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 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?