Our perfect house
We’d always holidayed in France – first on motorbikes and then by car. When we both got our pilots’ licences and built our first two-seater plane, we flew ourselves there, with our folding bikes in the back.
Wherever we went, my other half always asked me how I would feel about buying a house in France, but what we saw was never quite right – too flat, too hilly, too remote, too busy and so on. That was until 1999, when we rented a little gîte for a couple of weeks just north of the Lot.
As we cycled along an idyllic lane, I said to him: “You know, I can almost imagine myself living here.” Well that was it. As soon as we returned to England, Graham was on the phone arranging our return within the month, and organising about a dozen houses to see every day.
Neither of us could spare more than one extra week away from work so we decided that this would just be a piece of research. We thought we’d see what was available, and how we’d feel about different kinds of properties when the time came to look for one seriously, and which part of this vast area particularly appealed.
We went to the French Property Exhibition that autumn in Hammersmith with open minds but specific requirements – our aim was to move to France to live after retirement. We wanted an old house but were vague about style and situation.
On our limited budget we knew we’d have to do a lot of the work ourselves, and we were certain that we wanted country rather than town. One part of our fantasy was having a field right next to the house to transform into a landing strip for our plane. But in all the years we’d been to France, neither of us had seen a house we’d actually like to own.
Friends warned us that it would take at least a couple of years to find what we wanted so we cheerfully set off with no expectations. We’d already booked an apartment in Cahors as our base and headed out on the Monday morning with about half a dozen properties around Montcuq to see before lunch. Another six or so were booked in for the afternoon in Puy L’Evêque. It was a routine we repeated in different locations every day that week.
By midweek, we realised that, although it was very enjoyable being taken to areas we’d never have found ourselves, none of the houses we saw were more than interestingly pleasant (although, some are still memorably awful).
We chatted to each other and to the agents about what potential a house had, or how good the view was, or how conveniently near to a pleasant town it was, or how remote and excitingly wild. But we never once came close to imagining it becoming our home.
Until the last day that is. We arrived at the estate agent in Gourdon, looked at pictures of properties that conformed to our needs and, while the details were being copied, Véronique, the agent, invited us to browse through her catalogues to see if we could find anything else we liked.
We idly flipped through the pages and one old barn rather appealed to me, even though it was practically obscured by an ugly grey concrete electricity pole. It was added to the list, just to make up the numbers, even though it had no land at all, which rather hinted that it might just be a waste of everyone’s time.
We wandered around the properties near Gourdon without seeing anything particularly memorable, until we arrived at the last one, the barn with no land. The closer we got, the more beautiful the surroundings became.
We went quiet and looked very hard at everything – the new-ish roof on a very old barn with no windows, one door, a dirt floor and a mere 10ft strip of land surrounding it. On the plus side, it had woods and fields surrounding its very private location.
After about 10 minutes of near-silence, during which Véronique told us that it had been on the market for 10 years, I tentatively said: “What do you think, Graham?” To my huge relief he said: “We may well be interested in this one.” He was already as much in love with it as I was.
Then things became even more astonishing as Veronique told us that she knew the farmer who owned the surrounding land, and that he’d just retired that summer. She would telephone him as soon as we returned to her office and ask if he would be prepared to sell us some land if we bought the house. I think you can probably guess what his reply was.
Exactly 10 years ago we signed the final papers and since then we have made a steady progression of visits – sometimes as many as seven in one year. We were lucky to find an extraordinarily good French builder who’s now completed all the heavy structural work and who also acted as maître d’oeuvre for the plumber, carpenters and electrician to get the house to the level where we could actually stay there rather than rent accommodation nearby.
We were keen to do a lot of the work ourselves but realised that it just wasn’t practical with our commitments in the UK. However, Graham has now put in a number of Velux windows and done a great deal of plumbing, carpentry, roof-insulating and bathroom-installing while I’ve learned to love stone-pointing, which is fortunate as I have the whole house to do, inside and out.
We bought two fields and an area of woodland from the retired farmer, who’s since become a friend. We’re no closer to making our airstrip but have nearly finished building another plane – and there’s a very pleasant little airfield at Sarlat-Domme, about 20 minutes away by car.
Working on the house, and in the woods and fields around it, is so pleasant that knowing it will probably never be completely finished isn’t a problem for either of us. The way the area changes throughout the seasons is fascinating – spring’s probably my favourite time because of my love of insects and plants, but of course summer, autumn and winter are pretty wonderful as well.
There are still plenty of jobs to do around the house, though we’ve finally installed our kitchen – quite a luxury after years of cooking on a camping stove!
We huddle in the downstairs bathroom for meals in winter as it’s the only warm place to be – but as both of us believe we all live too much in the lap of luxury in the western world that’s no hardship, especially when we grew up in the 1950s with ice on the inside of the windows. Anyway, being in our own little corner of France more than makes up for the lack of creature comforts!