Firstly I have to start with an apology – the last few months have been rather chaotic with one thing and another and I find that this really is the first time I’ve been able to sit and write about our little half-life in France for quite some time. It’s probably best if I start again by sharing a bit about what has kept us so busy over the last few months when I haven’t been working on jewellery.
I make no bones about it – we adore our little place in Provence and enjoy every moment we spend there, however we always knew that one day we would have to do some work to it, to really make it ours. We only managed to buy it as it was sold as a 2 bedroom house and even that really was pushing the bounds of description to the limit, so we have spent the last couple of years living in it and getting to know its little quirks and eccentricities, thinking about what we can do to make it a home, rather than simply a holiday home.
The location, which is always the most important thing, is great and the views from the terraces across to Caseneuve are stunning as is the view from the little kitchen across to the Mourre Nègre, with its head occasionally cloaked by cloud or skittered with snow in the Winter. There are fantastic walks from our door, perfect for when we have the dog with us and we can cycle off in every direction we want to – although I have to admit to having a bit of a love/hate relationship with the last steep climb back up to the house, especially at the end of a long mid-summer ride.
The house itself has plenty of space and lots of wonderful character, but it just isn’t really set up properly and we have spent the last 2 years getting our heads around what we can do to make it more comfortable, working out how we can use all the space- perhaps creating a new kitchen, gaining easier access to the terraces and of course considering how we could install a small ‘bassin’ swimming pool to replace our large blue plastic one that becomes a second home on hot Summer afternoons.
Our first real change though was to remove the hideous ‘old growler’ pellet burner from the living room and have a woodburner fitted Bring on Winter – the woodburner has been fitted! .
This immediately transformed the room and there is nothing we enjoy more now on a Winter’s evening than lighting the fire, watching the flames when the Mistral is howling outside. It warms the room beautifully, but like most old French houses there was effectively no insulation under the old clay tiles so the heat simply ended up warming the feet of any birds that happened to be sitting on our roof.
The other problem was the distinct lack of bedrooms with the upstairs having been designed as an open plan space with a large room opening directly into the only bathroom. I have to admit to loving open space, but not when everyone has to walk through our bedroom to get to the second bedroom and the bathroom, especially when that has no door either! Despite fixing curtains to provide some privacy we always knew this would be a priority and I have found myself yearning for walls and doors, especially when we have had a house full of family with the occasional guest thrown in too….. Singing whilst in the shower has become an absolute necessity!
So after 2 years we plucked up courage to start the process of getting the work done. Whilst internal changes could be done without permission, the exterior work would need to be agreed by the Mairie, so we contacted them about the best way to go forward. We spoke with the consulting architect who visits to give advice on a regular basis and he gave us pointers on the work we were seeking to do, which led us to hunt out an architect to draw up, what were going to be, rather complex cross-sectional plans.
The staff at the Mairie were incredibly helpful as ever, giving us details of a local architect who quickly replied to our messages and took on the process to make the submission to the Mairie for the necessary permissions and we started to consider getting on with the inside work – the priority being the bedrooms.
The building process itself in France is very different to in England with stud partitions being created using a metal, rather than wooden framework and the electrics of course need a careful and measured approach, certainly not a ring main that we have been used to, so although we have renovated a ‘baker’s dozen’ of houses in England we decided to employ local tradesmen to carry out the work in France. Once again our friend and teacher Marina came up trumps, suggesting a talented builder who had done work for her before. She told us to expect him to be unable to do the work for some time, but that once he gave us a date he would stick to it and as ever she was right.
Having spoken to him, there was no sucking of teeth or shrugging of shoulders, but a calm gentle approach to what we wanted to do, using our electrician Bertrand and bringing in a young local plumber to install a new system.
We drew plans of what we wanted, transforming the open plan upstairs space into 3 bedrooms with 2 bathrooms. Needless to say we had to re-draw them several times, marking the floor (newly tiled with Travertine by Andy) with electrical tape and pencil marks just to make sure we weren’t totally deluded in our flights of interior design fancies. A few of our plans had to change, but after shifting the showers and altering the position of our bed we somehow managed to fit everything into the available space and handed our carefully drawn sheets of paper to the builder.
New walls meant a need for new doors so of course we headed straight back to Marina’s husband, Pascal, a superb ‘ebeniste’ who had already created a superb French Oak tabletop for our Brocante-find iron bases, now sitting proudly on our lower terrace.
We had sourced a few wonky, slightly warped old Oak and Elm doors from Devon that gave us the instant character we would need in the new structures upstairs, but we needed frames building for them and also 3 other doors to be made from scratch.
Over the summer of pottering around local Brocantes & Vide Greniers we had also managed to find a rather mismatched collection of French iron catches, hinges and locks that would help give everything the appearance of being anything other than a new-build.
So after an afternoon at Pascal’s workshop we managed to get all the pieces paired with doors – a bit like playing with a rather oversized jigsaw and left reassuring him that slightly wonky and yes, perhaps rather ‘tordu’ was the look we were aiming to achieve and not to worry about our rather bizarre requests. As ever, when they were delivered a few weeks later, the doors looked incredible – new sitting comfortably next to old. The hinges & locks looking as it they had always been on the doors and all of them already hung in their frames, ready for the new walls to be built around them. Simply perfect.
We also had to buy all new fittings for the 2 new shower rooms, so started trawling around local plumbing merchants to find what we were looking for. Our early forays into the ‘posh’ bathroom shops left us reeling at the amount of money we could spend on everything with some tiles we liked priced at just over 300 euros per m2, even Monsieur Bricolage prices made us raise our eyebrows.
After a time searching through ‘Bon Coin’ to see if we could find any secondhand bargains we finally managed to find 2 perfect sinks via a local friend who was having her own bathroom refitted, then we stumbled into our local branch of Bernard Philibert, the builders’ merchant. An hour later, after a detailed discussion with the incredibly helpful staff about the quality of pieces we wanted to buy, design details and general style, we left with a full order list for everything we needed for the new bathrooms – and to top it all we had spent enough to qualify as ‘exemplary customers’ allowing us to access a larger discount. We had even arranged for it all to be delivered to the house just before the builder started at the beginning of November.
So everything was set and our plans to start the redesign of the house were starting to emerge from the pieces of paper and piles of ‘junk’ we had collected and take on a life of their own. It may not be anything on the scale of the work being done by Dick and Angel Strawbridge in their work to transform their Chateau (Escape to The Chateau – Channel 4), but it is so exciting to just start reinventing our home.
With a final effort the upstairs of the house was emptied and the rest of the rooms had been transformed into places to sleep (amazing how comfortable an airbed in-front of the woodburner can be )……..
………….Or more often looked like poorly-organised corners of a builder’s yard
So much of the house looked like this ….
All we needed then was for the builder to arrive and start the process………