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.


Kitchen – before


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.


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.


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!!

attic grenier

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!


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.


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.

Moving house

Ready to go

It seemed like ages since we had come back from France in August but the time had not been wasted. Plans, bookings, lists and more lists – I AM the epitome of a list maniac. But now everything was happening with military precision. We’d caught the overnight ferry to arrive in Avoise first thing on Saturday morning. We spent the day grocery shopping and whipping the garden back under control for the new owner.

The French, it appears, are not too concerned about being able to move straight into their new home once they have vacated their old one. We had had to fight hard to get the completion dates of our sale and purchase in the same week, never mind within a couple of days. As it was, we would be having one night with no place to call home – and nowhere for all our belongings. To solve this problem we had planned to move half our stuff (boxes, garden tools and so on) to our friends’ garage down the road and keep all the furniture in our little hire van overnight,  moving it into the new house the day after. We were due to pick up the hire van on Tuesday, so Sunday and Monday were spent trekking backwards and forwards with the stuff that was going to be stored in the garage down the road.

Now, it’s only about 80m between the two houses but it’s a one-way lane so between us we worked out a brilliant system of filling the car with boxes, which Colin would drive down the road, with me following with something too big to go in the car…bikes…garden tables etc. We’d unload them into the garage and then I would belt back up the lane to start shifting the next lot out while Colin drove off down the lane, through the village, up the hill and round the fields to come back down to the house from the top of the lane.

The whole process was further complicated by the fact that we had a massive pile of firewood stacked in the cave at La Tourelle which needed to be moved to our new home. I hadn’t actually considered the fact that we might be moving when I reordered 3 years’ worth of firewood last autumn. As the minimum order from our local wood mill is 4 stères (a stère of wood being the equivalent of 1 metre high by 1 metre deep by 1 metre wide) there was a large amount of logs that had to be removed from the cave, stacked carefully in the boot of the car, driven down the road, removed from the car and stacked neatly in the garage… over and over again.

By Monday evening we were exhausted, our arms felt like they had been run over by a steam roller but half our French life was now neatly stored away down the road, to be collected once we had moved into the mill.

On Tuesday morning we were up bright and early to drive into Sablé to pick up the hire van.  Getting it into the tiny courtyard at La Tourelle was a bit hair-raising as the old stone houses along the narrow lane open straight onto the street, with no room for error. How Colin managed to reverse through the gates into our little garden without needing recourse to the additional damage insurance we’d taken out, I don’t know.

We started loading the furniture immediately.  Our friend Jean-Paul was due to arrive after lunch, having insisted that he would be round to help load after his night shift. But to be honest, everything was going really well – every square centimetre was used to pack 13 years’ worth of lovingly collected furniture.  “Last piece and we’re done”, Colin called as he went back into the house.  As I waited on the tail-lift, he came out of the kitchen door with my mobile phone in his hand. “Three missed calls”. With La Tourelle being built into the cliff, mobile coverage is dire at the house. We’re always picking up voicemails for calls that never made it through. The first message was from Maître G, our notaire.  “ Madame Coles, please could you call me as a matter of urgency. We have discovered a big problem.” A second missed call from her a few minutes later was accompanied by the same message. I tried to call her but by now it was midday and the automatic answering service helpfully informed me that the switchboard would be closed for lunch until 2pm. With a sinking heart I listened to the third voicemail – this time from Chris, the estate agent. Still stood in the back of the van I shushed Colin as I listened to Chris’ crackling voice telling me that Maitre G needed to talk to me immediately. “Don’t worry, the completion on your sale for tomorrow is all fine. But she says that she urges you to seriously consider pulling out of your purchase!”

Sitting on the floor of our empty echoing livening room with the landline phone pressed to my ear after two of the longest hours wait of our lives, I listened as the notaire explained the problem. What am I saying? It wasn’t a problem – it was a DISASTER!

Moulin de la Roche - entrance

In SAFER hands?

Only two weeks to go until we jump on that ferry and drive down to La Tourelle for the last time; two weeks before signing those magic papers and handing over the keys to our buyer and picking up the keys for our gorgeous mill. Or so we thought until yesterday.

Although the notaire had warned us that we wouldn’t get a confirmed date for the signing of the final contract, or Acte de vente, until the beginning of October, I’ve been itching to get everything sorted… book annual leave, book the ferry tickets, confirm the van hire, notify the friends who have offered to help, to see if they are still available…the list goes on. If you know me, you’ll know that I am a bit of a control freak. I like all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, or I stress like mad!

‘I think I’ll give the agent a call and see if he can tell us anything’, I told Colin over breakfast. Spookily, no more than 5 minutes later the phone rang. It was the agent for the mill. After the usual pleasantries he got round to the petit problème that had arisen. Gulp! Heart sinks to boots.

Apparently, it had come to light that the land which comes with the mill also includes a half share of the small slip road which runs from the road down to our front gate (offending bit of land shown above), the neighbouring house owning the other half. As this hadn’t been included in the presale contract, le compromise de vente, he was going to have to send us an addendum and revised plan cadastral, land registry map, to sign and return. Phew!

But wait! Because we’re talking about a rural property here, all sales have to be passed under the nose of SAFER, Société d’aménagement foncier et d’établissement rural.  This government agency has the right of first purchase on most rural property that comes onto the market in France. The mill and gardens had already gone through this TWO MONTH(!) process but as the slip road had not been included in the original documentation, the notaire would have to resubmit. We wouldn’t be able to complete until the end of November!

If we had to complete on La Tourelle mid October and then wait until the end of November to complete on the mill, it raised a whole host of problems. Where would we store all our stuff for a month? I didn’t have any more leave to take – how could I get more time off work to go back to France a second time?

Keep calm, Ella. Think!

I decided to call the agent dealing with the sale of La Tourelle. Maybe he could suggest something.

Now, these two agents are good friends and often work together, but what a difference between them! Gérard is a charming, laid-back Frenchman who is completely happy to go with the flow of the lumbering French bureaucratic machine. Chris on the other hand is an expat from Essex, who has lived and worked in France for years and never quite reconciled himself to the French attitude to business and customer service. Don’t get me wrong – I admire the French refusal to let work dominate their life, but sometimes it can be so FRUSTRATING! Especially when I’m on the receiving end!

Chris immediately put my mind at rest. Yes, SAFER had two months to make a decision and, yes, they usually took their full two month quota, but for a payment of 100€ we could access their ‘express’ service. Chris had already agreed with Gérard to split the cost between them and get things moving.

So why hadn’t Gérard told me about this ‘express’ service? (Gallic shrug) Qui sait? Who knows?

Suffice to say that Gérard emailed today to say that he’d seen the notaire and we were all set to sign on the 20th October.

Blood pressure levels gradually returning to normal.


The River Sarthe at Avoise

Weekend escape

“…And for the weekend  a  band of heavy showers, moving in from the Atlantic, which could merge to become torrential downpours in places and temperatures rather disappointing for the time of year – about 17 degrees….”  The sunny smile of the weather presenter did not quite sit right with the news she was imparting. We were due for another typically English bank holiday.

I know, I know. We had only been back in England for less than a fortnight. We weren’t due back in France until October. But the prospect of yet another dismal, wet Bank holiday was just too much to bear. During a text chat with one of our French neighbours, earlier in the day, she had been complaining about the continuing canicule, heatwave, and how the garden was suffering. That clinched it then. Jump online, book tickets and shoot off after work on Friday to arrive in the early hours of Saturday morning.

A few hours of peaceful, uninterrupted sleep later, we set off into the bright sunshine to get supplies for the weekend. Saturday is market day in Sablé sur Sarthe, our nearest town, about 10 km away. We love strolling around the stalls, bursting with every kind of fruit and vegetable, mostly grown by the stall-holder themselves. A visit to the stall of our favourite fromager, Monsieur Souchet, is compulsory.

fromagerie Souchet

Not only does he always have a wonderful selection of cheeses but he is a consummate showman, wielding his cheese knife across the top of the cheese held above his head, until the customer is completely happy with the size of the piece to be cut, then entertaining his audience with his jokey banter, giving advice on the best cheese to select for a particular dish and teasing elderly ladies about the wildly romantic meals they are going to be preparing for their toy boys. Next, some fragrant apricots and a couple of small, juicy local melons. Having served us with our apricots the young girl calls over the stall owner. Madame always asks when you will be eating your melons, then carefully selects those of the exact ripeness required from the pile in front of her, writing a number on each to indicate the order in which they should be eaten – and she’s not been wrong yet. Last stop is to pick up some young lettuce plants and pain de sucre winter salad leaves, to take home for the allotment. The grey-haired market gardener nods in recognition – we are regular visitors to his stall- and offers a few tips on how to care for his babies. I don’t think he is too confident that we can grow anything in the frozen, northern wasteland that is England!

After a leisurely lunch in the garden we strolled down to the river to spend the afternoon lazing under a willow tree, reading and watching the kingfishers and martins swooping about across the water. An incoming text message from one of Colin’s mates, bemoaning the fact that the Bristol –Swindon footie match had been abandoned due to the appalling weather, just added to our enjoyment.

Having been forced to dine out that evening (well we’d packed all our kitchenware hadn’t we?) we returned home to indulge in our favourite evening pastime of ‘gate-hanging’.  A glass of sun-filled red wine in hand we hang over the front gate, discussing the day’s happenings, planning the next project and watching the oblivious owls and bats that silently hurtle around our heads and between the ancient, terracotta-tiled roofs of the village. We can be found here most evenings, winter or summer, but tonight, with the heat radiating out from the sun-baked stone walls and a glittering array of thousands of stars sliding slowly across the sky, I felt gloriously contented and ‘at home’.

It doesn’t get much better than this – I hope we’ll be as happy in the mill as we have been here.

Medieval Festival at Parcé sur Sarthe

Medieval Festivities

All good things come to an end, they say – including our holiday. The journey back through the wormhole was not not quite as pleasant in reverse. But we have some lovely memories to help us get through the next few weeks and months. For our last weekend in Avoise we decided we had definitely had enough of packing. Everything was done apart from those things we would need for camping out in the house for a day when we came back in October; a mattress on the floor in the bedroom, the coffee maker  and two each of plates, glasses, mugs and cutlery for breakfast on the day of our move.

With the following Monday being Assumption Day, a public holiday in France, there was again a whole host of events on over the weekend. Following the success of their Fêtes Médiévales two years ago, the villagers of Parcé sur Sarthe had decided to do the same thing again this year. Having missed it in 2014 we were determined to go this year and on Saturday morning we cycled over to partake of the revelry. There was a fabulous atmosphere in the little place with everyone dressed up in medieval costume, a medieval market, dancing and music, jousting and falconry displays and a generally happy, family feel.

eagle small

Even the bag searches and bands of heavily armed gendarmes with automatic weapon clutched across their chests, patrolling the village couldn’t put a dampener on the festive feeling, but it certainly brings home how unsafe the French feel in the aftermath of recent terrorist attacks.

On Sunday the weather was again unbelievably lovely (I’ve been so disillusioned with summers in France and England in recent years that I dread peeking out through the curtains in the morning) We decided to take a picnic and explore the area surrounding our new mill. We spent a few hours strolling around local villages and ended up at the Chateau de Thévalles, which has a lovely restored watermill, just a few kilometres up river from our mill. In the spirit of research we did the guided tour.


Céline, the young student who was earning some extra money during the summer holidays by taking tourists around the mill was lovely and very informative. When I explained why I was asking so many questions she seemed genuinely interested and chatted away asking about how we had found our mill and what were our plans for renovation. Did we have millstones? Was the mechanism still there? Were we going to restore the wheel to working order? Le Moulin de Thévalles, like ours, has been rebuilt several times and the latest building dates back to the 1800’s. It was fascinating to see how over the years the power of the river had been used to grind grain for flour and animal feed, pump water up to the chateau on the hill to water the gardens, power everything from sewing machines to farm machinery and more recently, in the 1900’s, to generate electricity for the chateau.

The latter was particularly interesting to Colin who was taking numerous photos on his phone of linkages and generators. Our vendor maintains that he has been using the water wheel to generate the electricity to run the central heating.  Unfortunately, the ‘turbine ‘ is no longer working – in my more sceptical moods, I don’t believe it ever did. But it would be incredible if we could find a way to make it work!