The Domaine de Rochebonne, half way down the west coast of France, had been for sale for …. I think it was 19 years, when we bought it in 1995. Funnily enough, when we drove past it the very first time my husband commented “I wonder which idiot is going to buy that ?”
A year later we drove past it again – and decided the idiots could be us. Many years earlier it had been split in to a pair of semis by brothers who didn’t get on. One half had been abandoned during the second World War – that half had been empty since 1943! The other half had not been lived in full time since the 1960s, though it was occasionally used as a kind of eccentric holiday house. Apart from the fireplaces there was no heating at all, and just the one outdoor WC. Bath or shower ? No – nothing like that.
Everything, but EVERYTHING needed to be done. The wiring – (where there was wiring )was old and dangerous. There was only cold water in one downstairs room. The roof was on the point of collapse – in fact we put some accro props in situ before the purchase was complete, because it was clear the roof could go at any minute. Sometimes we watch these Grand Design programmes on TV, or read blogs by people who have done similar – and we certainly rate up there among the most ambitious, the least financed and the hardest working. With three small children, cold winter weather and virtually no money we set about the conversion – well, you have to come and look to see how it has changed. We did the worst of it in a year and by that I mean we got comfortable – central heating, plumbing, kitchen and so on. Then the decorating took place a little bit at a time over several years. And the furnishing. And the pool.
The first month was spent just clearing rubble and rubbish out of the way. Some amazing old items we kept, restored and now have them on display; but a huge amount needed to be taken to the dump – miles and miles of bottles, old mattresses, old duvets and pillows. We made something like seventeen trips with a full skip to the dump. I couldn’t do it now. It’s something young people do.
We lived there full time for five or six years. The children went to school in Pont l’Abbe d’Arnoult. The house was difficult to heat in the winter but it nonetheless made a great place for kids to grow and play. The top floor became a sort unofficial youth club where our elder son and all his mates hung out. It was noisy and messy but we preferred them there where we knew where our son was, rather than have him go off in to the dark yonder. For many years everything was make-shift and make-do, but it was all a lot of fun and it is something we are proud of today.
Once the elder two children had flown the nest we converted all the barns in to holiday cottages. The largest barn, now Le Logis, remained a semi-derelict hovel for several years and we camped in it as it was till funds permitted the restoration of it.
The ground floor of the main house, 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 !
Because the house had been split in to two there was a wall and a staircase where a wall and a staircase shouldn’t be, right there in the middle of the building. Our youngest, 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.
(the dusty floor remained like this for a year or more)
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 tiles that was pale and crumbly; we eventually laid red cement over the worst of 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.
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.
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 needed 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.
before-and-after : the dining room
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 well over half the floor had rotted away completely. We had no choice but to cover it with boarding and carpet – the carpet was destroyed by some guests a few years later (they paid for it cheerfully!) and then we felt laminate was the best answer.
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, loads of mice nests and some interesting house-keeping books.
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 apparente for anywhere other than, perhaps, a kitchen or a holiday house.
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 kitchen 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 places, 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-fields – 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 homage to him.
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!”
(the same room)
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.
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 pictures 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” (Amazon) 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 (again) 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.
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 so that 2 people could sit together. 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 !
The Cottages emerge:-
There were a lot of old barns to one side of the land, facing away from the Chateau. They were solid in that they were built of stone, 3 ft thick in many places, and had huge oak timbers to support bits of crumbling roof. But otherwise they were derelict in the proper sense of the word. The children played in them, along with loads of other children, and if they had a party it was in what they called “the party barn” which, many years later, became Le Logis.
Step One, of course, was to find the finance for the project. We mulled over figures, changed them, added them up, deducted, multiplied, divided, then started again. It was a huge project, the conversion of totally derelict barns in to eight holiday cottages. Everything needed doing. Everything – roof, walls, floors, plumbing,wiring … And as is so often the way, such a lot needed to be cleared away or even totally demolished before we could start. It was difficult to price out because there were so many unknowns… beams that appeared to be solid may not be, tiles that we hoped to re-use could break, walls and floors that seemed dry enough could be damp (in fact in what became cottage 6 we discovered several inches of water when it rained months later – previously we hadn’t noticed it because it soaked away again in to the mud. But with tiles in situ it sat in delightful puddles all over, and the tiles had to be pulled up again , a diversion trench dug, and then the floor done all over again. Disheartening ? Oh yes.
To save money we rented out the Chateau to holiday makers and we moved in to the one barn that we were not intending to convert. Seriously, it was a barn.
Sometimes I come across somebody who tells me they have been working hard on their house … and I look at them and smile to myself, for they generally mean they are re-decorating or changing the kitchen. This kind of work, I mean the kind we intended to take on, was a whole different ball game.
The discussing and negotiating with the banks was a whole different ball game too. We were no longer asking for a loan to buy a small house; we needed a big loan, a really big one. Furthermore, we faced two seemingly unsurmountable problems – one, the aftermath of the storm (visit http://turquoisemoon.co.uk/blog/it-happened-like-this-an-english-family-move-to-france-part-17-the-storm/) and thence our relationships with banks was well sullied and two, “equity” does not mean anything in France. Not the way it does in the UK.
They use the word “patrimoine” for equity, and we had an excellent patrimione. We had been there five years by this time, and we had paid off a large part of the small mortgage we had used for the purchase of the property in 1995. The property had rocketed in value. But that did not count. It was all excruciatingly difficult.
Once our loan was approved – well, we have never moved so fast. We placed advertisements in the UK and very rapidly had bookings for all the cottages for the summer. Internet was in its infancy and ads went in to glossy magazines. The phone rang constantly. We even rigged up a loudspeaker outside for the phone so that we could hear it ring and rush to deal with an enquiry. We worked day and night, seven days a week, for three months. And in those three months we created six cottages – floors, ceilings, roof, plumbing, wiring … all of it, to include raising the roof in two places.
A major item was the pointing and rendering of the exterior walls – and some of the interior ones too. It was a massive job and big. We had thought we would do this ourselves but mercifully one of our labourers had a brother who had all the specialist equipment precisely for that. It cost a huge amount and made a serious dent in our budget, but it was well worth it for it saved many weeks in time, plus a great deal of energy and hassle. Actually, they were a really good team – from Saintes I seem to remember – who turned up promptly every morning and worked hard and fast till the job was done.
All roofs had to come off, already broken or otherwise, to be insulated and then laid with flexible waterproof material before putting the old Roman tiles ontop.
Inside partition walls that we built had a timber frame, then laid with insualtion & plasterboard, incorporating wiring and plumbing as we went. I loathe glass fibre – it gets everywhere – in to your clothes and eyes, and it feels itchy and uncomfortable and the only solution is not only a shower but a complete change of clothes too. The French call it “laine de verre”, meaning glass wool.
Some weeks we had up to fifteen extra people on the site, to include Corinne, a local gipsy with her little girls. The little girls ran around the site playing in the debris. I bought a second-hand buggy for the baby and carted her back and forth with me when Corinne couldn’t. We put table and chairs in what is now cottage 2, a fridge and an old cooker, so that the men could make coffee and eat as they wished. While the weather remained cold they lit a fire on the floor, there in the middle of the derelict room.
All around was beaten earth and that summer was extremely hot. I flung grass seed down in all the little front gardens – too late realizing that one packet was wheat !! – and it is surprising how much of it took – both the grass and the wheat! Grass is good stuff. It grows in all sorts of places, hot or cold, and survives all sorts of abuse. I like grass.
I had to buy – of course – the wherewithall to furnish the cottages and, after I had picked our youngest up from school, I dashed about frantically ordering beds and mattresses (you couldn’t do things on line, or even by phone), dozens of cups and plates and pillows. We had a Chrysler Grand Voyager at that time and we were able to pile a great deal in, my son frequently balancing buckets and plants and curtain rails on his lap. We would unload it in to one of the cottages, where it always got in the way of the workers, and dash back to the shop for the next load. Back and forth, half an hour in each direction. Sometimes things were delivered, but usually delivery was too expensive or – more importantly – too slow.
Everything had to be inexpensive and serviceable; it also had to be easily replaced. A year later a really good shop opened in a neighbouring village, where you can buy almost anything and everything needed for a holiday cottages – from teaspoons to floor tiles and more. But at that time I had to drive to Royan or Saintes and make my way to the relatively few suitable stores there were.
Thundery-looking day that spring. A large part of the roof re-done and the exterior stonework cleaned up. I see there is a new door-frame in place (cottage 5), though none of the windows are in. Mud and/or dirt everywhere. When I was finally able to clear up the grounds, the cigarette ends alone filled a bucket or two despite my constantly asking the men to dispose of their butts properly.
I opted for either yellow, orange or green everywhere downstairs and blue in the bedrooms. All crockery had to be easily replaced, bearing breakages in mind, and for the same reason had to be cheap. The cuttlery suffered from Yuri Gellar syndrome but – despite its flexible abilities – it is still going strong to this day. Saucepans and bowls, bottle openers and kitchen implements, bins and doormats … it is amazing how much we had to buy.
The furniture was inexpensive flat-pack pine. Sun loungers, garden furniture, parasols. Pots of geraniums, curtains, tea towels. Bedding! That first year – in fact for the first three years I seem to recall – the sheets, towels and pillow cases were all bought in charity shops when we were in the UK, and were an extraordinary mixture of colours and patterns. It was all we could afford. When guests arrived they were somewhat taken aback, but very few minded. Nowadays the linen is supplied locally.
The last cottage was ready just half an hour or so before the guests arrived. The previous night we had worked till very late, painting walls, assembling furniture, putting curtains and pictures up. We decided the simplest thing was to sleep in there and I stained and varnished the staircase as I worked my way backwards upstairs. In the morning they were still sticky and I used a hair dryer to dry them off!
People could see we were working very hard. The weather was great and the beach not far, so most guests were satisfied. That first year there was just one woman who complained – I hadn’t thought of coat hangers and she made a major issue out of it. It is a pity when people make an issue over something small for it sort-of devalues any other issues that may crop up. Oddly enough it is always the same type of person too.
At the end of that first week we stood in the darkening grounds one evening and looked at the lights in the pool and the barbeques sizzling in the little individual gardens, and listened to the low drone of voices of people as they cooked their meals and talked about their day … and we felt proud. Very proud indeed.
Rochebonne, both the Chateau and the cottages, has been full every year since we opened in 2000. Many people come back year after year. The maintenance of the place is like the Forth Bridge, and it never ends. Things get replaced and repaired throughout the year, as the need arises. We have hosted all sorts of people from all over the world and, despite the inevitable occasional groucher, have lots of good reviews and lovely reports.
We look forward to greeting you !
To book your holiday phone or text Sarah 07840161831 or e-mail her at [email protected]