We restored a huge old house in France Part 3

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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.

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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.

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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.

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We restored a huge old house in France Part 2

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The ground floor of the property, measuring 200 sq metres, has these ancient quarry tiles over two thirds of the floors.  Of course, because there was such a huge amount of restoration work, we ignored the floor for quite a long time, and I used to just mop it and mop it and then mop it again in attempts (invariably futile) to keep the dust at bay.  It always looked great when it was wet !

The previous owners, two brothers who didn’t get along, had split the house in to two, which meant that in the middle of the hall there was a wall and a staircase where a wall and a staircase shouldn’t be. Jake, who was then aged five or six, was excellent at generally bashing things, and the older two children (then aged …. I’m trying to think …. about 12 and 14, I’d say) were even better.  Between us we demolished the wall and removed the staircase.  This is what caused such huge quantities of dust.

Dust and neglect was ingrained in the entire building, of course, but once the demolition of the wall and removal of the staircase was done, the dust was a zillion inches thick.  The children carted, using wheelbarrows, all the rubble out in to a skip.  Back and forth, back and forth.  I had to wash my hair every day and even then it took on a delightful greyish matted look, gorgeously embedded with grit.  Had I had any sense I’d have had it cut short, for in those days it was very long.  (I had it cut short one Christmas in Cyprus, but that is a different story).

A big mistake we made was that we removed some of the floor tiles so that we could run the central heating pipes along under them.  On the face of it that seems a reasonable thing to do, otherwise the pipes would have to go around the walls ( a long way) which in turn meant a lot more pipe, which led to a lot more work. The pipes would then also be visible unless we boxed them in – which represented even more work.

So we laid the pipes under the floor tiles.  We had a young Englishman by the name of Mat staying with us at the time.  He was an assistant teacher at the children’s school and, a bit lonely, came to us at week-ends. We loved him to bits. Anyway, Mat did most of the laying of the pipes, wrapping them carefully first so that they wouldn’t freeze in the winter.

What we didn’t realize was that the heat of the pipes, once the central heating was up and running, would crack up the floor tiles.  It seems obvious enough now, but at the time, working hell-bent-for-leather and with winter already upon us, it wasn’t obvious at all. So for several years there was a patch of floor tile that was pale and crumbly; we eventually laid red cement over them and, although they certainly don’t look good, it all blends in and is fine.

I think that is something of utmost importance when you take on a huge project like this, particularly when you have a tiny budget as we did: do not fuss too much where fuss isn’t really needed.  You cannot be a perfectionist at times like this, otherwise you will never get the job done.  We know a man who spent four years trying to install his central heating; he was so careful about everything, so precise … he never got the job finished and in the end they called a plumber in, which they might as well have done in the beginning.

Had we carefully measured each tile, each pipe, each length or width of this or that, we’d still be at it today.  There are quite a few things that have not got that professional finished touch but it doesn’t matter to us.  The house is nonetheless great, most people love it, and those who don’t – well, that’s fine, they don’t have to.

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Anyway, I bought all sorts of different things to treat the tiled floor with.  I tried one thing after another, asked the tile people up the road, and then the tile people down the road. But nothing seemed to help.  I painted a damp-proof product all over the surface, and the only result was back ache.  I mopped cheap polish over it, expensive polish, black soap, linseed oil and Lordy knows what else.  But the tiles remained dull and featureless.

I hit on shoe polish when I was at the cobbler’s one day.  On his shelf I noticed a jar of shoe polish which was more-or-less the exact same reddish-brown hue of the tiles.  I bought it, tried it out on a few tiles – and hey presto!  Shoe polish is slightly damp proof, and it is a waxy product that buffs up to a shine.  Another back-breaking job which took me days and days.  Really, it should be done every three months or so, but I can’t.  Honestly, I just can’t.

We restored a huge old house in France Part 1- The History of Rochebonne

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The first record of Rochebonne dates to 1658, when the property was owned by one Jean d’Arquesson, lawyer to Louis XIV, the famous “Sun King” who built Versailles.   However, the dove cote and the upper section of the staircase pre-dates this by 30 years or so, so one can safely assume that the original Chateau de Rochebonne was built in around 1628.

 

Rochebonne changed hands several times till 1738 when it was inherited by the female line of the Saint Collet family, aristrocratic farmers who were based in the Limoges area.

During the French Revolution in 1799 it was burned to the ground, leaving just the staircase and the dove cote, and some of the old red floor tiles, intact.

 

The owners, by now married in to the Machefert-Herve family, were re-housed in a convent in the village.  Their daughter, Adele Senne, was born in the Chateau and was a small child at the time of the fire.  It was she who, fifty years later in 1848, re-built Rochebonne as we see it today.

The new building is about half the size of the original which stretched as far as the cottage behind the white wall (marked “private”) where the old bread oven and scullery area was.  The remains of the bread oven, dating to around 1700, are still there.  The old stone sink by the palm tree also dates to that period and was taken from that same scullery area. The staircase had been part of a tower, which is why it is so steep.

The land stretched as far as the river Seudre, to the south, and up beyond the village to the north, 386 hectares strong.

 

Adele Herve moved in along with her daughter and son-in-law, Marie and Christian Roye, and their three children.   They re-named themselves Roye de Rochebonne.  They occupied the middle floor, the top floor never having been finished.  With them they had six or seven servants: a couple of  maids, a scullery maid, a manservant and a few stable boys.   The household servants would have slept at the hearth in the kitchen.   The fields were worked by the villagers; in the village archives are a great number of references, spanning two hundred years, referring to the workers of Rochebonne, sometimes called simply Roche.

 

Adele died in 1851 and the property passed to her son-in-law, Christian Roye.   The Roye family  remained the owners of the property till the present English owners, the Broughtons, bought it in 1995.  This was at a time when inexpensive property was being snapped up by the British and it has to be recognized that the British did, in many ways, save a lot of our old buildings all over the country.

 

Country life continued peacefully at Rochebonne, with only the slightest interruption during World War 1, till 1933 when Sebastien Roye, grandson of Christian, died and left the property to his sons, Charles and Ludovic.   The two brothers (the de Rochebonne appendage to their name seems to have been discontinued at around this time) did not get on and they promptly split the house in to a pair of semis.   The garden was divided in to two, and most of the land was sold off.  The existing front door served Ludovic, who owned the eastern half of the house, comprising the front of the hall, (where a 1930 staircase went through what is now the mezzanine), the living room and the rooms over it.

Ludovic died during the war, leaving a heavily pregnant wife and a small son.   Destitute and alone, the young Madame Roye closed up and returned to her family in Angouleme.   Barely a soul entered her part of Rochebonne for very many years.

 

Charles’ part of the house was briefly occupied by the Germans during WWII.  However, that part of the house was barely used either, serving only as a kind of eccentric holiday house for a few weeks in the summer.  Slowly and inexorably fading and crumbling it remained largely empty till 1979 when, unwilling and unable to pay for its upkeep, the Roye family put it on the market.  It remained for sale for 19 years !!

 

The Broughtons undertook a massive task in the saving and renovating of the property, and they have undeniably achieved a great feat of which the village is truly proud.  From a long distance passers-by can appreciate the regular structural features of this classic style; the interior is sympathetically arranged to suit the needs of holiday-makers while also retaining its charm.  Apart from the addition of the bathrooms and the pool the house remains largely as the 1848 architect intended.

 The renovation of the cottages at the Domaine de Rochebonne started several years later.  Now forming eight cottages, these were mostly derelict old barns, though the caretaker’s cottage has not changed much.   These extensive old buildings help to date the property as vast quantities of easily-dated farm implements and associated items turned up.   The oldest section, the remains of a cottage with mullioned window,  pre-dates Jean d’Arquesson, and goes back to about 1560.   The owners have achieved a remarkable feat in combining practical modern elements with the ancient features.  The cottages of Rochebonne, old as they are, may by some be considered to be a little on the dark side, yet this very enigmatic look is precisely what makes them so ideal.   Now used for holiday lettings they are among the most sought-after in the area.

 

 

Written by Emile Didier

Translated by Catherine Broughton

Gossip

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Conversation with my cleaning lady:-

(but in French)

Me, Madame, I’m no gossip.  Not never.”

“No, of course not, Marie.”

That’s just me, it is. I knows when to keep me trap shut.”

“Yes, of course, Marie.”

“That’s always bin my policy, Madame.  Never say nothink about nobody. Best that way.”

“Yes, yes, quite right Marie …”

“I mean, that girl next door – you know that huge fat cow what I was telling you about ?”

“Er … ?”

You know, Madame!  I was telling you about how she nicked the neighbour’s washing off the line ?!”

“Oh, er, yes …..”

Well, her.  Never said no more about her did I?”

“No …”

Ooooh, I knows when to keep mum, I does!   I mean to say, when she fell pregnant, did I say anything ?  No.  Never a word.  Never said a thing.  And the father unknown!   All four of her kids by different men, y’know!”

“Mmmmmm …”

Nah … none of me business, that’s my motto.  Just like her mother, she is.  Just as bad as her mother.  ’Cept there weren’t no CONTRACEPTINGS in them days, so the babies just kept coming.  Father – or fathers, I should say, unknown.  All of ‘em. Disgusting.”

“Er, are you running out of polish Marie?  A clean rag, perhaps ?”

Nah, I’m not done on this ‘ere table yet.  And then this morning – you’ll never guess!”

“No, I’m sure I can’t guess.  The windows perhaps ….?”

Her sister the same!  Pregnant!  And her just out of prison an all!”

“Oh dear ….”

“But me, I’ll say nuffink.  Knows when to keep me trap shut I does!”

The British who move to France, and the French who move to Britain.

The huge surge of British families pulling up roots and moving lock stock and barrel to France, has largely petered out.  During the 1980s thousands of families re-located to France, mostly because property was so cheap – sometimes incredibly cheap – and the bargains seemed too good to miss.  By the 1990s numbers started to dwindle, though there were still a great many .  Now it has all but stopped.

The British who moved to France had some things in common and made the same mistakes:-

– property was very cheap, an entire little smallholding for the price of a garage in the UK (though of course that depended on which part of France.  In the centre of the country I once sold a little farmhouse with ten acres of land for about £4000) But there was a good reason why it was so cheap: nobody wanted to live there!

– when people are just visiting they tend to look at things through rose-tinted glasses, and France seemed so wonderful.  By the end of the 1990s over three quarters of the re-located families had moved home again having learnt too late that life in France is exactly the same as life in Britain except that it happens in French

– people who were hard-up felt they could “make it” in France.  These were the builders and small business owners who had been hit in the back of the knees during the 1988 recession in Britain.  They moved out here to France with no language skills but because they were “handy” they thought they could restore an old house, and realized too late that some of the building/DIY hurdles were way too difficult – the DIY shops were invariably (in those days) poorly stocked, miles and miles away, often closed and the staff (in those days) extremely unhelpful and uncooperative

– people thought they would learn French, and then found they couldn’t.  Speaking a foreign language is a real skill and, unless you learned it as a child, it is very difficult.  I know Brits who have lived here for over 20 years and who still cannot speak the language.

– people found the locals unfriendly.  French people do not have get-togethers in the same way the British do, they do not invite each other over for tea or for a game of Scrabble and rarely for supper.  The “club house” is a new concept in France and even now there is rarely a club house to go with the tennis courts or the riding stables.  Pubs, where the British can meet for a friendly drink simply do not exist – French bars to this day are usually horrid formica-and-tile places.  It does, however, depend on the area of France – Parisians seem to be far more open whereas the Charente people are really rather closed.  In the UK I used to stand outside the school gates waiting for my children, and I would be chatting and chatting with other mothers. In France they just stood around in silence.  Friendships with the French appeared to be superficial and, if you don’t speak the language well, listening and speaking to each other rapidly becomes tedious.  Women in particular became lonely and wanted to go home

– the bread-earner of the family found the red tape and the bureaucracy involved in setting up business largely unbearable.  There is a very important and fundamental difference between the British mentality and the continental mentality: in Britain we feel we CAN unless there is a regulation to say that we can NOT. On the continent they feel they CANNOT unless there is a regulation to say that they CAN.  That changes everything – everything.

Having said all that there are nonetheless thousands of British living very happily in France – and we count among them.  I did take me some twelve years, though.   Our great friends here are fellow ex-pats and also – interestingly – French people who have lived a fair bit abroad.

Tomorrow – why the French move to Britain – and they do!  In equally large numbers.