Fire!!

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Well, sometimes I have problems thinking of something interesting to blog about (as you will have noticed yesterday), but I didn’t want something as interesting as FIRE on my own property.

We have a row of 8 cottages and we sometimes put a temporary tenant in over the winter months – usually people between houses, or just moving out of or in to the area and so on.  No children. No pets.  The young lady in cottage no.4 decided not only to get a dog but to get a Rotweiler.  She couldn’t understand when I asked her to leave, let alone take on board that her contract says NO PETS.

Anyway, that was cottage no.4.  In cottage no.5 we have a young chap who is having a “one month break” from his partner. (Ours is not to reason why!) Last evening he set off to get some food in, and before he left he lit his wood-burning stove so that the place would be nice and warm when he got in.  But the dear boy decided to stack his wood – all of it, ie about 5 sq.metres of logs – next to the stove so that it would be nice and dry.  Up against the stove and ontop of the stove he placed plenty of twiglets to dry out thoroughly …. and off he went shopping.

Now, this is a big property.  No way would I ever have heard the smoke alarm, and no way would the caretakers ever have heard the smoke alarm.  But luckily the caretaker had to pop in to see me about somethingorother and, as she walked back to her own cottage, she noticed a faint peep-peep-peep coming from one of the cottages.

When she returned to tell me I at first said “oh it’s one of the batteries running out” …. but thank goodness we got the pass keys and went to investigate.

You hear stories of the smoke being so thick you could neither see nor breathe, but this was the first time I had experienced it. Everywhere.  You couldn’t even see the stair case.  Another few moments and the entire pile of logs would have caught.

When the young man got back he was …. surprised.  To say the least.

“I wanted to dry out the logs properly,” he explained, holding his hands out, palms upwards, as though this was quite reasonable.

We lost everything we owned in a fire some 30 years ago.  But that is a different story for a different day.

We restored a huge old house in France Part 9

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The ceiling of this first bedroom, which became our own bedroom, was utterly black.  Most of it was soot, which was odd because the fireplace surround had been moved from the wall where the chimney is, over to the other side of the room where there is no chimney, and left there simply as a decoration – which in itself was odd in an era where ancient features like this were usually not considered of any value.

The ceilings are very high and we had to erect scaffolding in the room in order to sweep off the soot.  I did this with one other man to help.  I did have a photo of me with my face all black, but I cannot find it now.  Luckily under the soot was a clean white ceiling, which although a bit cracked in a few places, was fine.   The little twin room next door was for many years our dressing room, and through that we installed a shower room.

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The master bedroom at the other side of the landing was left for many years and various members of the family slept in there with sheets pinned up over the windows at night and bare floor boards through which you could see the lights in the kitchen at night – and hear everything that was said, I learnt to my consternation!

We put carpet on the upper staircase, which is a shame because the old stone is wonderful. But we felt that if somebody slipped – the staircase is very steep – it would be a pretty hard landing on the stone.  In fact nobody has ever slipped there, so we were worrying about nothing, as one does when the children are little.

The landing on the middle floor became the library – it is a large room big enough for plenty of furniture.  I have always been a book-worm!  Off there is a balcony facing south, far too hot in the summer, but in the winter it was a wonderful sun spot on sunny days.   I wrote about this, and other aspects of the property, in my book “A Call from France”.

We restored a huge old house in France Part 8

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Photo taken in 1949

The property had originally owned all the surrounding land for many miles in each direction, but the previous incumbents had sold off most of it, leaving just 3 or 4 hectares immediately around the house and in the woods behind.

There is a 12’ wall around the entire perimeter (though not in the woods), much of which had crumbled away.  This was a very major task not just because of the man hours involved in re-building the broken parts, nor the expense of buying the appropriate tools, but because getting hold of clean uncut stone was not easy.  There were several old farms in the area selling off piles of stone all right, but they were invariably attached (the stones that is, not the farms) to cement and concrete, layers of very hard mud and stones.  Cleaning them off and making them useable doubled – if not tripled – the man hours needed.

The interior of the house was vastly more urgent, or so we thought till we were burgled. Both our elder son and our daughter, completely accustomed to hard work on their home, joined a couple of men and worked steadily, hour after hour, wheeling piles of stone back and forth, and buckets of cement.  It took several weeks.  The back gate, which had completely fallen off its hinges, was reinstated, and the front gate repaired.  Both gates date to the original property, huge iron things that I painted royal blue.

A road runs along the front of the property, in the summer quite a busy road because it leads to the island of Oleron.  We were well protected from this by big fine old trees, mostly pine, that lined the wall.  Then, at the end of the millennium, came the Big Storm in which 36 local people were killed, 762 seaside businesses destroyed, almost all roofs lost – and almost all trees.

That was devastating.  Not only did we then have the massive task of re-building the house we had spent the previous five years working on, but all our lovely trees were gone too.  Once again, the interior of the house was more important – the storm had been so bad that windows had been blown in, carpets ruined, pictures unhinged from the walls, ornaments smashed to smithereens.  Cry ?  No, I didn’t cry.  We were far too busy for that.

When we finally got to the wall we really had no choice but to build it higher using boards.  We couldn’t afford more stone, let alone the labour.  It is not ideal to this day, but it works.  Every year we plant two or three more trees.

One very interesting old feature outside is the dove cote.  It dates to the 1600s and is far older than the Chateau.  This part of France tends to not have cellars in old houses, but this ancient dove cote did have a cellar.  It is quite likely that ice was kept down there, brought by horse and cart from the mountains at the other side of France.  It makes one realize how tough  life must have been in the days before fridges!

At some stage, however, the cellar had been used as a septic tank-stroke-garbage dump.  There was only the one outdoor WC when we bought the place, but in the dove cote we could see traces of what may well have once been a Wc, quite possibly a double WC.  In this area I have on more than one occasion seen planks with two, or even three holes cut in to them so that loo-attendees could sit and do their doings in unison, Roman-style.  Indeed, this was a Roman area, so may well have been influenced by precisely that.

Children being children, of course, felt that the best possible place to play was down in this stinking cellar and they thought I was really very unreasonable to tell them not to.  Down there, however, they did find two most attractive candlesticks, dating from 1880 or so, which I cleaned up and which are now on display.  Please don’t touch !

 

 

 

We restored a huge old house in France Part 7

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The top floor of Rochebonne had clearly been intended for residential use because fireplaces had been installed.  Unlike the fireplaces on the first floor, which are marble, these ones are in cut stone.   However, that was all that had been done.  The huge space had not been divided in to rooms and there was no electricity.

It is a bit of a mystery because the fireplaces and the balcony seem to indicate that it was intended for family use, yet the staircase is very steep, ie more suitable (or so it was thought at the time) for servants.  We’ll never know now, but there was some evidence of it being used to sleep in, judging by the dusty feather pillows and a hard old straw mattress.

The story goes that the staircase, being so steep, was once part of a tower.  The original chateau had been burnt to the ground during the French Revolution and was apparently much bigger.  So it is possible, even likely, that there was a tower at some stage.  My husband, however, tells me that this is not architecturally possible unless the staircase, which is stone, was dragged from somewhere else and somehow hoisted up to second floor level.  This is rural France, not ancient Egypt, or even Versailles, so that seems equally unlikely.

The first thing to be done was to clean the place out.  We set up a kind of watch-out system whereby one of us would stand outside guarding the area and the other would hoist the old mattress or whatever to the balcony and haul it over  in to the skip.  It took three skips and two days to clear the old rubbish out.  Nowadays I wish I had paid rather more attention to what we were throwing, though we did keep a great deal – old farm implements, old scent (?) & medicine bottles, several old photos whose sitters we were later able to identify from the church records and old housekeeping books – but that was much much later, long after the children had grown up and I was no longer so busy.

We split the area in to three huge bedrooms, two shower rooms with WC, one small bedroom and a big play/chill area for the children.  For a long time, having also installed central heating and electricity, we couldn’t afford to do anything else, so the children just lived in it as it was with bare plasterboard walls and chip board floors (lain over the rotting floor boards already in situ). Two or three years went by before they even got curtains, never mind carpets, but they didn’t mind – children don’t – and they loved being able to decorate the walls with hideous monster drawings and picturtes cut out of magazines.

Another thing we did was to install a bell system. I can never understand parents who shout out at their children but in this house it seemed seriously the only option.  So then I had an electric bell I could ring.  Upon hearing it one of the children would appear on the top landing, look down through the stairwell, and I would be able to say “show me your homework” or “supper is ready” or whatever.  My book “A Call from France” was originally called “The Calling Bell” with this bell in mind.

A ceiling had gone in to one half of the space covering the top floor, and boasted a ladder which led to the attic above.  It was a shame to put ceiling under the marvellous old beams which covered the remaining space, but we had neither time, energy nor money to do otherwise.  On a practical side I felt the children might feel their bedrooms were perhaps slightly spooky if there were huge old beams and high spaces.

The chill/play area became, just a few years later, the unofficial youth club where out elder son hung out with all his mates.  The noise and the mess was unbelievable, but I preferred them being there where I knew what they were up to (or so I thought) than out somewhere dubious.

 

We restored a huge old house in France Part 6

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Rochebonne means “good rock”.  The property is built on solid rock.  Gardening is a non-event.  We have lots of potted plants, flowers in tubs … and lots of small trees and shrubs whose roots struggle down through barely 6″ of soil, through the rocks, to more soil and water beneath.  Not a lot will grow.  Worse, it takes just a bit of a high wind and the trees, their roots shallowly spread out over what little soil there is, soon uproot and come tumbling down.

My lovely old daddy, who that year would have been 82, pointed out the one and only place where the pool could go.   Oddly enough, on both the Chateau side and the cottage side, the only deep soil is in the north-east sector of the grounds. So that is where the pools went, both sides.  Annoyingly, just the other side of the wall, in the woods belonging to the neighbour, there are tall trees which, in turn, means deep soil.

We did a lot of the work on the first pool ourselves.  Needs must and all that.

It was back-breaking and tedious work.  Mercifully it didn’t rain and it didn’t get too hot.  When we did the cottage pool, over double the size, we got contractors in.

There are so many rules and regulations associated with pools and the public that it many ways it is tempting to not have a pool at all.  The British in particular (and the French will soon follow, as they do) have copied the Americans in their love affair with sueing for anything and everything.  Keeping on the right side of the law while providing a lovely place for guests to swim and sunbathe is a feat in itself.  I had to dive in after a child on one occasion and on another I mentioned to the dad of a young brood that he needed to remember to shut the gate properly.  He said:

“Well, you should get a better shutting mechanism!”

“The best shutting mechanism in the world,” I replied, “is called GROWN UPS!”

We restored a huge old house in France Part 5

 

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We’ve got people coming for dinner tonight so I haven’t got time to write anything much.  I have, however, dug out a few “before” photos of the front facade.  

Things chop and change of course, and things also get improved a little more each year.  Here is the front facade of the house when we bought it.  My husband treated the stone work, which was dark grey with dirt and age, with industrial bleach.  It burns !   It really burns and he had to wear rubber gloves and long sleeves despite the heat.

I can’t remember how long it took him to work his way around the entire outside of the house, moving the scaffolding as he went.  Perhaps a month ?  You can see the dribbles of bleach at the top of the photo.  It was a grey and dreary old building. I don’t know what possessed us to buy it actually!

Just those shutters took an eternity.  We removed the shutters from the two balcony windows because they were so broken, it really wasn’t worth repairing them.  After the first year of letting the property to holiday-makers, some four or five years later, we fixed the shutters permanently in the open position because guests would leave them banging around in the wind and then they’d have to be repaired all over again.

 

We restored a huge old house in France Part 4

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The kitchen and the back-kitchen are about the same size – more-or-less the same as most people’s living rooms ie 30 sq metres.  There are red quarry tiles throughout, though in the back kitchen some were so perished that we were forced to replace them with modern ones.

Outside the kitchen window was a decorative tree of some sort – not a leylandi, but that kind of thing, which had grown so massive that the room was dark and gloomy, even slightly spooky.  We had it cut down, along with one other outside the living room windows.

A huge and very heavy curtain split the kitchen in to two, with the fireplace and an old range on one side.  The old range had rats nesting in it and was too broken to repair (though I now wish we had tried) and for those first few weeks we cooked over the open fire – just pork chops, and that kind of thing, in a big old pan.  My hair was in a long plait down my back and one day it fell over one shoulder and almost caught on fire as I bent over the chops! Happy days!

On the other side of the curtain was a narrow iron bed with real old feather mattress, duvet and pillow – you know, one of those sausage-shaped pillows the French have.and a few small bits of furniture.

None of the furniture was worth saving, riddled with woodworm and in poor condition, apart from an old butler’s chair which some clever person had painted in orange gloss (deary me!) and a lovely little table which we later had dated to around 1600.  Hanging from the beams and from various hooks were a variety of pots, some of which were copper, some so dirty that it was difficult to make out what they were made of.  Most of these we cleaned up and kept.

Between the two rooms is a corridor, or back lobby, with what was at the time of purchase a huge walk-in coat cupboard.  In here we found Nazi jack boots and a few other items of Nazi paraphernalia, including maps.  We donated it all to a WWII museum which, unhappily, closed down a few years later.  This little room was then converted in to a downstairs WC with basin.

The kitchen beams are amazing. You can see the adze marks quite clearly.  Each beam is an entire tree and the craftsman would straddle the tree trunk, once the tree was down, and hack away at it with an adze.  This gave it the square shape needed for the beams.  It makes you realize the massive quantity of work that went in to these p0laces, years before cranes and electric drills and saws. You can see it in some of the stone work too – on the step in to the kitchen from the hall are very clear marks where the stonemason chiselled away.

The basin was in the back-kitchen, or scullery as it would have been called.  Flung out in to the grounds was a massive stone sink, hundreds of years old, which we rescued and put on display.  Old stone sinks like this were very shallow and they were used as much for keeping meat and fish cool as for washing up.  We had no money, so for many years both the kitchen and the back-kitchen were a haphazard mix of a small fridge and a cheap gas cooker, crockery stashed on to temporary shelves and an old sink in the wrong room.  All mothers need a washing machine too – in fact a washing machine is a must for me, regardless of anything.

Some time later we had some kitchen cupboards made by a carpenter by the name of Rene Jean-des-Champs (Rene John-of-the-woods – lovely!). Barely a month after he had finished this job he fell off a roof (elsewhere) and broke his back.  When he finally recovered, months later, he had permanant damage to something in the nerve centre, so that he could either walk or he could move his arms, but he couldn’t do both.  The stair gate at the top of the first flight of stairs was made by him, and with this handicap it took him weeks and weeks and weeks. But he needed the work and, although it is not a good job done, we have kept the gate as a sort-of hommage to him.