Has the Romance Died?

This is the question I have been asking myself a lot over the last couple of days regarding our French house.

Plagued by lingering ‘Man Flu’ the journey seemed arduous, yesterday pruning the fruit trees in a raging gale finished me off by lunchtime and during the afternoon I just could not get warm despite having both woodburners blazing and today the discovery that half the garden has only about 10cm of soil over rubble are all not good.

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This is coupled with the reality of a hard Brexit making the dream of spending the warm six months of each year in retirement, possibly only that… a dream. The whole point of all this work possibly taken away.

This visit is one that I have not been relishing anyway. Despite being in horticulture, I am extremely trepidatious about ploughing up the entire garden, levelling it and sowing a lawn that I have to leave for six weeks at a time hoping it will be ready for the summer. Anyway this is underway. My French digger driver, Xavier, arrived this morning and promptly started work, unfortunately on the upper level. This is where the soil was found to be very thin. This caused much head shaking and faces of concern, not improving my mood in anyway.

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After lunch, (in a rather unFrench way, Xavier only took fifteen minutes, leaving me shamed for taking nearly and hour and sitting at the kitchen table!), I got stuck into cutting back and tidying the beds planted last year and the year before and Xavier started to look a bit more comfortable as on the lower level the soil is very deep.

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By five oclock, he had levelled the entire garden and things started to look up. Feeling better after a hot shower (better than our one at home), I went out to photograph the work and was greeted by Robert, the farmer who handed me a box of ten freshly laid hens eggs.

I chatted with him for a while (yes chatted, even I am impressed with how well my French is coming on), as the setting sun shone on St Victor across the valley.

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At this moment I realised exactly why we had bought this house…..to be part of rural France, and we are. If this is not romance, then I don’t know what is!

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All is not so bad!

To Make an Omelette

I am here in France for my last visit of this year. On this trip we are having the last major works to the house, a new Fosse Septique.

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View from our front door

We have a functioning Fosse but it is not up to modern standards as it does not take all the water from the house and knowing the Deaumonteis (the family who sold the house), it is was probably made from bin bags and string! We also do not know where it is! We know roughly the direction but this would be a problem when it needs pumping out.

This work is completion of planning and works started on one of my first visits . I dug a trench across the kitchen floor to take the kitchen water to the potential new fosse https://freloncottage.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/img_0262.jpg. This now seems years away as I sit in front of the wood burner listening to the radio (internet!) typing this blog post.

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As this is not a job I can or want to help with, I have planned something more creative. A blockwork retaining wall built last year will now be clad with cut limestone to give the impression it is an old traditional wall.

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Monday morning the digger and surprisingly one guy arrived to start work. This was unexpected as I had a received and email from the company owner on Sunday saying they would be here ‘apres midi’. Anyway, the guy worked and worked in pouring rain all day. When he left I went out to look at the work ( like I am sure our clients do!) and saw that he had missed the afore mentioned new feed from the kitchen.

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Not a problem you would think, but yes big problem! The 3000 litre tank had been set in a pit carved from solid chalk and connected up to the bathroom feed. The problem being that the kitchen feed was 200mm lower than the pipework and the entrance to the tank. This meant it needed to be lifted out and the pit dug deeper….oh dear!

After an evening worrying, I pointed out the problem to the guy as soon as he arrived at 8.00am. He looked, drew on his roll up, exclaimed ‘ c’est un gros probleme!’ and went off talking to himself. This was not just in annoyance at the extra work, as on several occasions I thought he was talking on the phone or another colleague has arrived, only to look round the corner and see him in full conversation with himself!

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I needn’t have worried as he worked like a Trojan to lift out the tank, dig further down and reconnect the pipes. By the end of the second day, he had not only reset the tank, but had dug a 25 sqm soak away and filled it with 20 tonnes of sand.

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By the end of day three, it had been signed off by SPANC (see an earlier post for an explanation), he had regraded the garden and I had an operational new fosse. Three days working from 8.00am until 6.00pm and not even an overly long lunch break.

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Back to the UK tomorrow, so I have to pack up the house for the winter as I am not here again until late February.

My longest blog post ever and not even one mention of Brexit!

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Green or Blue

This is my last visit to Frelon Cottage before our family holiday.

The main reason for this trip, apart from cleaning the house, cutting the grass and setting up the Intex swimming pool is to build the chalk piers to complete the steps built last time. That, and the fact they are all sitting in the parking area and no one can park at the house.

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My best laid plans to move these heavy blocks with a two man pincer block lifter was shot to pieces when I went to the hire shop to pick it up and in their wisdom they (Hirebase Sandy, named and shamed) decided to get in a suction flagstone lifter that was no good to me at all.  I was leaving next morning, so this left me in a panic. As it turned out an appropriated length of truck strapping and two lengths of timber did the trick and did not cost me eighty pounds to hire!

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Piers constructed , my attention turned to the shutters. Two new sets had been fitted in my absence, to the salon and kitchen windows. Up until a few days ago we had been quite happy with the front shutters painted in Farrow and Ball ‘Cooking Apple’. However, a few days before leaving I suddenly thought they all should be Lavender Blue. In this region of France houses either have pale green, maroon or blue shutters. Maroon was never considered, but blue I felt was more vibrant and summery….. Anyway this meant a lot of painting.

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As it was so hot, it was possible to get two coats on each side in one day. This was about the only benefit of the 40 degree temperatures, which limited outside work from 7.00am to about 2.00pm and that was pushing it!

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All works completed and house and garden all ready I left at 1.30pm.

Unfortunately, I am writing this on the Eurostar as the van is in a garage near Poitiers after breaking down on the motorway……..

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Shut up Bees

At 4.00pm to today normal service was resumed in south Western France.

As if someone was drawing the curtains, the sheet of cloud blocking the sun and dumping tens of millimetres of rain, suddenly drew back revealing a blue sky and a smiling sun.

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Concreting done

The timing is almost perfect as all the heavy work on the steps, walls and foundations was completed almost simultaneously. Today has been overcast, humid, warm and still. So still, the loudest sounds were the bees on the lavender and roses!

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Blockwork going up

As it dried out a bit today, I started to cut the grass. When I say grass you may think of mowing the lawn, but as anyone who owns a French property will know, grass grows very quickly here, the grass is chest high! It was mowed at Easter but is now like a vast hay meadow.

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Making hay

 

All works are on schedule but with one slight set back, the chalk blocks for the piers are too heavy for me to lift alone, probably because they are saturated. I did suspect they might be, when I was drawing them but things always seem easier in the comfort of the office. The piers will have to wait until next time.

Anyway two days to go, never long enough! So much to be done!

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Too heavy!

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Shuttering off

 

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Limestone set, spaces are for the chalk piers

Diesel and Tyres

Off to France again this week.

This trip last year I was baking in 30+ degree heat, to be prepared I bought a new sunhat and safety sunglasses. Perhaps I should have checked the forecast as a big low pressure system is centred over France and the UK making it feel more like a wet March than flaming June! I am writing this sitting in front of the woodburner in the kitchen, last year I was barbequing and wondering how I was going to sleep in this heat!

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The laser level with its tin foil hat against the rain

One thing I did check before leaving was the industrial action in France. French workers are not happy at having their retirement age changed amongst other things and are striking and blockading fuel terminals, leading to a shortage at the pumps. Not wanting to get stranded I filled several jerry cans with diesel just in case. On my journey I had no problems with diesel but did encounter French industrial action in its bluntest form.

Driving through Rouen, (the journey to Frelon Cottage is entirely motorway except when you get to Rouen. You then have to drive though the city on a dual carriage way before rejoining the motorway so it is a bottle neck anyway), the traffic came to a sudden stop.

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In the distance plumes of black smoke were rising into the air. After about one and half hours of creeping forward I turned the corner to see both sides of the road blocked with a barricade of burning tyres and people in Hi-viz vests and placards standing behind. Not a police car to be seen. Drivers had even made their own way of negotiating the road block, squeezing past across a gravel traffic island. You could feel the heat of the burning tyres through the car window it was so close! Astonishingly, the police were present, standing arms folded about 400 metres the other side. One can only assume they sympathised with the protest and were not prepared to take action!

 

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Anyway, this trip I be will building some steps, some walls and some limestone gate piers!

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Shuttering complete ready for concrete tomorrow

WWW.

Wet, warmth and wifi!

Wet. The wettest ever visit to south western France. It has rained everyday, sometimes all day, sometimes heavy showers, but every day. The view down into the valley now looks like a panorama over a large lake, but no, it is the river over all the fields and the water mill on the way up to the house is now an island in the centre of a raging torrent. Given that all my work on this visit was outside, it has not been pleasant….but you do not travel six hundred miles and not do what was planned because its wet!

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Le Moulin under water

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My view of the lake

Warmth. For the first time on a winter visit I am warm. Two functioning wood burners and a heated towel rail make the house almost tropical in the evenings!

I am not sure which log burner I like the best. Downstairs is a brand new Franco Belge Savoy Classic 7 Kilo watt stove with a glass door. Nice to see the flames but hard to light and takes time to warm up. Upstairs, is a refurbished Jotul 602. This is a very old model but a design classic. It has a solid door but burns beautifully and pumps out the heat. Both are good and but I think the Jotul edges it! It has not been in production for 86 years for no reason!

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In front of the Jotul watching iPlayer

Finally Wifi. What difference this makes. I have been quite happy in the past visiting Café des Colones for a quick use of their wifi, but to have it in the house just changes everything!…Radio, essential when on your own. Facetime, free visual contact with home and the family, email on the laptop (is this the s start of working from France?!) plus twitter and the world at your finger tips. Imagine what a difference this will make to the children….better brace myself for large bill!

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Planting up the side of the barn sans ivy

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At least someone’s happy its wet

Wind

Once again, my trip to Frelon Cottage, has corresponded with gales and high seas. Last year I was delayed fourteen hours due to a storm, this year ‘Imogen’ threatened to disrupt my journey. Perhaps its giving every low pressure system a name that makes them more media worthy; my trip to Dover was punctuated by predictions of doom due to this storm. The reality was, my ferry left early. Whether this was an earlier ferry that had been delayed or that there were so few people traveling once they were all there then the ferry left!

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Not many people on this ferry!

The media warning s should not of been of wind in the UK but of cataclysmic rain in south western France! I was woken by heavy rain on my first morning and it just got heavier and heavier and rained all day. Looking down into the valley from the house I can see the river is over the fields. Luckily my task on the first day was to install the wood burner in the kitchen. Not so lucky, is it is too wet to install the new septic tank, the main reason for this visit.

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Building my first fire

The wood burner was installed by lunchtime, I now have radiant heat upstairs and downstairs. Where do I sit in the evening? I have a comfy chair in front of both so am spoilt for choice!

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Day two, raining again! Four cubic metres of logs arriving today so first task is to clear a space in the big barn. Not only do logs in France come large quantities, they are one metre in length! Not the 20cm ready split logs from Shepreth.

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Membrane down

By lunchtime, logs in, I started on the second reason for this trip. Planting the large beds created by the new steps in November. After digging, covering the beds in weed suppressing membrane and laying out the plants, I called it a day at 5.30pm. Planting will take place tomorrow…..weather permitting!

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I’ll plant up tomorrow!

La Pelle 2

Wood burners installed we now turned our attention to the landscaping.

The house has a very old Fosse Septique and by some miracle SPANC have not condemned it, but in order to start work on the main area of the garden and save disruption later I have decided to have a new one installed in the Spring.

Fig Tree coming down

Fig Tree coming down

The first thing to be done was to remove the huge fig tree in the position of the new tank. This was probably planted in its position to take up the outflow from the existing septic tank as it has grown exponentially since we have started using the house again after it being empty for many years. Typically, the tree is laden with hundreds of near ripe figs for the first time since we have owned the house, but it still needs to go!

Fig tree down, it was then time build the new oak sleeper steps. It is the plan to use the rear entrance to our land to bring in the vehicles so they are not parked directly beside the new terrace. These new steps will link the rear entrance to the new terrace and front of the house.

Bang on time the digger arrived closely followed by 10 tonnes of limestone, so we now had a full two days to build the steps.

Steps started

Steps started

This all went to plan and the weather obliged with two sunny clear days. By 4 o’clock on Thursday, after moving tonnes and tonnes of soil and limestone rocks the steps were complete. A retaining wall to be built in the spring at the top of the slope incorporating stone steps will complete the side and allow the gradient at the rear entrance to be reduced allowing us to drive in next summer and park behind the house.

Oops!!!

Oops!!!

Leaving the house in November is the worst parting, as Christmas means no return for alt lease twelve weeks. Who knows though, perhaps with two functioning wood burners, Christmas may be spent at Frelon Cottage one year!

Looking down from the rear entrance

Looking down from the rear entrance

Phase one complete

Phase one complete

Until February

Until February

Sleepers and Stoves

This summer Frelon Cottage was the perfect summer holiday cottage. Completed internally save for the fireplaces (more on that later) and with the newly built steps and side terrace it functioned as a home from home for three and half weeks of the beautiful French summer.

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Frelon Cottage this summer

To extend the usability of the house into autumn and winter it was planned to install two wood burners on this visit. Also, as preparation for the new septic tank next spring it was planned to take down the outsized fig tree and close the trenches dug two years ago for the new electrical supply and new foul water drainage. Whilst a digger was being hired it would be rude not to carry out some more landscaping! so I had arranged for some oak sleepers to be delivered to the house from a nearby sawmill to create some more steps.

As described in a previous post the large fireplace in the kitchen was one of the things that in an unrenovated state gave me the creeps! Now capped with a rain cowl and a new concrete hearth it was better, but as with most French chimneys, it still leaked when it rained and this brought down soot into the newly decorated kitchen. The plan was to seal the chimneys top and bottom and install flue liners thus making them water tight and hornet proof! A new Franco Belge stove had been brought down on this trip and a vintage Jotul 602 (brought down last summer) were to be fitted in the large openings of the kitchen and upstairs fireplaces.

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Preparing the new stone hearth

All went to plan and with relative ease (no building regs in France!) except for a slight miscalculation on the kitchen stove needing a rear exit rather than a top one. This would not normally be a problem , but as with many things, we in England use a different size fittings to the rest of Europe and we could not buy a 125mm tee section to allow this….so next time!

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Franco Belge Stove ready to go in

So after two days of creating stone hearths, lining and capping chimneys and coupling flue sections I finally had some radiant heat in the house from the upstairs Jotul. We have used electric convector heaters on Easter visits , but convected warm air is no substitute for the warmth of a wood burner.

Jotul 602 installed

Jotul 602 installed

The weather in late October is pleasant, 18-22 degrees and at night it is still not that cold but it was so nice to light and sit in front of real crackling fire once the sun went down!

The first fire upstairs

The first fire upstairs

Madame on the new hearth

Madame on the new hearth

Nice and cosy! The fireback will be painted once the lime render is dry!

Nice and cosy! The fireback will be painted once the lime render is dry!

Heatwave

Just back from south western France after a protracted journey via Dunkirk due to industrial action at Calais to a very cool Barrington (all relative as its 22 degrees today). The last week has been very productive but has been a test of endurance in forty degree plus heat. I perhaps should rename the last post from Scorchio to Temperate as the twenty four degree temperatures would have been a welcomed cool day on this visit.

Pop up gazebo and factor 30

Pop up gazebo and factor 30

To combat the high temperatures, we started worked at 7.00 am and finished at 2.30pm but even by 10 o’clock it was unbearably hot. The task on this project was to complete the hardlandscaping started last visit. This meant laying the limestone paving on the upper terrace. Only 15sqm but south facing with no shade. So armed with factor 30, a pop up gazebo and many litres of water the work started. Only one day in and we decided not to work the next day as the temperature was to be forty five degrees. This day was spent inside with the windows, doors and (new) shutters all closed. This kept it cool inside, again relative, as it was still uncomfortably warm whilst painting. A step outside though, confirmed how cool it was inside as the paving was too hot to walk on. IMG_2151 Paving was completed on the Wednesday, leaving two further days to prepare the garden, set up the pool and finish the interior ready for our holiday in three weeks time. This was all completed at 10.00pm on Friday. All done, I am now looking forward to our holiday when I can lie in bed as long as I want and spend time enjoying the fruits of my labours…..well that’s the plan…..

A bit of shade!

A bit of shade!

The hard work done

The hard work done

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New hard landscape

New shutters

New shutters

All ready for our holiday

All ready for our holiday