Category Archives: Renovation

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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SPANC!

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A sequence of frosty photographs that move progressively to the long view.   We have a lot of ivy at Chatillon ( we have a lot of old walls …). This can cause problems between neighbours – and I’m mostly the romantic neighbour who causes the problems in my bit of the village. I’m not too hot at hacking it back. It’s a wonderful bee plant late in the season and in winter (especially at Christmas) it is simply magical. I like holly a lot too …

 

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Moving back. My neighbour Jeanette’s delightful little orchard terraces. She was a very keen gardener until she passed away in 2014. Her grandchildren come back and mow the grass/open the shutters sometimes (the last occasion on Christmas day 2015). They clearly loved her very, very much. But I’m always hopeful that it’s Jeanette opening the shutters –  and that she’ll wave and call over to me again.

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Raise your eyes up even further above our Long Border and Jeanette’s orchards and you can see the massive old house of Jan Monchablon, sunlit to the right of the picture. Try the link if you didn’t read my post last Sunday.

But what’s all this about SPANC? It’s the acronym for the government office responsible for the inspection and (forced) modernisation of ‘assainissement non-collectif’ in France – private sewage systems to you and I. I’m fairly sure that they are not aware of the laughter and relief from tension their name affords English-speakers when they get their ‘côntroles’ through from the local office of the département. Anything to lift us temporarily out of the merde! Although, hang on … is that a threat?

Yes – this is a fosse septique update, but this time I’ll spare you the gruesome pictures and illustrate with a few winter pretties.

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One of my great joys – planted by the previous owner/gardener – the lime hedge on stilts.

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There are Brits out there who will want to suggest the micro-stations d’épuration as a solution to our problems in Châtillon (these are sewage systems not requiring a huge area of land for filtration, very suitable systems for confined spaces). British expats have fought hard to have these systems (originating in other parts of Europe) recognised in France.

It was not an easy battle and hats off to them. The rest of us are grateful for that battle. But at Châtillon we are not quite at the stage where each of the 100 plus householders are forced to install a system that is bound to cost upwards of 10,000€ (and the rest) per house.

This is still a public problem (although micro-systems are available that would serve a whole village … well worth investigating ). I would hope that we keep this a public, rather than a private issue, for as long as possible. When I lived in the middle of a field in Ireland I knew that my septic tank was my own problem. But …

We live in the centre of a village – the issue here is that our mayor, rather than spending any money on a collective system, has opted (as far as I am aware – and I would be delighted to be proved wrong) to let everyone sort out their own problems.

This is a village where almost 90% of the population are pensioners or second-home owners. With very little money to spare. And actually, in fairness to the mayor, the commune (village) is as impoverished as its inhabitants.

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Just the other side of the ‘hedge on stilts’ is one of our two long lavender hedges in the garden (the other is up in the Mirror Garden)

Add to that the problem that many people do not have any suitable land for installing large bits of kit, filtration systems, etc., in any case (supposing the necessary cash were available). The old Renaissance village falls quite sharply in terraces to either side of the ridge on which it is perched.

Fortunately I have made progress in contacting neighbours and a nearby village association in the same département (administrative region) as myself. Many inhabitants in the other village also lack the land (and cash) to sort out individual fosse and filtration systems. Both my Châtillon neighbours and the neighbouring association have made excellent suggestions.

The village association has taken the judgements of the latest ‘côntrole’ in their own village to a tribunal and the 4-yearly inspections are suspended (very important, because if one is found ‘wanting’ at one inspection, by the time the next rolls around one can be fined if the demanded improvements have not been made).

The inspections have been suspended because the matter is ‘in dispute’. So some breathing space for their village hero and his supporters, currently investigating how to install and fund a communal system.

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Looking down on the frosty garden from the balcony

I will be drawing the attention of both the mayor and SPANC (ha!) to our own case in this coming week. Particularly to the fact our house was sold to us in 2011 with a fosse septique that was passed as ‘ok’ – yes, it’s there in black and white in our own contract of sale.

Now, if the fosse had not been ok (by my understanding) it would have been up to the seller to sort out the problem or to reduce the price to the buyer. But it says, in the contract, that we are ‘ok’. So – a trip to the mairie and a letter to SPANC in Épinal asking to see the results of the previous fosse report made in 2011.

I could say ‘buyer beware’ in France, but I won’t. The legislation is being tightened up so much. We were, unfortunately, on the ‘cusp’. The documentation necessary when selling a house is now much, much clearer. In addition to ‘côntroles’ for electricity, energy efficiency and noxious materials (such as asbestos), there should, in future, be a multiple-page report on the condition of the fosse supplied to any buyer (just like the one that bombed through my letterbox in December 2015).

This information is probably of limited interest/value to many who read my blog – it is, after all, supposed to be a gardening blog? But blogs are as fascinating for their beautiful images and pertinent, informative content as for the personal challenges that their bloggers face. N’est-ce pas?

Anyway – ‘nough said.  This remains a fascinating and challenging place to live. I didn’t come here because I was wealthy and privileged. I came because I had very little dosh – and still wanted an interesting life. And by George …!

No more fosse updates until I have something more positive to report. Next time I’m going to  begin my walk round the village, introducing you to the little jewel that is Châtillon. I’m starting with my own house, the watchkeeper’s house …

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Front door of the Maison du Guetteur at Christmas

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Other end of the Maison du Guetteur, with a tempting glimpse of the drop to the beautiful valley behind …

And I’ll take a more in-depth look at the second-best view in Chatillon (after the one from our balcony).

 

If I look out of my bedroom window, I see the Ancien Hôpital and some of the most beautiful steps I’ve ever had the privilege to contemplate on a daily basis.

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Come back to Châtillon soon?

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In the merde

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The business end of our toilet – and also the place where (lucky me!) I do my potting up. But hang on, that’s a genuine sixteenth century wall you can see. So it must be pretty …

A cautionary tale of why dreamers shouldn’t buy houses in France!

For a long time I’ve not considered blogging about our renovation project here. I wanted to keep it a secret – mainly because I was frighteningly sure that my neighbours would tell me: ‘But you can’t do that!’ (C’est pas normal/correct, Catherine!)

And also because any electrician, plumber … anyone … who has ever come into this house to give me a quote has automatically fallen into one of two (typically French) schools: 1) so pricey you’d have to win the lottery to employ them or 2) on the ‘black’ and frighteningly aggressive to boot.

There is a third category – just plain rude and sneering about the place I live – but they are not numerous or worthy enough to deserve a class of their own. And, of course, they must be jealous (see toilet delivery system above) …

The two main French schools (perhaps I should begin writing a history of art, after I have finished with fosse septiques?) have one thing in common – their ability to make me feel as if I’d be a fool to think about doing … whatever it is I want to do.

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The delightful space that a previous French plumber thought would make a good bathroom. Now only fit for my pots, but god knows what horrors were enacted here in the course of the 20th century. ‘We have ways …’

This is a country in which – and you won’t believe this – it is actually illegal to get someone more distantly related to you than your brother to help you with any renovation work, gratis.

But landing ‘in the merde’ before Christmas has made me realise that it is all just so very ridiculous and that it’s time to break silence.

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Close-up of the fosse. I have no idea what the beer bottle is doing there. It could be that Nick (the Bon Viveur) was more shocked than he let on when he heard our pre-Christmas news … Even the very nice young man who did the inspection was puzzled/astonished to see that our fosse had been sealed off completely with a concrete slab.

So – before Christmas we were sent a lovely official letter (which will cost us 70€ odd) to report that our fosse septique (septic tank) and general water disposal system does not (after all) conform to European regulations on two counts.

Firstly, the grey water from the bathroom (not the toilet itself) goes straight into the public drains of the village. Naughty, naughty. Secondly, the grey water from the fosse itself does not run politely down to a filtration system. Like every other system in the old village here, the pipes from the fosse run down to the river.

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Funny that. When we bought the house, the previous owner produced papers in 2011 to prove that the whole system did conform (albeit rather shakily) to the new European rules – it was judged to be a ‘conforming non-conforming system’. But double negatives (and French) are not my strong point, and I may have misunderstood.

I never liked it. Sometimes when I’m in bed at night and the season is changing, I can smell my own s..t. But we thought (as real dreamers are prone to do – this is the downside of dreaming): ok, it needs doing, it conforms at the moment, we’ll cope in the years that come. Never for a minute did we think we were in danger of being forced to spend a lot of money within the next four years.

Moreover – and you may think I’m clutching at straws – I was always rather pleased that the pipe running down to the river was broken and our grey matter was watering my pumpkins, rather than anything else. Let’s be grateful for tiny mercies, I thought. At least we are only putting our own health at risk, rather than anyone else’s.

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Focusing on the point at which that (lovely?) grey water nurtures my pumpkins … but at least does not run down to the river.

 

The shock was that the previous owner had reported that all the grey water (including that of the bathroom) ran down into the garden. And in 2011 all of that kind of awful carry on was considered, in our case at least, to be legal. But it seems he was ‘mislead’.

Adding insult to injury. Inquiries around friends in other villages have revealed that their mayors have actually invested in a public sewage system so that all of their waste runs out of their houses. All fine and dandy – except it mostly just goes into the nearest water course.

But – ha, ha, last laugh on us and the luck of my friends! In their cases the responsibility now lies with the mayor and commune. They don’t have private house inspections any more.  So they won’t have to handle any of the 10,000€ odd burden that may fall on our shoulders.

In our case – and in the light of a letter sent in September last year – the mayor and the commune have washed their hands of the entire problem in the village.

This is a horrendous mess on so many levels. Not least of which is the stink sometimes whilst lying in bed at night.

The thing that astonishes me most is that no-one will talk about it! I have, very politely (too politely) been trying to broach the subject with people I trust since 2011.

There are no public meetings during which pensioners (which we nearly all are here) get together to try and plan how to force the mayor to help us with public subsidy (that boat has sailed, in any case). And if I mutter to myself ‘it’s not like this in the UK’, I sound exactly like the kind of expat I detest most.

Consequently you have a situation in which 50 plus old-timers could be forced to spend between 3,000€ and 10,000€ sorting their own s..t out. There are builders, as we speak, digging up the public road to create little soakaways (we have no flat land around here, so that’s the only option). When I look at them, I have really absolutely no idea what the ‘plan’ is … or if there even is one. And wait … how much is 50 households times 5,000€?

Ah, probably not enough, because it took 98,000€ to renovate the teeny little one-up/ one-down next to us.

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The little visitor’s centre adjacent to our house and parking, just above the garden. Before renovation at a cost of 98000€. Shame no-one stopped to think: hang on, what this lovely little village needs to stop it dying is a proper, first-rate 21st century sewage system!

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After renovation in April 2013. At least the BV seems happy with his work (renovating a small mirror). The workmen were (mostly) very pleasant and called down cheerfully to the fat lady weeding in her garden below for about 11 months – I had to mow around the scaffolding. And yes, you guessed it, nobody informed us that we would have to play host to this scaffolding for all of those months just after we had moved in.

That’s the cost of living in France. Completely mystifying. Which is why I’m going to start blogging about my own renovation project.

 

This is the pretty bit.

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A kind of mezzanine area over what we hope – if we ever have any money after sorting our toilet issues out – will be a cool summer living room.

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The so-called summer living room down below. We are still good at dreaming; just as well. This week I have often been reminded of David Bowie’s Kooks.

The most recent addition to my long list of French tradesman coming in to give me a quote on a new upstairs bathroom asked me where I was going to put the corridor in our nice new potential mezzanine/library area. That would be something similar to the Auschwitz-type arrangement that we just took out?

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The library area. We have, unfortunately, an awful lot of books that we seem to have hauled most of the way around the globe in recent years.

Shy girl is gone. I’ve had a little January break, but I’m going to be out on the streets trying to work out what we can do to avoid this unplanned building and financial chaos. ( Well – maybe not tomorrow, it’s the weekend.)

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Christmas Day 2015. And this is why we are here, although I frequently have to remind myself that this exists when there’s a bit of stink up …