France - A new life, a new home. #3
The Unadventurous Traveller
We returned from our Spanish holiday, to our house in France in July and felt energised to pack everything up, tie up all the loose ends and move on. We had a whole house full of furniture and many things that we had acquired during our five and a half years there (I do have some hoarding tendencies, and often think things will ‘come in useful’). The house was so large that it was quite easy to store jam jars for those jam making days and old clothes to cut up and make into cushions or Barbie clothes etc! (please tell me I am not the only one? I think this is down to being brought up with a frugal, non-wasteful mindset, anyway...)
This was July, so we had all summer to sort this out and get the children settled and in to school by September if possible. We didn't have an actual date for when we would sell our house, but it was looking like September.
Dale was quite clear that when moving to Spain we wouldn't want a lot of French furniture as it would be a Spanish house and we would only have a garage to store things in, so couldn't keep a whole (large) house worth of furniture once we got to Spain. We would have to hire a Luton van type lorry which would not hold a huge amount of furniture, so we would have to sell most of it. This was quite upsetting to me as I had become emotionally invested in a lot of these pieces of furniture (this sounds so silly writing it) because some of them were absolutely beautiful.
We had, bit by bit over several years, found some lovely, interesting pieces of furniture in brocantes, vide greniers and advertised on for sale sites. We had travelled around a wide area, visiting these people’s homes, practising our French and coming away with some (very reasonably priced) antiques.
Some of the pieces of furniture had been lovingly restored by us (Dale really!) and we’d decided on where they should go in the house. I felt quite invested in them but knew we had to be sensible.
Signing for the House
When we came to view the property initially, whilst sparsely furnished, there were two cherry armoires in the lounge and a huge amount of other ‘stuff’ in tea chests in the grenier (a room upstairs they used as a shed or barn) along with a piano, clocks, mirrors etc. I rather fell in love with these armoires, their depth of colour, their stature in the room. However when we came to actually buying the house, the owners had got rid of nearly all the furniture with a house clearance type company. All that was left was an old safe - but that's another story!
I was gutted. This was their right to do, even though we had verbally agreed to buy the house with all its content. You do not own the contents of the house until you sign for it. We have heard stories of sellers removing kitchen cupboards, floorboards, light switches and fittings before they signed to sell, so beware of this if you are considering buying in France. A verbal agreement means nothing! So when we were able to find a ‘replacement’ armoire, I loved it as it looked just right for a lounge of that size.
The house itself had not been lived in for 70+ years. The previous owners had obviously been well-off, as this had been one of their ‘holiday homes’, and in their ageing years nobody had visited for a long time. The local neighbours had never been inside, and the shutters had been shut tight, so they were all intrigued to look inside to see what the Chateau actually looked like and what secrets it held.
Neighbours and Friends
Our nearest neighbour, Michel, lived in the house opposite and was approximately in his mid 70’s. Many items that he had made were dangling from tree branches, stuffed in hedges and balanced on walls all around his garden. It was a little weird at the start, but after some time we appreciated that this was just quirky Michel expressing himself and his art. Michel initially introduced himself to us as ‘Richard - Coeur de Lion’, as in Richard the Lion heart (who had travelled through the centre of France along a route which people can still follow today). So for about three months we called him Richard!
Another family lived down near the stream and one other couple lived about 3 minutes’ walk up the lane. This couple were a retired actor and actress, who had both appeared in many films throughout their careers. They had travelled the world and whilst not really speaking much English, they were interesting, friendly and funny! René had been a stunt double for John Wayne and had worked with Richard Burton, Al Pacino, and Warren Beatty to name but a few. Their three children, who were now all around my age with their own children, had grown up wondering about the house. One of the daughters told me she always thought she would live in the chateau when she grew up! So slowly we started to offer informal tours of the house to all the neighbours.
Just up the lane, in the neighbouring hamlet was a farming family. Dalton went to school with their son, Dorian, and the two became inseparable. Dalton loved it on the farm and spent the first summer practically living up there! Dorian’s father, Francis, took Dalton as a second son, and showed him all the farming ways from cutting the grass then hay baling, to ploughing, to cow maintenance (I am not sure on this proper term!). Dalton loved it and it really was because of his friendship with Dorian, we believe, that his French became so good so quickly. He was practically fluent within 6 months, due to speaking and wanting to be understood by his friend and their family.
Dorian’s mum, Christelle, was so lovely, patient and friendly too. They had two daughters, one who was slightly older than Brooke, so they became very friendly and played together a lot too, once Brooke was a little older. The whole hamlet seemed to be owned by their family or their farm, with Francis’ parents and brother living there too. The whole family were friendly, welcoming and lovely to us.
In the centre of La Creuse, where we lived very rurally, there really wasn’t much to go out and do. There were no pubs or bars nearby, perhaps a few restaurants about 20-30 minutes drive away, but nothing like a village with a pub or place to gather as in the UK, the Dordogne or even resorts in Spain. So you had to make your own entertainment and when making new friends, you were invited to people’s houses, or vice versa, for aperitifs. This was totally new to us, and we had absolutely no idea what to expect or what to do. Speaking French was down to me, at that time, and it was probably very difficult for our neighbours to communicate with us, but they tried, we tried and we all had a marvellous time!
They taught us that when drinking the French say ‘Santé’ (wishing good health) and we were trying to think of the best salutation when we drink… ‘Cheers’ or ‘Good health’ but we finally settled on ‘Bottoms up’, which René, literally took to mean - stand up and show everyone your bottom! So this ritual took place every time we had a drink for aperitifs - we all wished ‘Bottoms up’ to everyone by standing, turning and sticking out our bottoms - very funny!
Once we were invited to a meal at Dorian’s grandmother’s and grandfather’s house, known by Dorian and Dalton as Mami and Papi. Mami asked me what do the English eat? So I tried to tell her that we eat everything really and then began to list the things we don't like! Needless to say she cooked an amazing dinner for us all with nine courses! Again we had no idea there would be so many courses, so Dale filled himself up on the first two courses and had no more room for anything else. I can always fit in a little bit more, so I tried every course. She really was a fantastic cook and prepared us three dessert courses, along with cheese and port and more! As they are beef farmers with large herds of Limousin cattle they produce some absolutely prime beef, which was delicious. The hospitality of their family as a whole really helped us to feel welcomed and part of the small community we had found ourselves in.
The Secrets of the House
Although Papi had lived in his hamlet his whole life, and was around 70 years old, he had never seen inside the chateau, so we started to show him and the other neighbours around. The house hadn't needed any structural work, but it certainly did need decorating and renovating to a modern standard (lighting, heating, double glazing etc, all of which needed doing in a sympathetic way to maintain the look of the house). The locals were so interested to see it all: the bedrooms and the connecting bedrooms which were only accessed via the first bedroom, the enormous lounge, a smaller lounge we called the snug, a study and a large farmhouse kitchen with a utility room next door. The house had two cellars - one indoor, one outdoor - its own well and two barns. There was also a large woodshed, outside toilet and an outdoor area where the local farmers’ wives used to come to communally wash the clothes - the lavoire. After showing the farming family around, they all wanted to know: had we found the tunnel yet? Secret Tunnel? No! What was this all about?
Going back a long way, quite possibly to the time of the bourgeoisie, a tunnel was created for emergencies in case of sudden evacuation. My father, who is French and very knowledgeable, had heard about such things and started to investigate at his end. He surmised that there would be a tunnel linked to the well. We started our own investigations. Dale went around the indoor ‘cave’ or cellar with a metal pole digging into the ground searching for a possible entry site. Nothing. So we searched the outdoor cellar too. This had its own gate and led to two rooms which spanned the two far rooms on the side of the house. The study and snug were above them, making those rooms very cold due to the cavernous space beneath!
Eventually we decided to contact the vendors to see if they knew anything about this secret tunnel. Monsieur Mettais, when he passed away, had left the house to his four children. Due to the changing taxation laws in France, they were being stung for owning other properties in France, hence the sale. However they hadn’t been able to agree on whether to sell the house or even agree on the price etc for several years. Things just seemed to slot together when we came along, with interest in buying the property. We offered a price which two of the ‘children’ agreed to and two did not. So lots of negotiation went on, back and forward until finally we had all four siblings in agreement that we could buy the property. Since then we had not been in contact - we didn't even see them at the signing of the Compromis de Vente, as they lived in Paris. So I emailed them, to thank them, update them and ask if they knew anything about the house, its history and was there any truth to the tunnel rumours?
Eventually all four siblings responded to my emails, all with happy stories of summer holidays and of large, autumn harvest banquets laid on for the farm workers, with multiple chickens being cooked and many happy memories. One of the vendors (I can’t keep calling them the children as they were all in the seventies and eighties we think) mentioned that they thought there might have been a tunnel at the foot of the stairs because there had been a water leak once and the water had all drained away there…. Another mentioned that ‘as you go down the outside cellar the tunnel is clear to see’. The outside cellar had had another doorway; as you descended the steps you could turn right at one point, but this had now been bricked up and plastered. It was now just a white facade, but if it were open it would lead directly in the line of the well and in the right direction across the field as we had been told. This looked like the tunnel entrance for sure!
History of the Chateau
Many of our neighbours had seen the other ends of the tunnel and could tell us that there were three parts to it: our end, one that led to a neighbouring hamlet, La Pouge, and the other that led to Fleurat, a village that was southerly from our house. Michel had seen the entrance in La Pouge before they had bricked it up. The tunnel would have extended at least 1.5 kilometres to Fleurat. Locals had told us that the house, which originally began life as a peasant’s cottage, had been owned by a stone mason. Dale did a huge amount of research into the history of the property and the previous owners, due in part, to the wonderful artefacts and memorabilia they had left in the house.
The stone mason and his two brothers went to Paris during the second part of the French Revolution in 1871 to help rebuild the Hotel de Ville and other stone buildings. This is where he made his fortune Whilst others squandered their money in the bars and on women in Paris, Monsieur Hippolyte Pinot was more entrepreneurial. Many years later, he returned to rebuild the house to what it is today, married a local girl - Genevieve Lacroix from La Pouge - and bought all the land around the house, to build up quite a huge farm. His two brothers lived in the neighbouring villages in fairly substantial houses, so this was the reason for connecting to those locations.
There is a museum in nearby Benevent L'Abbaye that details the history of La Creuse really well, with smell-o-vision too!
In the house we found so many things that the previous owner had ordered, bought and hoarded. Things that were of value in the past, which were in short supply such as:
- Sugar cubes - boxes and boxes of very old sugar cubes, untouched, waiting to be used during times of hardship. During and just after the war sugar was in demand, maybe this was left over from then.
Soap - lots of individual and boxes of soap scattered about the grenier.
Old parts for bicycles and cars, old vacuum cleaners, nails, string, and lots more...
Old clothes - children’s clothes, unworn shirts with their detachable collars and cuffs, price tag still attached. Empty hat and clothes boxes with the name ‘Belle Jardiniere’ which was a department store in Paris in the 1920’s.
Sewing kits, school and textbooks.
Linen - all monogrammed with the initials of the household. Some linen going back several generations, as we could tell by the initials.
War memorabilia and paperwork, mainly second World War. We have a lot more about this we can discuss later.
Home made wine and champagne, stored in both cellars, lots of it. As we had no idea how long they had been there we did not want to try them. However, a good friend of ours, who quite liked a drop to drink, was happy to try some out to tell us if we were sitting on some ancient fine wine. No - they tasted like vinegar and should be thrown!
Paris Match - This is the French equivalent to Hello Magazine and the previous owners had had a subscription where this magazine had been sent to them every month dating back to the 1930’s. Cover photos depicted different events in time, from Kennedy’s marriage, Kennedy’s assassination, the Queen’s visits to France, man landing on the moon and lots of French celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and their different antics. I enjoyed cataloguing these magazines and putting them in date order. The magazines were in absolutely mint condition, given their age. I had plans to do something with these magazines, but what?
Farming newspapers - dating back to 1901, all folded as when they first arrived and stored in the loft. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
L’Illustration - this was a French newspaper which served to bring the news as it happened to the people. Instead of photos, they presented drawings, sometimes in colour depicting the happenings at that time. These magazines detailed the First World War, as it was happening and the pictures in the middle of the publication were beautiful, graphic but so effective.
All of these hoarded items really made us wonder what type of people these previous owners were. Obviously they were well off to have all of these papers and magazines delivered on a monthly basis for years and years on end. We began to form ideas and images about them, but it would have helped a lot if we could have read and digested the text in these documents!
Anyway, we had to start selling some of these antiques and other items we had, so we organised a vide grenier (house sale) for one weekend. It turned out to be the hottest day that summer, but we still had plenty of customers and started to sell off the excess furniture we had amassed.
Here's a video of our vide grenier before we opened the doors:
Our house in France was certainly steeped in history and had made a lovely family home for us. There are so many stories to tell: cleaning away 70 years of cobwebs and bringing the house into the 21st century, and Dale’s overriding drive to create a brand new gite out of a 200 year old hay barn. The property kept throwing us more surprises - one huge surprise that we never expected!
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