Well we’re back and starting to settle in again after a few weeks back in the UK quarantining and getting our youngest off to University. It all seems a bit strange as although we have spent so much time here already, this really does feel like a new phase for us and we’re just keen to get on with it, although I think it will take us quite a while to really come to terms with the sense of ‘Empty-Nesting’.
Once again we’re here with Millie & Pusscat, who already seems to be 5 years younger and has started to resume her lizard-catching activities, and we’re settling back into our gentle little life in France. We have lots to get on with, from negotiating our way through the processes needed to re-register cars here, to trying to sort out health care and residency, but also are throwing ourselves headlong into the next phase of the house renovations.
It’s 2 years since we tackled the first phase, transforming the open spaces on the first floor into 3 comfortable bedrooms with a couple of shower rooms. It’s already hard to remember what it was like before we started the work there, as the rooms look so well-established with their reclaimed and carefully re-worked doors and eclectic mix of furniture from the local brocantes and recycling centre.
But the time has now come to start on the next big bit of work, to create a new kitchen in what is our ‘Buanderie’, which currently is a separate room accessed by a set of stone steps at the back of the kitchen. The room is far too big to just house the washing machine and an ever-growing pile of household junk and we have been working out how best to make the most of it since we bought the house.
We always felt it would make a superb kitchen, as the one we have is tiny and not really in the best place in the house either, but the ‘buanderie’ has no natural light and no doorway from the main body of the house either, which has rather complicated things. But a big part of our ‘french dream’ is to be able to walk straight from the kitchen onto the terrace with a morning cup of coffee, or equally just carry an evening meal a few steps to an outside table for supper with a view. It’s this very simple part of the dream that has led to us spending hours just trying to work out how we can achieve it.
We have the terrace and a beautiful view across to Caseneuve from it, but until now it could only be reached by walking up the road, or by climbing a step ladder from the lower terrace, where we spend most of our time. So when we had the plans drawn for submission to the Mairie for the work we wanted to do, we included opening a door onto the terrace from the utility and worked out a way of opening a doorway from the house into it too. Finally we have started to do the work that will open it all up and enable that last part of our simple little french dream to drop into place.
Like almost all the doors in the house, it will have steps up to it and we will certainly have to stoop a little on our way through (again like nearly all the doors we have currently), the whole house in fact is quirky and slightly chaotic in its design, but that is part of its charm and we love it all the more for it!
I have to start by saying that this isn’t going to be an easy 2 minute job at all, but over lockdown we honed our ideas and started to really plan the work that needed to be done. We’ve renovated a number of houses in the UK over the years, so aren’t coming into this with ‘rose-tinted’ glasses, more with a good dose of reality. We know what it is like working on old houses with walls (almost a metre thick in places) built of stone and rubble, with the added complexity of dealing with French building techniques, which are similar, but also very different to the processes we have learned over the years.
Almost as soon as we had arrived back we headed to our local reclamation yard and then onto the builders’ merchant in Apt to reopen an account, as ours had lapsed since we did all the work upstairs. As ever they were helpful, working their way through our list, introducing us to new terms and products, especially those required for creating reinforced concrete supports that we will be needing.
I suppose reinforced concrete has been our steepest learning curve to date. Back in Devon when we have opened a new window, we have simply bought a pre-made concrete lintel to fit. However they do not seem to exist here – there are thin pre-lintels, but the lintels themselves are created in place using wooden ‘coffres’, caged metal reinforcing rods and poured concrete…. Happily we’re still keen to learn!
So after spending a while making sure we had ordered everything we needed, we handed over our hand-drawn map of the route to the house for the delivery driver, which elicited a smile from the salesman and a comment that we were ‘experts’, paid and headed home with a lighter wallet, but that happy, albeit slightly nervous sense that we were about to start a new adventure.
Waiting just a couple of days for the delivery meant that we had time to clear the ‘buanderie’ of all the bits we have ‘hidden’ there since moving in – I say we, but as I am now wearing a seriously uncomfortable shoulder-brace, waiting for my clavicle to heal, my role is very much a supporting one of providing ‘helpful’ advice, verbal encouragement and cold drinks when needed to Andy who has been doing all the lifting and shifting.
Everything has had to be moved out, from chairs and tables, to mirrors, linen, craft tools and supplies, paints and little bits we’ve bought at brocante markets, knowing that we will use them somewhere – I’ll never really know how we had really managed to accrue all of it in such a short time .
But by Friday afternoon we were ready for the delivery, pleasantly surprised when the laden lorry pulled up 15 minutes early. Watching the crane lift the heavy oak beams, acrow-props, long reinforcing rods and pallets of sand and cement onto the driveway brought a smile to my face as it meant we were finally underway.
So this week the work has begun in earnest, starting with Andy clearing the top terrace of stones, that have been left there since we had some work done to remove a dangerous wall just after we moved in. We didn’t really appreciate how much stone was there and once sorted and the rubble removed from it we were still left with a large pile that was sitting exactly where Andy would need to work, so that too had to be cleared and moved elsewhere.
The last 2 days have started with early, pre-breakfast trips to our local Dechetterie at Viens, which has to have one of the best views for any tip I have ever visited before.
Each evening the car has been loaded with rubble and other bits in a desperate attempt to keep the area clear of anything that may get in the way of the task in hand. We’ve already found there is something rather satisfying about having that job done before we sit down for breakfast at home, or if we’re feeling a little bit naughty, popping across to Simiane to sit at the boulangerie with a croissant, before heading back to get on with the day’s jobs.
The first day saw Andy finish moving all the stones and start to chase out the shape of the new door, removing all the render, which also showed that there had previously been 2 other doors in the wall (long-since filled in and covered over)
We’re adding regular updates to our YouTube channel and you can see a little video of the first day’s work Here
Then started the more technical stage of knocking through holes and placing heavy planks held in place with acrow-props to support the wall ahead of inserting the new beams and creating the reinforced lintel.
As we expected the wall is a wonderful mish mash of small, rubbly stones and big ‘dressed’ blocks that have taken a long time to free from the surrounding mortar. We (well when I say we I mean Andy) has also just found the remains of an old chimney hidden deep inside the wall
But as I sit here now, the supports are in place and Andy has just started the heavy job of knocking through the wall, which in places is nearly 90 centimetres thick – The last time I saw him so dusty was when we brought down a huge lath and plaster ceiling about 25 years ago – he looks as if he has been dropped into a barrel of flour!
So the work is well and truly underway, there is no going back now and for the first time in many years there are the first shafts of natural light in the utility room and we can finally get an idea of what the plans that we have had in our mind’s eye, look like in reality.
It’s exciting and slightly daunting at the same time, but even just standing on the terrace chatting, it’s easy to see why we are doing this.
The view is beautiful and eventually just being able to sit around our table, under a flower covered pergola with a glass of wine, whilst supper cooks on the stove just inside the door will see us fill in this missing piece of our little french dream.