Following on from previous weeks, we’d bought the two hundred year-old uninhabitable shell in Normandy, we’d driven up from the South of France to take possession, now we had to live in it.
Problem number one: we had sitting tenants – five of them. We’d given the previous owner’s brother permission to keep his five cows on our property (we had ten acres) until we moved in with our horse. We’d tried several times to phone him and tell him when we were moving but he never seemed to be in. We left countless messages on his answerphone, messages in our best broken French which became more panicked as the moving day neared.
The week before our move, while we were packing our papers, we discovered the reason for his silence. We’d been phoning the wrong number. Somewhere in Normandy a person was probably barricaded in his house awaiting the arrival of Bonnie and Claude – the psycho English couple who’d been threatening his cows for the last month. You have until August 15th, then we’re moving in. The cows have to be gone.
So, when we arrived we had five interested cows to watch us move in. And our horse? We put her in livery in the South for a couple of weeks until we were certain we had somewhere to put her.
Next problem was where to put the furniture. It was arriving later that day and we had no locks on the house or barns. The nearest we had to a lock was a piece of string on the front door that you looped around a nail on the doorjamb. And two of the four windows in our house had no glass.
We drew up an emergency list – things that couldn’t wait and could be done straight away. Replacing all the doors and windows didn’t make it to the list. That was going to be one of our largest ticket items and we wanted to make sure we bought the best. But a padlock… that was something we could buy now. The barn was the only place that came close to being secure and it made sense to store the bulk of our possessions in there while we renovated the house.
The barn door, however, was not only huge, it was bowed and rotting. We’d have to replace it, but you can’t buy 12 foot by 8-foot doors off the shelf. So we’d need to buy some wood and build a new one.
And we needed the services connecting – electricity, water and phone. This was 1997 and a time when mobile phones, laptops and the emerging internet were not in our price range. If we wanted to phone anyone, we had to find a payphone.
So we drove into the village to look for a phone. We were fairly stressed by that time. We hadn’t slept for 28 hours as we’d driven up from the South through the night, a twelve-hour drive in a car constantly flashing warning lights. And now we had to do battle with three very quiet French robot switchboards, none of which had a ‘press three if you’re English and on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ option.
Luckily for us, the village post office next door had an extremely helpful post-mistress. She took us in and made the calls for us. We’d have to go to the water and electric company’s offices in person to sign agreements, but things were underway.
We thanked her profusely and, on the way back to the car, saw a cafe and decided to drop in.
As we slumped onto the stools by the bar, we discovered that the couple sat next to us were English – they’d bought a property in the village the year before.
As we got talking, we discovered that our move – as traumatic as it had been – was nothing compared to theirs. They’d bought a large property with two houses – one for them and one for the husband’s brother. They’d driven over from England and decided to stop off at the property on the way to the official signing of Acte (upon which the money changes hands and the house becomes theirs) at the notaire. When they drove into the soon-to-be-theirs farmyard they noticed something was different. One of the houses, and all of the outbuildings, were roofless. All the roof tiles had gone.
I’ve heard of vendors unscrewing every single light bulb and taking them with them, but I’ve never heard of a vendor so smitten with the roof tiles that they cannot be parted. Most people feel that, when it comes to fixtures and fittings, the roof tile is very much a fixture and expected to stay with the house.
The notaire took a similar view. The signing of the Acte turned into an inquisition. Why did you remove the tiles? Er… they were a hazard. A hazard? Yes, the roof was dangerous and the tiles could have fallen on someone and hurt them.
Unfortunately for the vendor, the buyer had pictures of the house before the removal of the tiles and showed them to the notaire. The roof looks fine to me. Where’s the danger? Er… there? That’s a small corner of one roof! You’ll have to put the tiles back. Er… I can’t. Why not? I sold them.
This resulted in the notaire cancelling the signing and insisting the price of the property be dropped. This, you would think, would be good news. But, no, the property with its thirty plus acres, was classified as an agricultural property and there are special rules for agricultural properties. To discourage the break up of farms and encourage their consolidation, France created SAFER. The new price of the property triggered a SAFER intervention, and local farmers would have two months in which they had the right of first refusal on the property. If, after two months no local farmer had come up with an offer, then the property would be offered back to the English couple.
A local farmer did express an interest and for two months this family lived in limbo – and B&B – not knowing if they should look at other properties… or wait. And all that time the roofless buildings stood there open to the elements.
After two months the local farmer backed down and the sale went ahead. Today, it’s a fantastic property.
Moral: however bad you think your situation, there’s always someone faring worse.
An Unsafe Pair of Hands – a quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?