One of the rules of permaculture is to organize your living space in zones according to their use. We decided to learn this five years too late and started designing the house and its surroundings according to whatever whim caught our attention when reading Country Living – or at least the French equivalent.
This has not been entirely disastrous because, over time, we have come to understand the vagaries of the weather, where things grow and where they don’t, what will need to be close by and what can be stored or grown further away. Unwittingly, we were following another rule of permaculture: observe your surroundings for a year to learn its rhythms, then start to plan.
In the meantime, planning the renovation of the house was our first priority because it was completely uninhabitable. The previous owners had moved out in the 70s if the old newspapers stuffed into various nooks and crannies were anything to go by. Planning permission had come with the house, but the plans were all upside-down with the bedrooms on the ground floor and the living space above. The agent had assured us that this could all be changed so off we trotted to see the architect.
Hanging on the wall of his waiting room were pictures of buildings for which he was responsible – a hospital, an office block and various other buildings with a distinctly municipal character. He had now brought his talents to bear on our farmhouse and it looked as though we were going to end up with a Little Steelframe on the Prairie. It might have put us in contention for the Norman Foster Architectural Awards, but was not really in keeping with the French countryside. We thanked him and dived into the nearest bar for several restorative petit rouges.
For the first time, the hubris that had carried us into this new life deserted us. What should we do next? We were only going to be able to visit once a month at most so who was going to help keep the project on course in our absence? And who was actually going to rebuild the place?
We returned to the house feeling distinctly depressed. Johnny went off to find a pick while I grabbed the crowbar and started whacking great lumps out of the rotten plaster in the upstairs room. There really is nothing more satisfying than peeling off old bits of render and seeing the original stonework underneath, especially the crash as it shatters on the floor.
Surprising then that we even heard the van as it drove down the lane. A young chap got out, took out some tools and went into the house at the end of the turning. I called to John so that we could go and see what he was up to. The English owners of the house, Fiona and Andy, had very trustingly given us keys inviting us to stay while we were doing up our place so we felt somewhat in loco parentis. The fellow had a key and seemed to know what he was doing, but all the same… We followed him inside on the pretext of making a coffee and found him lying upside down under the fireplace.
“Bonjour,” we said in unison and fortunately he wasn’t taken so by surprise that he brained himself on the stonework. His name was David and he was making a hole in the underside of the chimney to help the fire draw better. In old houses, there are always plenty of gaps in window frames and under doors to create the flow of air that fuels a fireplace, but as soon as you put in all mod cons such as double-glazing, there are no draughts for the fire to suck up.
David had a friendly face and since we were bored with talking to each other about our woes, we off-loaded them onto him instead.
“You should speak to my boss,” he said. “He lives in the village. I’ll ask him to come by.” Appearing happy with his handiwork, he pottered back to his van and off he drove. Knowing that things generally march at a snail’s pace in rural France, we went back to punishing the wall, wondering if we would see the boss this side of Christmas.
And then, not a half an hour later, we heard the clatter of a lorry making its way along the lane. Even now when I hear that sound, I know it can be only one person. Down climbed a wiry little man with the darkest hair and eyes – and we met our saviour.
“Bonjour,” he cried and stuck his hand out. “Monsieur Pioche. David tells me you need a builder.”
So began the story of how our little house was brought back to life by a man who understands the stones and timber that have been in place for centuries, who knows instinctively how they fit together and who has given us a vision of Bournac that will live on long after we are all gone.