The living room at Rochebonne had been split in to four rooms at some point between the two World Wars. It had been designed as two large rooms, one a dining area and the other a living area, but we know from old papers that the dining area was never finished, presumably for lack of funds.
It was quite common during the 1930s and 1940s to split rooms up because it meant less space to have to heat in an era when domestic staff were no longer quite so readily available to carry wood and coal and clean-out hearths. Having said that, this part of France remained remarkably backwards for a very long time; indeed, till the 1980s was called “Charente Inférieur” which kept it very much considered a back-water. The word inférieur here does not mean it was inferior in our sense of the word (though it was) but that it was over-there-in-the-back-of-beyond. To this day domestic staff are easily available and despite the entire area having leapt forwards in to the present day, there does still remain a kind of old-fashioned element to village life and attitudes. Re-naming the area Charente Maritime brought the place smartly in to the tourist books, which in turn brought in much-needed jobs and money.
This part of the house, ie the living area, had been abandoned during WWII (see History of Rochebonne on a separate page), and the four dark rooms were thick with cobwebs, smelling of damp and in one half the floor had rotted away completely.
There was a lovely 1920s table left in one of the rooms, which we cleaned up and kept, also a piano which was beyond salvation. A card table was revealed under a pile of old curtains, several earthenware jars and an exquisite blue glass goblet in perfect condition, dated at 1700. Further clearing out of the two large built-in cupboards produced a variety of bowls and pictures, lots of rotted papers and some interesting house-keeping books.
So, the first thing we did was to demolish the walls. They were made of that thin brick-like stuff that you cannot nail in to if you want to hang a picture. Brittle and easy to smash up, it created a red caking over everything. I draped the old curtains over our various boxes of belongings, but what with things being moved out of the way, the curtains being used as tents by the children, and the general overall havoc, not one of our possessions escaped the red dust.
At some stage a false ceiling had been put up, with some rather attractive cornice work, but it was damp and rotten, and had even started to fall away in places, so we ripped this down, eager so reveal the huge old beams that were sure to be hidden above.
Our disappointment was immense. Some bright spark had painted them all blue. Perhaps it had looked nice once upon a time, but it was dreadful now. We had neither the time, the energy nor the will to try to strip them, so our only solution was to paint them white. We considered black, which would have been more beamy, so to speak, but the ceiling there is surprisingly low and really white (off-white to be precise) was the only option. In an ideal world we would have put a new ceiling in place, but that wasn’t possible.
Actually, a lot of people make this very mistake: an old manor-house like this would have had an elegant ceiling in the living area, not beams, and certainly not dark beams. Beams are for kitchens and sculleries after, say, 1750 or so. A couple of years ago we visited a nice old hunting lodge we used to own, over by Tonnay Boutonne. The present owners showed us with considerable pride that they had hacked away the plaster to “reveal the original stones” in a bedroom. The French call it “pierre apparente” – visible stone. But this is a big mistake. Visible stones would have been in the scullery, in out-buildings, certainly not in the main house, let alone the bedrooms. Yet lots of people do a huge amount of dusty and expensive work to reveal them. It is a nonsense. Furthermore, no matter how much you treat the stones with stabilizing products, they do remain dusty. There are constant little bits falling off and patches of salt peter growing. I don’t recommend pierre apparentefor anywhere other than, perhaps, a kitchen or a holiday house.