Moving House: Don’t Send the Husband (Part One)

I’m going to write a series of house moving/renovation posts, starting with a house moving two-parter. And then a post or three on how Shelagh and I, with no previous DIY experience whatsoever, decided to renovate an ancient shell of a farmhouse – ourselves. And when I say renovate, I mean design and build a staircase from scratch, knock holes in three-foot thick granite walls to make doors and windows, turn an inaccessible attic into two bedrooms and a bathroom, turn a cow barn into a study, plumb the house, wire the house, break up the concrete floor and lay a new one. Re-roof all the outhouses. All by ourselves on a tight budget while living in the property. And I have pictures.

But first, the move:

Buying a house is said to be a couple’s biggest purchase. Something to be entered into jointly. But when your new house is in another country and you have a smallholding with a horde of animals to be looked after … sometimes you have to act alone.

Moral: don’t send the husband.

So, there I was dispatched to France with a strict mandate from my wife – come back with a small country cottage with about ten acres of pasture. And don’t go over budget.

France was amazing. And French plumbing was not so much an essential feature of a house as an art form. Never had I seen so many interesting places to site a toilet. 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?

And how about the cottage in Brittany that had the mains water pipe enter the house through the chimney? I was astonished. It entered the house through the back wall of the lounge fireplace, hovered a few feet over the grate and then bent along the wall in search of a kitchen.

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

But I did have some 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 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 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 finding a chimney breast to connect into. 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 in the process. The other looked like a neighbour had tapped into the chimney breast whilst the owner was out shopping.

So you can see – the groundwork having been laid – that when I saw The House it couldn’t help but stand out from the rest. It was perfect. It was habitable. It had seven acres. It had views of the Pyrenees. It was in our budget. And it was a bargain – the owner was so desperate to sell he’d halved the price.

But it wasn’t quite a two-bedroomed cottage. The mandate had been quite clear on that. We’re looking for a small house for two people and the very ocasional guest.

This house had eight bedrooms … and five toilets.

But it was a bargain. And someone else might make an offer. So I bought it. The phone call home was slightly fraught.

‘You did what!’ and ‘Eight bedrooms!’ elbowed their way into most sentences.
The bargain ploy wasn’t going down too well either.

Or the five toilets.

But house-hunting is often like that. You start off with a tight list of your requirements – the two-bedroom bungalow, the tiny stone cottage – then let your husband loose and back he comes with the keys to an eight-bedroom mansion.

Two years later when we decided to move again – you would have thought she’d have learned – and I was despatched to Normandy with a firm mandate – two bedrooms and no more!

I’ll tell you what happened next week but the episode includes a phone call home with the words that every wife dreads: ‘Honey, I’ve bought a village.’


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .

An Unsafe Pair of Handsa 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?

Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International 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.
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Moving House: Don’t Send the Husband (Part One) — 11 Comments

  1. Wow! I cannot imagine anything with eight bedrooms and five baths being a budget. Around here, two bedrooms will cost half a million if you want a neighborhood with windows without bars.

  2. Sherwood, that’s why the real estate folks always say there are three factors in house prices: “Location, location, and location.”

    Not having a husband, I was able to stay within my size limits when house shopping. I also bought a project, and have been bemoaning the money spent and life with contractors along with trying to figure out what to do with the yard in a place where, despite the recent rain, drought appears likely to reign. But the thought of being confronted with the amount of work indicated by the initial description of Chris and Shelagh’s renovation is enough to make me go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. I look forward to more, if only to tell myself that things could be worse.

  3. The 8 bedroom mansion + two 2-bedroom apartments + 7 acres of grounds cost 800k Francs (£100k) in 1994. That’s cheap.

    The restoration project cost £25k in 1997.

  4. That is staggeringly cheap, when viewed against prices here.

    Nancy Jane is right, but when I think that a crappy location here and a stunningly beautiful countryside location in France could vary so much in cost . . . argh!

  5. Which is why we moved to France. Houses then were a third to a quarter the price of houses in Britain and you had a better climate thrown in for free. Plus you could still buy good properties with land, something which was becoming difficult in the UK without paying a premium.

  6. I read this on my iPad/Kindle and enjoyed the heck out of it. You have a great way with scenes. Also, please write an entire book about your mother-in-law.

  7. I had to come read this before I could read your current post about living in France. Oh my. That chateau sounds fabulous.

    Wait. You added two bedrooms to a place that already had 8? That surely was a different place!

  8. NO NO NO – Do not write a book about your mother-in-law.
    I nearly wet myself laughing while reading the book, until I got to the mother-in-law. I thought you must have stolen MY mother’s personality. My blood pressure went through the roof and I though about adding a last chapter to the book. A chapter
    which included a scene where Nan (or my mother) was pushed off the room, or out the door of a fast moving car. What does Gypsy think?