House Hunting in France

This is a house-hunting extract from my true crime memoir, Nous Sommes Anglais, to be published later this month.

During my two-week house hunting expedition I discovered that the rural French builder had a flair for the unusual. And a hankering for an earlier time, when building was more art than science, before architects and building inspectors started framing laws to curb the creative householder. Like the man in Brittany who ran the mains water pipe through a working chimney.

“I think you might have to move the water pipe,” the estate agent told me as we entered the lounge.

“Why?” I asked.

“It comes in through the chimney.”

“Like Father Christmas?” I asked, wondering if perhaps it was there to provide water for the reindeer.

Unfortunately that didn’t appear to be its purpose. The pipe entered the house through the back wall of the fireplace, hovered a few feet over the grate and then bent along the wall in search of a kitchen.

‘Why?’ is a question often asked in house hunting. Sometimes it actually precipitates an answer. This was not one of those times.

But we did have theories. A rudimentary hot water system? A useful pipe for hanging a cooking pot from? Favourite was the ‘it was the closest point to the road – therefore less copper pipe to buy.’

Then there was the toilet in the Dordogne.

Now, I’ve seen toilets before – I’m a man of the world – and under the stairs has always been a popular space-saving location but … at the foot of the stairs? With no privacy? Placed such that to climb the stairs one had to squeeze past the bowl?

I stood at the foot of the stairs, staring in amazement, and wondered – could the stairs have been a later addition? Maybe there was nowhere else to put the staircase when the upper floor was converted?

No. I looked; the plumbing appeared more recent than the staircase.

For days afterwards, I theorised and explored various possibilities for the unique placement of the toilet. It was like one of those mental agility tests starring dwarves in lifts. Could the owner have had one leg shorter than the other and needed the first step for balance?

Or perhaps it was a conversation piece. It certainly worked.

Then there was the log-burner in Gascony.

There’s nothing intrinsically unsound about placing a fire in the centre of a room. It can look very stylish and certainly can be a good way to heat a large room. But … something wasn’t quite right about this installation. It was the flue. Which was where the problem started. Not, however, where it finished.

Most people installing a flue would take the pipe straight up from the fire and out through the roof. Very few would take the flue fifteen feet across the room at knee height until it reached a wall.

Even fewer would then knock a hole in that wall, take the flue through into the next room, angle it behind the sofa and around two more walls before sinking it into the chimney breast on the opposite wall. As I tracked the eight-inch diameter flue’s progress through the house, I wondered if I was at the birth of an entirely new form of heating system – no radiators required, just one continuous flue.

I walked back and forth between the two rooms. One looked like a giant hand had pulled the log burner into the middle of the room, extruding the flue. The other looked like a neighbour had tapped into the chimneybreast while the owner had been out shopping.

Then came The House, an eight-bedroomed maison de maître with seven acres and views of the Pyrenees. Not that we wanted eight bedrooms, two was our target, but the asking price had been reduced so low that it was now one of the cheapest properties on my list, having come down to less than half of its original asking price.

So what was the catch?

I waited for the estate agent to mention the toilet at the bottom of the stairs and the missing roof but instead heard about banks and financial problems. The owner was desperate to sell to pay off his debts and had moved out of the house four years ago.

Aha. It had been empty for four years. Everything began to slip into place. The price, the need to sell, the image of encroaching rain forest smashing its way through the windows.

There was something about the speed in which the French countryside could reclaim properties, which bordered on the supernatural. From what I’d seen, I wouldn’t risk leaving a house empty for the weekend. After four years, the lounge was probably thick forest.

When we arrived, I thought we’d come to the wrong house. It looked in too good a condition.

Aha, I thought, Indian burial ground.


I’ll be posting more extracts from Nous Sommes Anglais later this month.  

Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novel – Resonance (Baen) – can be downloaded for free here. More information about his other work can be found on his  BVC bookshelf .

Coming this month: Nous Sommes Anglais true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.

Recently released from Book View PressInternational Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a  glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth. Forget  Bruce Willis and his team of miners. Send for the kitties!




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