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.

BPantryEventually, 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?