Music at the Mill

We’ve now been living in France for two months.  When I say ‘living in France’ it’s in a loose kind of way, as we spent 10 days of it in England! After 6 weeks of hard graft on the house over the summer break we started back to work for the new term at the beginning of September and for me it was the first year I haven’t had the usual week of stressed start-of-the-new-school-year nightmares preceding the first day back (and that’s after 15 years of being out of the classroom but still working with schools and colleges). Colin and I both had prior work commitments in the UK in the first week of term so we headed back to the ferry port at Caen.  It was really weird after so many years of making that journey with a heavy heart to know that we would be back in a few days. I had a lovely week catching up with friends and seeing family (and I have to admit that the break from bathroom renovations was great – my first shower in 5 weeks!) but there was a kind of detachment and we really felt as if we had moved on. It felt good to get on the ferry last weekend and head home.

We had something to look forward to on our return too. Our new friends, Jacques and Marie-Claude, had emailed us just before we left for England to invite us to a concert of French songs that they were holding at their place (as you do), in the middle of September. We had readily accepted the invitation, but then as soon as we got back, started agonising over the detail. The invite said 3pm – did that mean the concert started at 3pm and we were expected to arrive earlier, or did they mean we were to arrive at 3? The email said that we should bring something  à grignoter , to nibble after the concert. They would put on an ‘Auberge espagnole’, harvest supper. In other words, everyone brings something  to share at the end of the concert. OK, sounds simple enough, but if the concert starts at 3pm it would finish around 5pm? Are we looking at a full evening meal here, a picnic, a few crisps or what? I had asked for advice on the kind of food to bring when I emailed to accept – the answer was enthusiastic but didn’t include any hints as to what we should bring. Having finally decided on an apricot and almond tart as our contribution, we set off on  Sunday afternoon to their water mill. The quiet lane down to the mill was packed with parked cars when we arrived and we joined the queue of people waiting to exchange kisses with our hosts at the front door.

The living room had been transformed into a mini concert hall and around forty people were taking their seats ready for the entertainment.

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Our friends’ daughter is a musician and the performers were singer-songwriters that she had worked with in various workshops around the country. We had two and a half wonderful hours in the company of Nathalie Lillo accompanied by Erwann Hervé, and Francis Debrieuve.

Nathalie Lillo and Francis Debrieuve

Nathalie Lillo and Francis Debrieuve

The original songs with their poetic lyrics really made you appreciate the beauty of the French language, even if we couldn’t understand them all! Some were cheeky and amusing, others poignant and intimate, others again dealing with serious subjects like the Holocaust and the battle waged against the Chilean government by the mothers and wives of the Disappeared during the Pinochet regime.

We were relieved to find that we had made the right call on the food front, as everyone had brought tarts, clafoutis, cakes and biscuits for the post-concert nibbles, which were served up with home-made cider, wine and herbal teas.

After the entertainment there was a few minutes of standing on the edge of things before Marie-Claude rushed over and started introducing us to others. We met our immediate neighbour from the farm across the river, a  bubbly, diminutive silver-haired lady, who immediately invited us to drop by, and a lovely couple of ex-teachers turned organic farmers, who had come about an hour’s drive to be there, and chatted away in excellent  English. Wasn’t it great to have the chance to speak English again after all these years, they enthused. And there’s me struggling to string a sentence together in French after only a week away! Oh well, I’m going to have to work a lot harder at it.

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It’s all about the people

How do you get on with meeting new people and making friends? I’m quite a reserved person and find it quite difficult to get to know people.

Our new village has about 1200 inhabitants – not enormous but not so tiny that everyone immediately meets everyone else. It has been quite a different experience here from where we live in England. Yesterday morning as I cycled up to buy our daily baguette, twelve different people said ‘Bonjour ‘ to me – in fact, everyone I saw! Quite a contrast to the city where we live in England, where even eye contact is a no-no when you pass someone in the street. Everyone seems welcoming and interested and patient with us. Sadly, I’m not sure the same would be true for a French person visiting England. Perhaps it’s just the difference between living in the countryside rather than a city.

One day over Easter, we were all working away in the garden, in the sunshine ( visiting children and grandson lending a hand to tame the wilderness ) when an elderly gentleman walked down the driveway from where he had left his car parked up on the lane.

He introduced himself as Monsieur LeRouleux and explained that as a keen local historian he was writing a book about the history of the village and wondered if he could ask us some questions about the mill. He’d originally approached the previous owner without much success , but had found out from Monsieur Lebrun, the local roofer who had helped us out when we first moved in, that an English couple had moved in. He showed us the draft of his book in a bulging ring binder and we talked about what we knew about the history of the place.

Colin climbed down to the water wheel under the house to take some photos for him and I photocopied some old post cards of the place that I had bought in on-line auctions. After about an hour of chatting, he waved goodbye and walked back to his car.

The next morning, as we were eating breakfast, we heard the crunching of tyres on the gravel outside and saw Monsieur LeRouleux climbing out of his car. He had brought us prints of all the old photos he had of the mill, that we didn’t already have. How lovely of him!

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Moulin de la Roche – early 1900s

It was the day we were leaving at the end of that visit that I returned from the village with my baguette in the morning to find a strange car in the drive and the sound of voices in the living room.

(You may have gathered from the last ‘early’ visit that we are not very good at getting up early in France – I put it down to the sun rising an hour later here,  than in England)

Wondering who it was that my husband was chatting to, I parked my bike and walked into the living room to see a couple, a bit older than us, talking to Colin. They were apparently ‘nos voisins de la rivière’ our neighbours on the river, and lived in the next water mill about 3 km downstream. They had heard from Monsieur LeRouleux that the mill had changed hands and had come to introduce themselves.

We found out that Jacques and Marie – Claude were both ex teachers, now retired, and that they had renovated their mill over the last 35 years from a derelict shell. We chatted about our plans, the fact that Anne Marie had spent some time in Exeter as a student (not that far from where we live in the UK), the possibility of getting  green electricity from our waterwheel and all sorts of other things. They left us with their address and phone numbers in case we needed anything. We had a laugh about how the whole village now seemed to know all about us, but it was lovely to think that they had taken the trouble to drop by and introduce themselves.

Last weekend we took a break from the bathroom renovation and decided to go for a cycle ride out along the local lanes.

Countryside around Auvers le Hamon

Countryside around Auvers le Hamon

A couple of kilometres down the road we saw the name of Jacques and Marie-Claude’s mill at the end of a side lane and decided to cycle down and have a quick look.  We didn’t want to disturb them on a Sunday so just walked quietly down the lane to the beautiful old stone-built watermill in its idyllic setting in a hidden valley, miles from anywhere. But Marie – Claude saw us and as soon as she realised who we were, she called Jacques and they excitedly invited us in and gave us a guided tour of their lovely home, their garden, their animals (black sheep, chickens, ducks) and the gite, holiday cottage that they have created in an old sheep barn.

They invited us to share their lunch, (Just à la bonne franquette, a simple potluck lunch Marie-Claude emphasised, and we spent a wonderful few hours over a meal of fresh garden produce, local cheeses and a lovely clafoutis with Mirabelle plums from the garden, discussing renovations, family and everything from wildlife to opera.  We left with a bag load of courgettes, basil and chard from their garden, and promises of getting together again as soon as they and we each got back from our impending trips. (Marie – Claude and Colin are planning to give each other conversational language lessons).  So, not much cycling done, but we got home feeling we had made some wonderful new friends and even happier in our new location.

Plans for the bathroom were put on pause again this Sunday, as whilst in full plumbing swing, a text message from my mate Marianne reminded us that there was a big vide grenier in a lovely nearby medieval village and that she and her hubby were planning to go along and have lunch there if we had nothing else on?

Vide grenier/Troc/Bric à brac /brocante are all names used for a community car boot sale where the streets are closed and stall holders and visitors gather together to buy and sell all kinds of tat and the occasional rare find.

Lunch outside the 11th century church at Asnières sur Vègre.

Lunch outside the 11th century church at Asnières sur Vègre.

There is always food on sale (invariably sausage and chips in these parts), but it is done in typical French style with a set menu of aperitif, starter, main course, cheese and dessert for about 10€.

We promised ourselves a quick trip out to meet for lunch and then back to work, but sitting in the sun outside the 11th Century village church in Asnières sur Vègre we were joined by and introduced to a stream of people who knew Mireille and we spent a good three hours listening to tales of the war in Tchad, how François Fillon, the disgraced ex French prime minister who lives locally is now reduced to driving from his chateau in his 2CV to buy his own bread from the bakery each morning to being quizzed as to whether we thought the Royal family had ordered the élimination of Princess Di (a topic which still seems to fascinate the French).

Vide Grenier - Asnières sur Vègre

Vide Grenier – Asnières sur Vègre

Needless to say no plumbing was done when we got home. But who cares?

What sort of experiences have you had regarding settling in to a new area and making friends? I’d love to hear about them.

Back to the building site

Given that it’s nearly five months since I last did an update on our renovation progress,  you might be wondering what we’ve been up to in all this time? Although it’s been a long time since my post in March, we’ve actually only spent 3 weeks in France between then and our current visit. So what did we do on the mill in that time? Let me give you a quick update.

First, we tackled the dangerous and totally useless fireplace. After taking professional advice on the state of the fireplace and chimney that we had inherited, Colin started taking the existing fireplace and chimney apart

attacking the old chimney

Investigating the old chimney

Dismantling the old chimney

Dismantling the old chimney ready for the new log burner

and we had a new wood-burner installed.  We now need to refinish the living room wall. (But that is not a priority for the moment)

Flushed with pride and enthusiasm back in October, after our somewhat traumatic house purchase, as we moved all our stuff into the mill we spent nearly 2 hours at the local insurance office, setting up our household insurance. Enter it on the computer (Computer says ‘no’. Consult colleague on how to get around the constraints of the software. Print everything out in triplicate, sign all copies and file in numerous paper files)

‘Un vieux moulin, bien entendu vous avez des volets ?’ With an old mill, you have shutters of course?

Err, actually we don’t.

Sorry, we can’t insure you for theft then. Everything else is OK; fire, flood, third party liability – Just get shutters installed on your downstairs windows and come back – we’ll set up the theft insurance.

I’m not terribly convinced of the return on investment here – eye-watering sums of euros spent on installing shutters to make the fabric of the building more secure (and therefore insurable) against the actual risk of loss and the value of the contents within! But they will look good and provide some energy efficiencies, keeping the heat in during the winter and keeping the house cool in the summer. Pity we couldn’t have been tax resident in France when they went in – we could have got some significant tax credits for the energy saving aspect.

Colin and I spent a full week in May giving sixteen shutters two coats of ‘lasure’  on each side, in 30 degree temperatures, to protect them against the weather, before we went back to England.

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Varnishing shutters

But I was really pleased with the character they give to the house.

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Safe and secure with our new shutters

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New shutters give a certain style.

Over Easter my son and his family came to stay and it’s fair to say that nothing got done on the house as the weather was gorgeous with temperatures over 30 on some days. We worked on our tans by planting scores of rural hedging trees for wildlife habitat and to consolidate our border along the roadside, currently marked by a row of elegant mature acacia trees. I was delighted with these acacias when we first viewed the house in the spring (when they were covered in blossom) but not so enamoured of them when I discovered they are very invasive, with an annoying habit of sending runners out underground and popping up all over the garden. They’ve got wicked thorns on them too, as we painfully found out.

And apart from stripping, scrubbing and whitewashing another bedroom in readiness for family and friends who were due to visit that’s about all we managed to do this spring. Oh, and some running repairs on the vanne, sluice gate mechanism that controls the flow of water under the mill – ably assisted by one of our friends who were staying for a few days R&R.

repairs to the sluice gate mechanism

Running repairs to the winding mechanism for the sluice gate controlling the flow of water onto the mill wheel.

So that about brings us up to our arrival this summer. We had a fortnight’s holiday booked off anyway, before our decision to move over permanently so we decided to crack on (finally) with the bathroom renovation that had been put on hold – we couldn’t inflict the very basic sanitary arrangements that the remodel would involve on visitors, now, could we? Not that they were much to start with, but at least there was a shower of sorts and running water upstairs.

Here’s a little teaser of where we started – more to follow!

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Old bathroom stripped out and ready to go

Thank you so much to all of you who have posted messages of congratulations and support on the blog and facebook regarding our move to France. We’ll miss everyone in the UK but are close enough that we can pop back regularly for short breaks. And of course we’re always happy when friends and family want to come and visit…but you might want to wait until the bathroom is finished!

Plan A plan B

The best laid plans…

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I’ve decided that renovating an old property is an organic process.  You can plan, work out your Gantt charts, costings, source materials and expertise to your heart’s content  – you think you are in control and then the building just says ”Nah!, You don’t wanna be doing it like that”

This last trip to France was another case of “ The best laid schemes of mice and men….”  We had decided over Christmas, that we really had to do something about Monsieur’s pride and joy; his fireplace.  When we took away the natty plasterboard covering to inspect the chimney it looked a bit like someone had dunked bricks in mortar and thrown them at the wall in the hope that they would stick. The chimney itself was constructed from preformed hollow clay blocks which were designed to interlock to form a smoke-proof duct to the sky.  Now,  we may not be  native French-speakers  (whilst the previous owner obviously was – and a self-proclaimed master builder, to boot) but if the manufacturers of your chimney bricks had helpfully embossed the word fumée (smoke) with a large arrow on each brick, wouldn’t you have installed your chimney with the arrows pointing up? Colin and I decided that we would have done. Monsieur hadn’t.

Condemned chimney

Yes, that IS half a paving slab that he’d stuck in to hide a hole that had been cut in the wrong place!

We’d arranged for a woodburner installer  to come and give us a second opinion, in case there was anything we could salvage from the mess but his verdict was ‘Knock it out and start again’. Having anticipated this, we had taken the precaution of bringing across a 7 metre-high scaffolding tower. Colin spent best part of an afternoon, working out how to put it together on sensible, level land in front of the house, then dismantling it to carry each piece through the house to the wooden ‘balcony’ at the back, and reconstructing his Mecano-for-grown-ups  model  on a bodged wood platform that serves as our lunchtime terrace and the kingfisher’s morning diving platform.

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Mecano for big boys – a third completed

Better still, Colin’s son was flying in, to come and spend a few days and help us to knock out the chimney flue from hell, ready for our nice new log burner.

Unfortunately, although the scaffolding tower would be absolutely fine for doing the guttering, the thickness of the old stone walls meant that the flue exited through the slates somewhat further up the roof than anticipated and we still couldn’t reach the top without a roof ladder. No time to source one of those during this visit. It would have to come back out with us next time.

On to Plan B. Not wanting to disappoint our strapping lad from England (who just happened to have spent most of his holidays from uni, working for a demolition firm – the opportunity was too good to waste) we decided to go back to the renovation of our bathroom.

A serendipitous find on Ebay had meant that, with a 5 minute diversion on our way to Portsmouth, we had been able to pick up a lovely contemporary freestanding bath, complete with floor -standing tap for £100. All we had to do was find a way to route the waste and water pipes from one side of the bathroom to the other. Colin carefully removed a few floor tiles to discover that our upstairs bathroom has a 4” thick concrete floor. Great. (not!) We didn’t fancy randomly drilling up the bathroom floor as we didn’t know where the joists were underneath.  An added challenge was that all the plumbing was concealed either under the floor or behind the dry-lined cavity wall and we weren’t very sure exactly where the pipes ran.

After a bit of pondering, we decided that it would be a good idea to approach the plumbing from below. Judging from the depth of the floor in the stair well, there had to be a good-sized void between the downstairs bathroom ceiling, directly below, and the underside of the concrete floor.

In the downstairs bathroom a number of attempts to remove parts of the plasterboard ceiling failed as the dry-lined cavity walls had been fitted after the ceiling and were effectively holding it in place.

OK, so we’ll need to take out some of the plasterboard wall. This wasn’t a disaster, as there was damp in that corner and the plasterboard was mouldy and would need replacing eventually anyway. To remove the wall we had to take out the bath (you can see how this is going, can’t you?)

Removing the bath

Ripping out the plasterboard revealed tons of soggy Rockwool insulation, which was black with mould. No face masks and as it was Sunday, nowhere open to go and buy some (Can you imagine it – DIY stores closed on a Sunday! How do they make any money?)

I’d brought some old sheets from home to use as dust sheets – the fitted kind, with elastic round the corners. A pair of scissors and voilà!

impromptu facemasks!

impromptu face-masks!

 

By the end of the day, the job had morphed somewhat.

Plan A: Remove chimney flue and fireplace

Plan B: Plumb in bath in upstairs bathroom

Final result: Wall, ceiling and bath ripped out of downstairs bathroom.

Downstairs bathroom

On the plus side we found that

  • the waste pipes didn’t run where we thought they did and are actually easier to connect to than anticipated
  • the water pipes actually run across the floor, not round the room as we’d supposed (good job we hadn’t drilled through that concrete then!)
  • the damp in the downstairs bathroom was being caused by a leaking shower waste from  the upstairs bathroom running down inside the cavity and puddling on the ground floor, not rising damp. (much cheaper to fix)

On a not-so-positive note, we also discovered that the boxed in ceiling beams everywhere in the house actually hide steel girders, not the beautiful oak beams we were hoping to bring back to their former glory. Well, at least it cuts down on the worry about wood-worm! 🙂

So, we still have our condemned fireplace and now have not one, but two wrecked bathrooms. Is it just us? Has anyone else had similar experiences?

Oh well. Something to look forward to on our next visit!

OMG, we have heat!

Back in the spring of 2016, when we first saw our new house advertised, we were fascinated by the description of an ancient water mill with a working  wheel  that the present owner had adapted to run the central heating.

When we first visited the mill in April the owner was ‘asleep in bed’ and it was his teenage son who accompanied the agent, Gérard, as he showed us round the property. We loved the glass panel in the living room floor which looked down onto the water wheel under the house and as the son demonstrated how to use the big 19th century iron handle in the living room which was the mechanism for opening the large wooden vanne or sluice gate that let the water flow from the mill pond down onto the wheel, we were hooked.

So it was disappointing  (but obviously not a deal-breaker) when Gérard took us through to the garage and showed us the gearing that transformed the rotations of the waterwheel into a speed that was sufficient to generate electricity to power an electric central heating boiler, but added that the turbine was broken so this didn’t work at the moment.  He pointed to a metal box on the garage wall, indicating that this was the afore-mentioned non-functioning  piece of kit.

When we visited again in June to confirm our decision that this was THE ONE, Monsieur was available to confirm that his turbine had broken and that it would cost about 1000 euros to replace.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t know much about water wheels, mechanics or electrics. So when someone points to a metal box on the wall and says it doesn’t work, I think ‘But it would be good to get it working because that would mean free central heating’.

Once we had signed the deeds and Moulin de la Roche was ours we spent a lot of time trawling through YouTube videos and websites, educating ourselves on how we could generate electricity from out water wheel to run the central heating. There are 11 enormous hot water radiators in the house, but how to heat the water to run them was still a mystery.

We spent the Christmas and New Year holidays in France, fired with the adventurous spirit shared by all those living the romantic dream of bringing an old property back to life, putting up with physical discomfort, coping with a few free-standing electric radiators and snuggling under a duvet on the sofa in the evening during a particularly cold winter, with temperatures falling to -10C in our part of France.

During this visit we had examined the set up in the garage in more detail. The metal box on the wall turned out not to be a turbine or a generator of any sort but the actual central heating boiler. The broken generator attached to the water wheel had obviously been disposed of and on closer inspection it became apparent that the boiler was actually connected to mains electricity. The joy of thinking we might actually be able to have heating soon disappeared as Colin switched on the boiler and the power to the entire house blew. Gérard had been right all along. The boiler didn’t work. We wouldn’t have heating until we could sort out a new boiler and a generator to power it from the water wheel.

Wind forward to February and a conversation with a lovely lady called Lydia at EDF France. While trying to sort out why the electricity supply had not been transferred to our name I discovered that our debt-ridden predecessors had reduced the supply limit to cut the standing charge on their electric bills. Lydia informed me that we needed a higher power limit to cover any central heating that we might have. Light bulb moment! (Excuse the pun)Why hadn’t I thought of that?

When Bernard, the electrician from Enedis, the French energy network company, arrived early on the morning of our first day back in France to upgrade our meter to the higher limit, he chatted away about the dreadful weather they had had in the west of France during the last couple of weeks and how he had had to spend all the previous weekend reconnecting some of the 200,000 households that had lost their power. I expressed sympathy but he rubbed his hands together and said with a grin ‘ C’est du boulot’, it’s all work.

He confirmed that the new tariff would be enough to run electric central heating and checked that the balance was correct across the three phase supply then drove off, wishing us a toasty warm home.

Moment of truth. Colin powered up the boiler. The electricity stayed on. I ran round like an idiot, feeling the radiators. Was that a glimmer of warmth? Was it just my imagination? Hang on. There! Yes!! It was definitely warmer!!! Apart from an initial hiccup when we couldn’t work out why the upstairs radiators weren’t getting hot (then found a separate feed to switch on) the house got steadily warmer. Twenty four hours later the house was toasty warm and I was a happy bunny. I’m not sure I will be when the electric bills start coming in, but we are now comfy in our lovely home over the winter and have a cushion to find the perfect green solution to our power needs.

Fighting the system

If you have ever lived in France or know anyone that does, you will probably have heard many complaints of how the French just loooove their bureaucracy. I have friends, both French and English who constantly moan about the poor customer service and ‘jobs-worth’ attitude of most French officials.  Everything has to be done in triplicate at least, numerous forms for everything and everything printed and filed on paper, even when done on the computer!  So my heart sank when I looked at my EDF electricity account online. Over three months after we moved into the mill and there was still no record of our electricity contract. I was going to have to deal with the bureaucracy.

As part of their service our estate agent had advertised that they would take care of all the utility companies during the move. Although perfectly happy to do it myself, I thought ‘Why not if they are offering?’ Big Mistake.  In November I received an estimated electricity bill for the old house. We were in France that weekend so I rang up EDF and pointed out that we had moved. The lady was very helpful and promised to close the account and send a facture de résiliation, final account. This duly arrived, and as I had given her our new address and first meter reading for the mill, I had assumed that all was well. Big Mistake Number 2.

Ok. Another phone call to EDF – except that now I was back in England and they only give a Freephone contact number, which you can’t ring from England. A long hunt through their website proved fruitless so a quick Google brought up quite a few forum posts from Brits who had been having the same problem. Armed with a direct line number that someone had kindly provided, I rang up and after about 20 minutes of lift music, Lydia answered.

I explained the problem and my surprise that our new account had not been created when I called last time. Lydia looked at her computer records and said ‘Ah yes, I can see why this hasn’t happened. The previous owner has not notified us that he was leaving, so we couldn’t set you up as the new account holder.’ Not only had he not told them he was long gone, but ‘Oh Mon Dieu! He owes us rather a lot of money!’ Was I surprised?

Lydia decided that it would be a good idea to have a good, bill-paying customer set up on the account instead, so she asked if I was OK for half an hour or so, as it would take a while to go through the process. Did I have a choice?

I spent the next 30 minutes listening to Lydia’s one sided conversation with her computer and supplying the occasional piece of information. ‘ And now I click here…and then I need to …oh, why isn’t that working?’ After consulting her colleague we all discovered that the reason it wasn’t working was because a Disconnection Order had been placed on the property. Great! We were due to go out to France in in a few days’ time, it was February and they were experiencing sub-zero temperatures and there would be no electricity.

Lydia was worried for us. It took her two phone calls and a lot more lift music before she returned, relieved. ‘ I have managed to cancel the disconnection so now we can set up your account.’

Another 30 minutes and I was the proud owner of a new EDF contract. Furthermore I had discovered that the existing supply to the mill was a 20Amp, 12KVA three phase supply. From her many questions about the floor area, number of rooms, usage, white goods and number of residents, Lydia had calculated that we actually needed a 30Amp, 18KVA supply. (This would prove to be very valuable information). Lydia had arranged for an Enedis (The French electricity network company) electrician to come out the day we arrived, to upgrade the meter.

France is a little different from most countries in that you don’t just use the electricity you need and pay the bill accordingly. Each household has a  puissance or level of supply limit, set on its meter. If you draw more than your limit the electric cuts out. Having owned a house in France for 13 years we were well aware that this was the case. In the summer we were fine but in the winter if we had all the electric radiators on, plus the oven and then tried to boil the kettle the power cut out. We had never tried to raise our puissance in our old holiday home, as it kept costs down. The higher your puissance, the higher the monthly standing charge. Now that we had the mill and were intending to spend a lot more time there, we decided it would be a good idea to get it right – especially as once set, you can’t change it for another 12 months.

As we finished the call, I thanked Lydia whole-heartedly for her help and above-and-beyond service. I was just so relieved that we would have power when we arrived! This was obviously something that Lydia was not used to hearing and she was audibly moved.

Looking back on all our dealings with ‘the system’ over the last few months I realised that everyone I have dealt with has put themselves out to help and has been absolutely lovely – Have I just been lucky and found the single kind person in each organisation, or is it just the bureaucratic process that they have to adhere to that makes the French system so difficult sometimes?

Natural diversions

I’d just parked up my push-bike after riding up to the village to collect fresh bread for breakfast. (‘up’ being the operative word as it’s  10 minutes uphill all the way – but the return journey is fun. I’ve decided that French bread is a super food as I’ve got to be burning off as many calories fetching it as I consume in a day!)

I could hear Colin calling “Quick, come here. Quick!  QUICK!” Wondering what on earth the urgency was all about, I hurried to where he was standing at the living room French windows.  Just below the window a water vole was busily swimming along a little way off the river bank. As we watched he (she?) repeatedly swam along to a certain spot on the bank, climbed up the steep slope into our back garden, ran to the thickest clumps of lush grass and tore out great bunches of the stuff, with the calm efficiency of a Friesian cow. Then he dragged his harvest back down the bank to the water, towed it along behind him to his burrow a metre or so down the bank (about 15 feet from our window!!), and disappeared.

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Our resident water vole at Moulin de la Roche

Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows based his character Ratty on the water vole, but they really are nothing like rats. With his round furry ears and snub nose this little critter looked more like a floating teddy bear than nasty vermin.

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image courtesy of Peter Trimming, Flickr

Since Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, the shy water vole has become the most endangered mammal in the British Isles. Apparently his European cousin is faring a little better. I’m an absolute sucker for wild animals. It doesn’t matter how common they are,or how many times I have seen them before – there’s just a real magic about being close  and watching them go about their daily lives. Or is it just me that can just forget everything I am meant to be doing when a robin comes up close in the garden?

This was our second day back in France and this wasn’t the first time that the long to-do list of jobs to transform this old water mill into the home of our dreams had been put off while we observed the wonderful natural entertainment,  just outside our window. Yesterday it had been me who had dragged Colin down from the bathroom, where he had been attempting to have a shave, to watch a Little Grebe fishing in the river right outside. I had glanced out of the window at what looked like a small brown bird sitting in a beige rubber ring on the water.

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Little grebe or dabchick in our mill stream

As I watched she suddenly dived and from my vantage point, looking straight down into the river where it flowed out from the water wheel under the house, I could see her ‘flying’ underwater, darting back and forth at lightning speed as she chased small fish – just like those natural history films you see of penguins whizzing around in the sea. Colin and I stood and watched her for ages as she dived, came back up with a wriggling silver fish, tossed it back down her throat and then set off again. She was soon joined by the male, a bigger and more elegant bird, whose technique was more spectacular as he leapt out of the water before piercing the surface in pursuit of his meal. The pair of them fished for hours and must have eaten more than twice their body weight each before paddling away. I don’t hold out much hope for Colin’s plans of raising baby brown trout in the mill stream with that pair around!

T’is the season to be…FREEZING!

Our Christmas New Year break at the mill was never going to be a lazy one, was it? We had originally intended to set to and rip the upstairs bathroom out. I had even brought over the new floor tiles that I wanted to put down. We had managed to strip the heavily embossed blue vinyl dolphins leaping over their pink lily-pads from the walls on a previous flying weekend visit and now we had a blank canvas to get started on. Except…

During the last couple of weeks in England we had had a chance to reflect on the mixed reactions of people who had visited and had come to the conclusion that if friends were ever going to feel comfortable dropping round for coffee or apéros, let alone dinner, we would need to do something about the disgusting state of the open-plan living area.

Years of nicotine and grease had transformed the once white walls and ceiling to a mucky, cobweb-coated brown textured finish.

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Kitchen – before

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Living room wall – before

I’d already spent a full day scrubbing every surface in the kitchen clean, and although I now knew it was not actually going to poison anyone, it certainly didn’t inspire a sense of confidence in anyone being offered tasty delicacies prepared in it. There was nothing for it, but to whitewash the whole living area. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But the paint wouldn’t take, the walls were that greasy and dirty, so the pair of us spent a good 3 days scrubbing down every square metre of wall and ceiling (approximately 140 m2 in all) . As we are now the rooky owners of a fosse septique, septic tank, in this rural property, we had to Google what we could use for this job as we were worried that strong cleaning agents might have a detrimental effect on our good bacteria. (Sounds like a yoghurt advert!) It took several passes to first start dissolving the yukky layer, then going over it again and again and finally rinsing it all down with clean water.  Colin definitely drew the short straw as he volunteered to attack the ceiling with a mop. After 3 days he had built up an impressive set of upper arm and shoulder muscles – just in time to start the first of several coats of white emulsion, wielding the roller on its long pole, back and forth over his head.

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Last rinse of the ceiling

By the end of the week, we had managed one coat on the walls (my job, but I had all the cutting in to do round the windows, doors and skirting boards which took ages – my excuse and I’m sticking to it!) and 2 coats on the ceiling. We still need to go over it a few more times but at least we now know “it’s our dirt”, as my Nan used to say. And when Marianne and Jean-Paul dropped round unexpectedly for a coffee on New Year’s Day, they were suitably impressed.

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The kitchen after its spruce-up. Not to our taste, but clean at least!

Monsieur Monnet, the window guy, also dropped in to give us his quote for the shutters and explain all the figures and details of what he was proposing. Gulp! Does it really cost that much to effectively board up all your windows and doors when you go out? Having already done a bit of research into how much it would cost to build and install them ourselves, we know that it was a reasonable quote, and as he was the only one of the companies that we had asked, who had actually bothered to come back with an estimate (I guess they didn’t fancy hanging over the river to put them up!) and he seems like a really nice guy, we will probably end up using him.

But it wasn’t all decorating over the festive period. We spent one particularly lovely evening with two lots of neighbours from our old village, who had invited us round for drinks when they heard we were back in France. One of the couples, now in their 70’s have lived in the area all their lives and regaled us with stories of our mill’s previous owners, who had apparently been part of a large and notorious family. Several of the brothers had left to make their fortune, installing telegraph lines in Guyana and had returned to the Sarthe where they proceeded to buy up farm after farm, often gazumping prospective buyers of more modest means, offering more than twice the market value to get what they wanted. Whether Monsieur had been one of these adventurous entrepreneurs was not clear, but the family certainly hadn’t made themselves popular and the locals watched with mixed feelings as one by one they went bust.

This was one of the coldest Christmas’ in the area for years, with temperatures dropping to -10, according to the local radio station. It was FREEZING! For the first two days of our stay we had every radiator going full whack and even risked the open fire in the evenings, cuddled up under a duvet on the settee to see in 2017, on New Year’s Eve. Despite having had the chimney swept as soon as we moved in, we were very dubious about the state of the fireplace, which had been another of Monsieur’s projects. Having decided to remove the plaster board panelling around the flue for a closer inspection our fears were confirmed – a bodged, half-finished job. So the bathroom has been shunted back on the schedule again to allow us to concentrate on a new woodburner and fixing the central heating. Hey ho! I guess we’ll just have to let the house dictate the renovation.

We hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and New Year. Did you do anything a bit out of the ordinary? Do leave a comment and let me know what you got up to!

Moulin de la Roche, le bief

If at first…

For some people it’s crosswords, for others it’s Sudoku. Apparently problem solving keeps the old grey matter in tip top condition and keeps you young. I can always do with some of that, but our latest brain-teaser was a bit more involved.

One large tree trunk + unusually low river levels = severely damaged water wheel

This was the situation we faced when the river authority decided to drain the river to carry out dredging work. Back in England, recent winters have seen severe flooding in various parts of the country due to poor maintenance of the waterways and the same has been happening in the department of the Sarthe. Every river in the area looked like someone had pulled out the plug this autumn. How do you empty an entire river system? What happens to all the fish? While these were fascinating questions to contemplate, the one most concerning us was how to remove a very large tree trunk that had floated down river and got itself trapped in our bief. The bief (or ‘leat’ as it is called in our area of England) is the mill pond in front of the mill, from which the water flows down onto the water wheel, under the house. The entrance to the wheel is protected from floating debris by a grill which can be raised and lowered across the top half of the tunnel, according to the level of the water, but which only ever covers half of the aperture. In days gone by, a regular chore for a young mill-worker would be to climb down and remove all the branches and other rubbish that had accumulated on the grill, to ensure that nothing could jam the wheel or block the flow of water. I’m not sure whether it was due to a lack of zealous housekeeping on the part of Monsieur, the former owner of the mill, but the fact remained that this whacking great lump of tree which had been floating in the leat at a nice safe height, prevented from washing down onto the water wheel by the metal grill, was now jammed in the silt of the drained mill stream. No danger at the moment , but what would happen as the river authority started to raise the river levels and the log started to float? Over the fortnight during which the river would gradually be returned to full-flow, it would be floating at a height where it could easily be washed under the grill and onto the wheel.

With only a couple of days until we had to return to the UK, we had to find a way to get this brute out.

Solution #1: Kitted out in fisherman’s chest waders, Colin walks down the bank into the leat.  Less than a metre in, he is above knee height in mud and can’t move…Lesson 1: We need to ‘catch’ the tree from solid ground.

Solution #2: Apart from a small steep bank at one end, the leat has a stone wall round it and the surrounding terrace is about 12 feet above the water. We try a lasso to catch one end of the trunk, so that we can pull it out. Several centimetres of dead leaves floating on the water mean that the rope just lies on top and we can’t manoeuvre it. Lesson 2: More control needed.

Solution #3: Thinking stray dogs here… a long pole with the noose on the end. Monsieur had left a telescopic aluminium pole sticking through the roof for the TV aerial, which we had removed to avoid being flooded every time it rained. A double length of rope is pulled through the pole to form a noose which can be pulled tight around the trunk. Rope still floats on top of dead leaves. Lesson 3: weight needed to submerge loop under tree.

Solution #4: large brass plumbing thingummy attached to noose to enable it to sink under the end of the tree trunk. Success! Tree trunk snared.

Now all we need to do is lift it out. This baby weighs about half a ton. Him and me, pulling it vertically 12 feet up and over the leat wall? No way! (Our friend Jean-Paul had cheerily estimated 4 large men, several grappling hooks and an electric winch when we had showed him the problem the previous day)

Solution #5: Pull the pole and rope around the leat, towing the trunk across to the other side, where we can attach the rope to the tow-bar on the van and pull the bloody thing out.  Rope attached, Colin gently inches the van forward, while I guide the rope over a log on the top of the wall to stop it fraying on the stone. Bam! The 1500kg strength rope snaps at the tow-bar. Aluminium pole and rope disappear into the water. Lesson 4: Don’t believe rope manufacturer’s claims.

Now we need to retrieve the pole and rope from the boggy depths of the leat.

Solution # 6: One ball of garden twine tied to a hoe, thrown out and dragged across the bottom of the leat dozens of times. Pole and rope are eventually snagged and pulled to bank. Amazingly, they are still attached to the tree. Lesson 5: if at first you don’t succeed…

Now we need to find a different way of getting the b****r out of the leat.

Solution # 7: Drag the pole/rope/ tree trunk back round to the other side of the leat and onto the steep bank that Colin had originally tried to reach the tree from. Staying on dry ground this time, we used all our combined O level physics knowledge, together with log rollers, a plywood sheet slide and the end of the rope tied to a large branch, (retrieved the previous day from the river), as a lever to drag the sodden, 1000 ton lump of wood up the muddy bank and into the garden, out of harm’s way.

Lesson 6: Don’t mess with the Coles’s. YOU’LL NEVER BEAT US!!!

PS The photo here was taken when we first moved in, back in October. The water level in the leat is currently about 2.5 metres lower and the kayak which Monsieur left, when he moved out, disappeared as soon as we went back to England.