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.

water-vole-peter-trimming-flickr

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.

La vie en rose

La vie en rose

Usually I consider it to be a really good thing to be able to see things from another person’s point of view. It would really save an awful lot of trouble in the world if we could all see things through others’ eyes. But recently I realised that it isn’t always that simple.

A few weeks ago we dashed over to the mill for a quick weekend break – partly because we couldn’t bear to wait until Christmas to come back and partly because I had arranged with a number of window companies to come round and give us quotes to build and fit wooden shutters to all the downstairs windows. This wasn’t just because I wanted to add a traditional feature to our mill that was missing –actually it doesn’t look like the building ever had them, from all the old photos of the place that we have found online. Certainly, since the beginning of the twentieth century the fact that our home was a working ‘factory’ seems to have precluded the niceties of insulation and security. No, the reason was far more mundane. We can’t get the moulin insured against burglary unless we have them. Five point frame bolts on all the downstairs double-glazed locking windows – pah! Pas de volets, pas d’assurance. No shutters, no insurance.

Our long-time friends, Marianne and Jean-Paul popped round for a coffee on the Sunday morning, to see our new ‘love nest’, as they called it. They had been absolute rocks during the traumatic move and this was the first time that they had actually seen the place. We had described the lovely location, the character and history of the building and all the ideas we had for turning it into something really special. When they arrived I was touring the house with Monsieur Monnet, the joiner who had been recommended to us by Monsieur Lebrun, the roofer/chimney sweep. He was a lovely friendly, lanky bloke, totally un-phased by the half-finished state of the house, who accompanied everything he did with an Allez hop!

”Let’s just measure this bit – allez hop!”, and “ Can I go into this bedroom? Allez hop!” and “Okay, finished. Allez hop!”

He listened intently as I described what we would like to have, but what we probably could only afford to have – pointing out the preliminary building work à prévoir ,to anticipate, before the shutters could be fitted, with all the enthusiasm of an accomplice in a great adventure.

M. Monnet joined us all for coffee and cake around the table and we spent a lovely hour or so chatting – Colin and I doing our best to follow the in depth discussion the other three were having about the relative merits of aluminium v UPVC shutters. I was bursting to give Marianne the guided tour of our lovely mill, so once M. Monnet had departed, promising to email a devis, quote, with all the various permutations of our rather vague requirements, we took our friends round every room and out round the ‘garden’, our own personal island embraced by the two arms of the river.

Marianne’s face said it all. She was desperate to find something positive to say, but all she could come up with was “C’est très spacieux”, it’s very spacious. She was obviously really concerned at what we had taken on, and not a little puzzled about what on earth we had seen in this big, grubby, half-finished barn of a place with no heating. As she sat huddled in her coat (which she had declined to remove), I momentarily saw our project through her eyes and saw an ‘older’ couple, giving up the comforts of a lovely home they had built up over more than 10 years, to move into something of a tip that would undoubtedly be the money-pit that would eat up their pensions.

Jean-Paul, on the other hand, was full of suggestions for how we could tackle the tasks that faced us and ideas for remodelling the house. He looked like he couldn’t wait to get stuck in.

“Okay”, I thought, “I’m really touched by your concern and can see that we should be sensible about this, but…”

I really don’t think we’re viewing things through rose-coloured specs – we already feel life is so much rosier here. I’m with Jean-Paul, M. Monnet and, more importantly, with Colin in this. It’s such an adventure!!

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The next chapter begins…

“So what happened next? You left us all hanging! You need to keep posting”

Last weekend we were out celebrating a family birthday, back in England, when the birthday boy surprised me with this question. It’s true, I’ve neglected my blog – Workaday life very quickly got in the way, as soon as we got back to England, as it tends to do. But after that impassioned plea I thought I’d better buckle down and write another post. I’m just chuffed to bits that anyone is reading it!

We had just 3 days at the mill before we had to come back to England and the reality of earning a crust. It almost seems like it happened to someone else now that we have been back for 3 weeks. But those few days were busy and wonderful.

Our first encounter with the friendly folk of our new village happened as we strolled around the village square on the Friday lunchtime after signing the Acte de vente. We had picked up the van full of our furniture and were killing time until we were due to meet Monsieur and Gérard at the mill to note meter readings and so on and start to move in.

Another little detail that Monsieur had reneged on was to ensure he had had the chimney swept and given us the mandatory, annual certificat  de ramonage. We’d agreed that we would see to this ourselves, and with winter approaching and the fireplace our only source of heat until we had sorted out the non-functioning central heating system, ( I know! What were we thinking of when we bought this place?), we wanted to get it done ASAP. So when we saw a van parked up in the village advertising the owner’s expertise in roofing, chimneys and chimney sweeping we hurried across and accosted said artisan as he descended the ladder from the roof he was working on. If he was surprised to be approached by two excited Anglais, asking if he could possibly come and sweep our chimney that weekend, he didn’t show it and politely talked us through all the appointments in his enormous old-school hardback paper diary that he pulled out of the van. So and so’s flashing, Madame’s leaking roof, the meeting of the local fire brigade which he definitely couldn’t miss… (We later found out he is the chairman of this august body) Finally he agreed to come round at 8am the following morning to sweep the chimney.

Monsieur Lebrun turned up as agreed, stuck his head up the chimney, sucking in a long breath between his teeth and shaking his head at the appalling state of it. Then he set to, moving in all his equipment and erecting a huge ladder up to the roof to inspect the zinc chapeau, the metal capping that should have been preventing rain from pouring down the chimney but which our mill was wearing at a very rakish angle, such that it was not providing any protection from the elements at all.

chimney repairs

This obviously could not be permitted to remain in this state, said M. Lebrun, and had we noticed any damp patches on the landing? There was a water mark near the chimney breast upstairs, which we had added to the ‘better have a look at that at some point’ list, but alerted to the somewhat quirky approach to DIY that the previous owner had exhibited in recent years, M. Lebrun proceeded  to rush up into the enormous attic to attend to the problem. (Well, two problems to be exact) Firstly, one of the two skylights in the roof had been left open, letting in rain for goodness knows how long.  A battered ladder propped against the beams by the window suggested that our predecessor had been doing some work recently, as I don’t remember it being there when we first visited the attic in April. On closer inspection we found out what he had been up to.  In an attempt to improve the TV reception to the house, nestled in the bottom of the valley, he had installed a new television aerial. The aerial was mounted on a long telescopic mast, but apparently not long enough, as Monsieur had decided to extend it by sticking it into the top of an accro prop (one of those extendable scaffolding thingies that builders use to support sagging lintels and the like). Rather than fixing this securely to the exterior masonry he had removed a large slate and poked the accro out through it, leaving another large ventilation ‘feature’ in the roof for the rain to pour through. The large pile of cigarette butts and beer bottle caps lying around on the attic floor was testimony to the time and effort that had gone into this home improvement. That he had managed neither to break his neck nor burn down the building in the process is a miracle.

The chimney swept and (almost) sparkling, M. Lebrun returned the following morning (Sunday) with a new ‘hat’ for our chimney and a replacement slate to fill the hole in the roof. As he left, wishing us Bon courage for our renovation, we felt we had made a good impression and we’re certainly looking forward to meeting more of the locals.

A couple of hours later as Colin and I sat having lunch, looking out over the river, something shiny and brightly coloured on the wooden decking of the old  gangway outside the window, caught my eye.  My first thought was M. Lebrun had a left a can of Red Bull there while he was working. Then I realised that it was a kingfisher using our balcony as a handy perch to fish from. How I love this place!

We’ve certainly not been kicking our heels on Project Moulin since we got back to England. One of the cars has been sold and replaced with a nifty white van – ideal for carting DIY materials across the Channel and assorted building debris from mill to local recycling facility. I have been pretty much glued to Pinterest, (collecting ideas for the house) and Ebay, Gumtree and Tradeit (on the look out for bargain buys!)

We’ve decided that our first project will be the upstairs bathroom. Here’s a sneaky peak at what it looked like when we first moved in – well, it still does actually,given that we’ve only had 3 days in the mill so far!

upstairs bathroom

It’s certainly the biggest bathroom I’ve ever had, but there’s very little in it. I want to put a lovely free-standing bath in there – just because I can. Colin doesn’t see the point in bath tubs but I envisage a long soak at the end of a hard day of DIY. You know…windows wide open , the sound of the crickets and birds in the acacia trees, glass of wine in hand as I soak in the hot bubbles.What do you think? Any ideas on what we should do with this blank canvas? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Coming out the other side

On Thursday morning we left early, not even sure that anyone else would be there. The meeting was being held at the office of the vendor’s notaire, about half an hour away. Waiting outside, I felt sick with nerves. Bang on 9 o’clock, Maître G, Chris and Gérard all arrived and we were shown into the waiting room of Maître B, a small serious man in large spectacles.  While we waited…and waited, Maître G explained that when Monsieur had been informed that we had pulled out of the sale he suddenly panicked and decided he would pay off the debt he owed, from the proceeds of the sale of the mill. The huissier, bailiff acting on behalf of the creditor, was whizzing down from Paris to handle the legal signing off of the debt and would arrive at 10am. The notaire’s team had worked until 10pm the night before to get all the legal documentation in order and the only thing we needed now was Monsieur.

Then there was the sound of someone arriving and being ushered quickly into another room. Chris explained that Monsieur hated the huissier with a passion and they mustn’t even see each other, let alone be in the same room or everything could go terribly wrong.

So it was not without a little trepidation that we entered Maître B’s office to find Monsieur sitting there, beaming at us affably. Everyone shook hands with everyone else and sat down. As we waited for the notaire to organise the massive pile of documents neatly into piles I looked round the room. Above filing cabinets and shelves piled high with fusty paper files every inch of the walls was covered with original oil paintings of Paris, the type you see on postcards – a collection obtained from a client who used to paint in Montmartre in Paris, apparently.

The meeting got underway, with the two notaires taking it in turns to read through each clause of the Acte de Vente and explain the implications. Every now and then one or other would leave the room to deal with the huissier who had arrived and been hidden in another room. After one such absence Maître G returned with a single sheet of paper which she asked Monsieur to sign, then left the room again with a crafty thumbs up to Colin and me as she passed. One hour in and we were still ploughing through the contract. We got to the clause about the fosse septique, septic tank, which Monsieur was supposed to have had modified to bring it up to standard. “Oui, j’ai tout fait moi-même” (Yes, I did it all myself) beamed Monsieur.

“And have you had it certified, as agreed in the presale contract?”

“No, I looked on line and it said I had a year to do it”

Sharp intake of breath around the room. Monsieur had not honoured another condition of the contract. All eyes turned to us.

Colin and I had already wagered that the fosse hadn’t been done, and quite frankly we would rather get it done ourselves than trust Monsieur’s efforts. We indicated that this would not be a deal breaker and everyone visibly relaxed again.

At last, three hours after arriving, and an interminable everyone-round –the-table-signing-every-side-of-every-document again (Maître B not having a reliable enough phone connection to even contemplate doing things on line) we got to the point of handing over the keys.

“Oh, I haven’t got the keys”, said Monsieur merrily. “They’re at the mill – it’s Ok, I’ve left it all open”

Finally, as Monsieur tottered off down the road, the rest of us stood outside the notaire’s office hugging and shaking hands. Both notaires said that in all their years in the business they had never had a case like it.

Of course everything stopped for lunch time but in the afternoon we picked up the hire van, drove it back to the mill and unloaded our furniture. As the sun slid down behind the hill, we cracked open the bubbly and wondered along the river, glasses in hand, to inspect our new domain. The next chapter begins!

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Tough decisions

I guess part of us had always been expecting this. Our previous experience of the vendor had not been exactly positive. Now, as our dream future in France settled in tatters around us, we just felt numb. Tomorrow, we were completing on the sale of our lovely house in the Sarthe – but now there wasn’t going to be a next chapter.

Maître G was so sympathetic and obviously hated having to be the bearer of this awful news, less than 36 hours before we were due to get the keys for our lovely new home. A lawyer acting for our vendor had contacted her the previous evening to say that he had just found out that the mill was about to be sold. Was she aware that the vendor had a personal debt secured on the property?

Monsieur had apparently defaulted on rent payable for land he used for his business over a number of years. Unable to pay, he had converted the debt of tens of thousands of euros into a private mortgage on the mill. Not only had Monsieur not declared this during the sale but he was disputing the debt (hence the involvement of the lawyer) and the whole matter had been  subject to a judiciary process for quite some time. If we continued with the purchase we would be taking on the debt and would in turn be involved with the French courts.

Maître G had delayed telling us until she had explored all the options. OK, so what could we do?

  1. We could go ahead with the purchase and take on Monsieur’s debts. We would not be able to dispose of the property and stood a good chance of the creditor suing us and winning.
  2. We could try and negotiate a solution whereby we rented the mill from Monsieur for as long as it took for the legal battle to be resolved – years rather than months she estimated. And in the meantime Monsieur would probably lose the mill and we’d have been paying money down the drain for nothing.

Or c) we could pull out of the purchase completely.

We couldn’t believe it. Why couldn’t the notaire just withhold the disputed sum from the proceeds of the sale and pay off the debt? “I really wish that was possible”, she said “but because this matter has already gone to judiciary process we cannot do that.”

“If we pull out of the purchase, will we pay a penalty?”

The French house purchase system is much stricter than in England. Once the compromise de vente, presale contract, is signed and the purchaser’s obligatory cooling off period has expired, either side must pay a penalty (usually 10% of the purchase price) if they pull out.

“No, the vendor has obviously broken his side of the contract by not declaring this mortgage.”

“Is there any way we can get out of the sale of La Tourelle at this point?”

“Unfortunately not. Your sale is perfect. Your purchaser has done everything he is required to do.” (including flying out from San Francisco to sign the Acte de vente tomorrow, we thought grimly.)

My mind was racing, trying to explore all the possibilities.

“If we pull out of our purchase can we claim a penalty from the vendor for breaking the contract?”

Maybe we could get the vendor to cover the cost of us pulling out of our sale?

“I can certainly explore that aspect for you, but this man is in so much mess that you would probably have to sue him for the penalty sum.”

We had no choice. Colin and I both agreed that, with heavy hearts, we would have pull out of the purchase of our beautiful mill.

Jean-Paul arrived. “Salut, ça va? Tout va bien ? , Hi, how’s things ? Everything going OK ?

La Tourelle

The following morning was quite surreal. We locked up La Tourelle for the last time, threw our bags into the car and drove to the notaire’s office, an hour away. It was the first time that we had met our buyer and he turned out to be a really nice guy. Having recently inherited several millions from his parents who had been astute/lucky enough to have bought some land in the area of California later to be known as Silicon Valley, Jack had been buying small characterful houses in several different countries around the world, and was intending to spend a couple of months in each, every year – letting them out through airbnb when he wasn’t there.

When we arrived, Chris had hinted that he had found out something from Gérard and that things were not as desperate as everyone had first thought. I really didn’t dare raise my hopes. After we had all gone through every clause in every document and signed (a much faster process this time, as Maître G had invested in the technology to do everything on an encrypted connection, signing just once on a tablet) The notaire confirmed that there had been some progress but she wouldn’t say more until she had spoken to all legal parties concerned. She would phone us later that afternoon.

As we had originally been planning to do a bit of sight-seeing on Wednesday, before completing on the mill on Thursday morning, we decided to make the most of the day. Well, we hadn’t got a home to go back to, had we? A stroll round the market in La Flèche, followed by lunch in the warm sun at a brasserie on the church square, then an afternoon walking around St Pierre sur Erve. Masochists we must be, because after a walk to the Chapelle de St Sylvain, we carried on to see le Moulin de Gô, a watermill in the process of renovation.

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It was nearly 5pm and we still hadn’t heard anything from Maître G. I tried ringing her, forgetting that the office was shut on Wednesday afternoons. So I rang Chris. He couldn’t get hold of her either but said that he was 99.9% sure that the meeting with the vendor’s notaire was still happening first thing the following morning, as planned. It had been scheduled for 9am and we weren’t surprised to hear that the reason for that was so that Monsieur would be sober enough to participate. The notaires had also planned to have a gendarme collect Monsieur and escort him to the meeting and attest to his fitness!

You can imagine the emotional state Colin and I were in that evening. We were staying with Marianne and Jean-Paul. They had kindly offered to let us stay as long as we needed. It was a lovely evening under the circumstances.

I still didn’t have a clue what we would do with the van full of furniture. The nearest self-storage facility was 40 k away in Le Mans. I’d asked our old neighbours if they knew anyone who had garage or out-house we could rent. Jean-Paul had dashed up to the chateau to see if the owner could store it for us, but Madame had already departed on her winter travels.