French Renovation: more for your pound?

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The main square in the old village of Chatillon

A couple of summers ago I had a rather ascerbic comment from one reader, asking me why I was always complaining. Specifically, if I didn’t like France, why didn’t I move? (She was so wrong about me not liking France – but I’m a realist and nowhere is paradise!)

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The view from our bedroom window

Well, truth is, I find blogs where people tell you about their problems far more interesting than those that present me with glorious pictures at which I can only drool … information and problem-solving are the hallmarks of my favourite bloggers. Not for everyone, maybe, but works for me.

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Lots of people are beavering away here – this is an old Santiago pilgrimage house, directly opposite our own house (known as the ‘Maison du Guetteur’ or ‘Watchkeeper’s House’)

So, why do I live in France? I never had a yearning to live here, actually, unlike most Brits. My heart is in Scotland, but my husband often works 2 hours up the road from here and, strangely enough, we quite enjoy spending time together.

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Mine is not the only terraced garden at Chatillon

Also – and very importantly – for the gardener with eyes bigger than their brawn, who also loves houses and has a strong sense of history, you get far, far more for your money here than you would in Britain.

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One of the most delightful houses in the village, owned by an equally delightful Parisienne

In fact, this is a good place for less than wealthy people to build a dream. But you do have to invest a lot – and the bad news is that you are very unlikely to ever get it back.

Although French people with a lot of spare cash (specifically, those from our provincial capital, Nancy) are spending a lot of money on our village. It is quite heart-warming to live somewhere where people are treasuring and investing in their own history.

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The first place to be renovated in Chatillon, during the 1980s, the Hôtel de Sandrecourt. During the Renaissance in France ‘hôtels’ were private residences in the country where an aristocrat would stay as he moved around his domain.

When I lived in England I spent a lot of time yearning after a sixteenth or seventeenth century house with a superb garden. It wasn’t possible, due to cost. And I watched WAY too much ‘Grand Designs’ – I still do, sadly. But with a glass of wine to dull the pain.

Because, you see, the one thing that never penetrated was the pain involved in renovating a very old house – I was naive.

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Our ‘cave’, or wine cellar. Chatillon is known for having many of these. A friend tells me that when her children were small they knew the way into every ‘cave’ in Chatillon. Sometimes, when people renovate them, they have little ‘cave’ parties (mostly a Dutch past-time)


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You can’t have a sixteenth century house without a spiral staircase. This is my version …

I’ll come to my wretched fosse septique problem at the end of this post, but you can have a look at the previous post here, if you want. Suffice it to say we’re busy creating grandeur upstairs and still haven’t sorted out the basics (I don’t say we are dreamers for nothing!).

So, the point of this post? I always wanted to write more about the renovation work we were doing here, but a deep need to be private has stopped me. However – I now feel I have something to report that could assist other innocents dreaming of France.

It all started in the attic and the renovation of our spare room. You may have seen the previous post, again here. That was actually relatively easy in comparison with what we’re currently embarked on.

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The new library upstairs …

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It all looked rather lovely in August, until the bathroom ‘took over’

I am writing this at the beginning of a new week – a week in which I may actually have the new upstairs bathroom I am dreaming of. It will not just be an ‘en suite’ for us during winter and when there are personal guests and family in the house, but also a bathroom for guests to our gîte, which we are hoping to launch in 2018.

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In fact the whole of the renovation has been partially aimed at the idea of supplementing income.

So, gaily we embarked on the plan at the end of June this year. Four months later, I have a toilet upstairs! Hurrah! But it’s the most expensive toilet in the world; well, maybe not, but you get my drift. There’s nothing else in there …

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And this is it … the grand unveiling of the toilet!

So far we have changed all the pipework, including that going down into the fosse. Which can now be emptied of 10 years worth of … well.  (It was previously inaccessible under a thick slab of concrete.)

In passing we have repositioned beams in the cellar, had interesting conversations with the mayor’s deputy about changing the point at which water comes into the house (too expensive), and knocked down almost everything that existed of my previous bathroom downstairs.

There are now no walls …

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We used to have a little privacy in this house …

Althought the BV has erected cardboard walls to sort out the fact that the cats now think it’s a toilet.

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Lovely new walls

We have uncovered the old window under the watchkeeper’s window upstairs … (see later).

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This bathroom was pretty ‘normal’, this time last year …

And we have found the back of the old chimney (and installed a really horrible temporary shower!)

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Back of the chimney

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Uggh! I thought I was lucky when it first arrived in late June …


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New beams in the cellar … which some claim was actually also the village prison.

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Today’s post is, however, really about our stupidity in laying our new floor upstairs. The Bon Viveur (my dear one) managed to persuade me that I was not going for expensive tiles because I didn’t feel I ‘deserved’ them. He had a point and I caved …

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Then it transpired that we had not purchased the right glue. We are laying our tiles on a base which is a little like OSB – but better. In France it is ‘dalle de plancher agglomere hydro’ – I have no idea of the English, nor am I interested.

So down to the shop for glue that is tailor-made for this surface, without the need to lay another (expensive) membrane using the (expensive) glue. This turned out to be almost triple the price of ‘ordinary’ glue.

At the beginning of last week we appeared to be running out again – down to the shop again for more glue. If I mention that the shop is 50 mins away, then 50 mins back and I attempt to lead a normal life, you will understand the frustration.

Then we ran out of tiles in the last corner – not expensive, but we’d missed the lorry delivery for the following day, so were forced to travel 1 1/2 hours each way for one box of tiles. (They kindly gave us a discount, due to our inconvenient journey).

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These tiles are very long (they happen to come from an Italian factory just behind the place where the Bon Viveur lived when he was working in Italy – again, our sentiment always gets in the way). Laying them was a bit of a nightmare.

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The result – well, it’s kind of superb. We stood around in the kitchen on Thursday night and had a little wine toast – finally with happy smiles after a gruelling fortnight.

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A bit sad that we couldn’t afford the cost of the new fosse in the cellar (19,000€, but with a big subsidy).

But maybe it will come. Meanwhile, we are hoping to offer visitors the special experience of poo-ing in the old sixteenth century watchkeeper’s room for the village. That’s got to be worth something.

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Every year in November, France runs a ‘Telethon’ – a kind of ‘Children in Need’. I’ll leave you with pictures of a previous Telethon in Chatillon … greetings from a corner of darkest, beautiful France, where even the Brits rarely set foot …

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20 thoughts on “French Renovation: more for your pound?

  1. Steve

    Well I can tell you that renovation of old houses anywhere can be stressful having done it myself. As your wine cave looks empty I assume the stress has got to you already! In the end I am sure you will love it.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Yes Steve – I worked hard on stocking it a few years back. All gone now. But it was quite fun – I was buying different kinds of cheap table wine for comparison and the odd good bottle as well – I even kept a diary of what I preferred! Oh yes, old houses, but hard to really fall in love with a new one.

  2. rusty duck

    I’m fascinated by your renovation work, but you know we are on the same page on that one. For what it’s worth.. I was looking at google analytics the other day and 65% of readers’ time is spent on rusty duck’s renovation pages, even though it is in the main a gardening blog. And you are right. It’s not all about the beautiful bathroom at the end of it (in my dreams). There’s Instagram for that. It’s about the discomfort, compromises and unexpected challenges along the way. Real life in other words. Especially with the additional demands placed upon us by the antiquity of the property.
    Chatillon looks beautiful. Real France. It’s exactly the sort of place many of us would seek out, given the opportunity. Even with the fosse!
    Keep going. And please keep writing about it too.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Sorry to have been such a long time replying Jessica. I did read your comment on Sunday night but too much got in the way. Interesting what you say about the interest people show in the blog if it’s about renovation work. I will keep writing about it – I have this daft idea that it might help other people make decisions (there’s been no one really to help me make mine!). I opened your own bathroom post and then got dragged away by something and never went back to the computer – but I must ….

      1. Diana Studer

        It’s like armchair travelling for us readers.
        All the fun, without the noise and dust (which I remember from our MUCH smaller and simpler renovations when we moved into this not old house)

      2. Cathy Post author

        Nice to see you here, Diana. I have enjoyed reading your own blog so much. Hope you are well? Oh yes, I also like all the fun without the DUST!

  3. Chloris

    Being a Francophile myself, I always dreamed of buying a place in France and doing it up just like you are doing. Now I know it will never happen, so I can do it vicariously by reading your blog. What a beautiful place you live in..

    1. Cathy Post author

      It is lovely – and I do enjoy the stimulation I get from living in such a different environment. But sometimes it can be very, very exhausting. And the French are actually as reserved as the English with newcomers.

  4. Kris P

    If I ever suffered any delusions about renovating a really old house, I think you and Jessica of Rusty Duck have opened my eyes! As it is, I complain about the far slighter issues associated with my 66-year old house (that’s “old” by the standards of Southern California, where even 20-year old houses may be torn down or gutted upon purchase). Best wishes with the work, Cathy!

  5. Cathy

    I have so enjoyed reading this post , Cathy, and getting a peek at your wonderful project. I have so many happy memories of renovating our own house and building the extension so have some understanding of what you are up to although it was nothing like on the same scale. I suppose if I had been blogging back then I might have blogged about it – but it wouldn’t have been Rambling in the Garden as there would have been no time for that (and there was no garden to ramble in other than grass anyway!). Do keep us updated every so often

    1. Cathy Post author

      Cathy – glad you enjoyed. I really believe that one day I will only have happy memories, just like you. I do love where I live. Good people are incredibly kind, no matter where you live. And we live in a good, good place. I will endeavour to update. I might even get to find it fun (if it were not for the horrendous cost!)

      1. Cathy

        Shame about the cost, but if this is Home, then it is a long term investement and your roots will go deeper than ever they did before because of the time and love and cash you have put into it

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