Having bought the village, next came the move.
It’s a ten-hour drive from the parched foothills of the Pyrenees to the lush green fields of Normandy. Or, if your only car is an ancient Citroen with a nervous complaint, twelve hours. We’d never owned a car like it. It didn’t like the cold. It didn’t like the wet. It was frightened of the dark and any speed over 60 mph would start it shaking. The only thing it did really well was complain. Colour me simple, but I’d always thought a warning light was either on or off. You’ve either got a problem or you haven’t. But this car had a feature I’ve never seen on any other car – it had variable warning lights. They could be on, off, or glow at various intensities depending on how worried it felt.
So you’d be driving along and the battery warning light would start to glow slightly, then brighten, then dim. At first we thought there was a problem with the warning light – a loose connection. Then the brake fluid warning light started coming on – and off. Could all the warning lights be failing?
A trip to the garage provided an answer of sorts – we had a slow leak of brake fluid which was tripping the warning light when we drove downhill or stopped. It wasn’t a major problem – if we kept topping up the brake fluid – but it was something we’d have to get sorted out soon – when we could afford it.
The trip to the garage reinforced our belief in our Citroen’s warning lights. The car might be old and falling apart, but at least the warning lights worked.
So off we set on our mammoth twelve-hour journey north. And on came the battery warning light. The car was obviously nervous as we were driving in the dark and it had just started to rain. Driving slower seemed to calm it down and we threw in plenty of stops – to cool down the engine and top up the brake fluid.
It was a very long journey. And very trying. I didn’t so much drive the car as nurse it on an expedition. Looking back, it was a remarkably reliable car – in that it never really broke down – but it always gave the impression that a breakdown was imminent. It shook, it complained, it made strange noises. In reaction to which, I made a habit of noting every garage or phone box I passed in case the worst happened and I had to ditch the car and walk back for assistance.
So, what was awaiting us in Normandy?
To be honest, you could never call the main house pretty. From a distance it has a touch of the shanty look. It was a longere (which in England is called a longhouse) – a long rectangular building where the outbuildings are tacked onto the main house in one long row. Ours went wooden barn/house/cattle byre/hay barn. And all the roofs were different – ancient terracotta tiles, new diamond slates, ancient diamond slates. The granite walls rose out of the bedrock – and in places the bedrock could still be seen forming part of the walls.
What made the property stand out for us was the land the house stood on. It had that wow factor. The moment I saw the place I felt ‘this is it.’ The land rolls around the house. Ancient outcrops of granite poke out thought the rolling grass fields and orchards. There are high tors, enormous boulders, ancient oaks and beeches, a stream, a spring, a dolmen, medieval ruins. It reminded me of a warmer, lusher version of Dartmoor.
The windows had not just lost most of their glass, they’d lost most of the frames too. An old calendar filled one hole. The front door didn’t have a lock – it had a piece of string that looped around a nail on the doorjamb. It had no toilet or sink. No water – hot or cold. The electrical wiring looked untouched since the thirties. It had three martin nests on the beams. The tiny bedroom was filled by a damp mouldy mattress lying on the floor.
But… it had potential. We could rebuild it from scratch and make it how we wanted.
And, after all, it was only mid-August. We had a couple of months to get the house ready before the winter.
If only we’d known…
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?