(Note you can click on all the pictures to get high-res versions.)
The idea of owning a property in France has always exerted a strong pull on my imagination. We spent many holidays there as children (the ferry from Ireland was a good option for my parents who had five of their own boys and usually managed to pick up several more before departure) and it was always associated with a stepping outside of the ordinary world and into something exotic and romantic.
In the Summer of 2000, newly married, I came across a small advertisement in a French property magazine for a cluster of buildings in northern France.
The sale price of £17,500 made a purchase seem like a potential reality for the first time. I contacted the advertiser, got further details and with mounting excitement headed over to Normandy with my wife and her brother (a property developer who we wanted to cast a professional eye over the buildings).
The amount of house that you were getting for your money was incredible and I had visions of a gîte complex. However, the amount of work needed was also considerable and my brother-in-law was determined that it was too big a project for us at that point. Reluctantly I took it no further and instead continued looking longingly at French property magazines. I kept the original ad and, as property prices shot up on both sides of the channel over the next 15 years, I would occasionally take it out to show friends the greatest deal I never made.
Fast forward to July 2017 and my girlfriend, Sonia, and I have booked a weekend in France. She’s coming to Jersey first (where I now live) and then we’re taking the car ferry to St Malo so our destination – Ruffec in Charente – is a compromise between how far South we can get (Sonia, adventurous) and what’s a sane driving distance for such a shortstay (me, cautious).
I had put a picture of the kind of French property I dream about on my voudou altar (back right) and had been trying to somehow bring this into manifestation. Now Sonia has called me on it and argued that as we’re going to be in France we should look at some properties. I initially balked saying I wasn’t in any position to be buying now (true – a messy and financially punishing divorce is dragging on and on) but Sonia has persuaded me on the basis of “just doing some research on the property market”.
We have contacted a local estate agent in Ruffec – Rachida – and lined up four properties to view on a single day which cover price-ranges from €70,000 to €300,000. We are amazed that Rachida has taken a day out to drive us around looking at these properties. We have been clear that this is our first visit and that we are not buying (indeed can’t buy) and that the only goal is to gain knowledge of the local property market.
Despite that, she chauffeurs us around cheerfully, shows us four cracking properties which bear more than a passing similarity to the picture on my altar and all of which we want to buy, at the same time answering a barrage of questions from us on all aspects of property buying and general living in France. Then towards the end of the day she takes a phone call which comes through her Bluetooth speaker in the car so we can hear it. It’s a British gentleman phoning in to retract an offer he made the previous day. He mentions a price of €25,000. Intrigued we ask Rachida what that’s all about. She tells us that there’s a dilapidated townhouse in the centre of Ruffec. It had been on for €35,000 but the guy had negotiated that down to €25,000 before pulling out. We ask if we can see it and because it is about 50 yards from Rachida’s office (where we have left our car so have to go back there anyway) she says yes.
I’ve realised during the day that my approach to viewing properties is something like a psychic bat. Initially you are presented with the bare physical reality of each house but very quickly I find myself emitting out some kind of imaginative beam and trying to sense what echoes come back to me. Some properties are very silent and inert, whilst others really fire the imagination. As we approach the townhouse my intellectual brain is looking at it thinking “well it doesn’t look like much”. We ask if the property is the section on the left (with the shop window) or the section on the right (which forms the corner of the block).
“It’s both”, says Rachida.
Sonia captures the look of amazement on my face as Rachida leads us towards what we had thought were two separate properties. This is the first of many “holy fuck!” moments.
As soon as we get inside I know that something is different. The layout is hard to understand. The estate agents obviously just gave up with the floor-plan and simply drew some random rectangles which bear no resemblance to the actual rooms in the house. It is both TARDIS-like but also disorienting, particularly on the first floor. The only way between floors (all four of them: cellar, ground floor, first floor and attic) is a spiral stone staircase and as we go up it feels like we are venturing further and further into some mysterious world.
There’s rubbish and clutter everywhere. The roof had previously leaked and the water that poured through has weakened the floorboards in places and heavy steel struts prop up the floor from below. As it has been locked up, everything is in semi-darkness. When we enter a room, Rachida opens up the shutters and windows but whilst we try to keep them all open, she runs around behind us closing them all again.
But the more I look around the more those waves of imagination are bouncing back at me. Ideas, questions, images are bombarding me. Everything is weird and quirky. Nothing is straightforward. Again Sonia captures a moment brilliantly. I am outside in the courtyard and there’s a bricked up window and a door that appears to open halfway up a wall with no obvious access (a primitive toilet has been set up underneath it in the corner) and I am almost literally smacking my own gob with the sheer insane thrill of what I am feeling. Could we re-open that window? (Answer: maybe if we do it quietly and slip the major a nice bottle of wine to encourage him to look elsewhere) Could we run stairs up to the door? (Yes, it merges with the spiral stone case inside).
It’s not all light either. Apart from the physical darkness there are spiders (my special phobia) the size of small dogs. The wiring looks dangerous. There is (we later find out) asbestos around the fireplaces and lead in the paint. And then there are the fragile floors.
There’s a cellar too. A cellar like something out of your most Jungian dream. It’s so dark you can’t even see both sides of the room at once and there are big shapeless lumps rising out of the floor that could only be described as midden heaps. There are endless empty bottles and rusty bicycles.
But the sheer potential is calling out. In some of the less derelict rooms you can see what it could be like when restored.
And even the junk left behind is intriguing. My father, post-retirement, has taken to buying and selling small odds and ends which, if you were being very kind, could be called antiques. I’m thinking what a field-day he would have here. The shop was a hunting, fishing and sewing shop and remnants of its former use are everywhere. In one photo you can see an old sewing machine buried under a pile of crap.
More potential is evident in the garden, now hopelessly overgrown but larger than you would ever guess from the front and spread over two levels. I’m no gardener but I think I recognise some rose bushes buried in there.
As I stand blinking in the light, my psychic antennae are vibrating madly.
“If”, I think to myself, “this is some kind of sacred space, I wonder where the site guardian is.”
As I think this (and no this isn’t fiction I’m writing, this is really how it happened) a little man comes out from the house next door. It is his white car that you can see in the first photograph of the house. But he’s tiny. Not a dwarf just a man in miniature, maybe four foot ten. He then proceeds to hop around me in an agitated manner, veering from what appears to be hostility to hospitality. My wafer-thin French isn’t nearly able to keep up with him but I make what pleasantries I can and reassure him (I hope) that we will not be bringing in teams of noisy builders (which as far as I can tell is what’s agitating him but might well not be). Eventually he retreats back inside the house. Sonia meantime has been trying to figure out the floor-plan some more and the photo I take shows a weird isolated beam of light coming down on her.
Eventually we thank Rachida, reluctantly hand back the keys and go back to our guest house.
The next morning it’s raining so we decide to scrap what we had originally planned to do and go back to the house for a second look. Having slept on it we are still very intrigued and excited by the possibilities it offers. Rachida isn’t in the office but her colleague gives us the keys and lets us show ourselves around the property. Nothing about the vibe of the property has changed so we call up a surveyor and agree that he will come and do a survey of the house.
We tell Rachida what’s happening, she agrees to let the surveyor in when he arrives and we leave France.
Gordon the surveyor turns his report round incredibly quickly but it still seems like an age to us. We flick through it eagerly and look at what he has written. Structurally sound. Damaged portion of the roof entirely replaced. Watertight.
We are delighted. Sonia decides to call him to get the nuance. Gordon is appalled that we’re considering buying it.
“I wrote the report”, he says, “to try to tell you not to buy it without actually saying that. But I thought it would be obvious.”
“But it’s not going to actually fall down?” we confirm.
He agrees it isn’t and so we thank him and hang up leaving him completely bemused.
Sonia and I then have many phone calls back and forth between us. We talk negotiating tactics. We talk frankly about the impact it could have on our relationship. We talk about the money and how that could be obtained and who might contribute what. Eventually we agree that this is something we both want to do and that even if we treat it as a slow-burner it’s still a project we would be happy to work on over the next ten years.
I then speak to my bank manager at Lloyds about a loan. I pay a small amount each month to be a “premier” customer so I’m hoping that might carry some weight and on their website it says that I get a special discounted rate due to this status. He asks me what the money is for. I lie and say it’s for spending on the house that me and my ex-wife own to get it ready to sell. He says that strictly speaking my outgoings have been too high to allow him offer this loan. I say yes it’s the legal fees. He says that although my request violates their magic formula, I have run my account impeccably so he’s going to make a personal submission to the lending board. I go home and wait tensely. He phones by close of play to say that the loan is approved. However, it is a fixed-term loan that doesn’t allow any early repayments and with my job I am eligible for quarterly bonuses so in theory I could be paying lumps off the loan as the bonuses come in.
I agree to go back in to see him again for a further chat. Incredibly he phones his sister organisation, Black Horse, and says he has a valued customer who could get a loan with Lloyds at their discounted rate but that Lloyds doesn’t have the flexibility I need. Could they, Black Horse, offer me a loan on the same discounted terms but with the possibility of early repayments. The lady on the other end of the phone says yes immediately and suddenly it’s all sorted. My bank manager has gone out of his way to do what is right for me at the expense of his own organisation. This is the most amazing customer service I have ever received from a bank and not what I am used to.
So we call Rachida and make an offer of €19,000. I assume this is a crazy offer which will be treated with the contempt it deserves but Sonia would have gone in with a lower price so this is our compromise. Rachida says she’ll put it to the sellers then quickly phones back with the incredible news that the sellers have accepted the offer.
“On the condition, however,” says Rachida, “that for that price they don’t have to clear out the house and that you will take it exactly as it is.” The deal just keeps getting better and better. I pretend to be very concerned about this condition whilst quietly fist-pumping the air. I wonder fleetingly if the contents of the house alone might actually be worth €19,000.
Bizarrely the cost of the house plus the survey, converted back into pounds sterling is almost exactly the £17,750 of the original advertisement back in 2000.
And so to today.
Knowing that Dad would love to get his hands on some of the bric-a-brac in the house, I asked him if he would come along when Sonia and I finally pick up the keys next Saturday. He was interested but said he thought probably not. It was coming up to Christmas and Mum would need him around, etc. I left it for a few days and called him back.
“Look, Dad, are you sure you don’t want to come to- ”
“Yes!” he interrupted. “It’s been gnawing away at me and I really do want to come.”
People keep asking me whats so special about Ruffec. I didn’t have an easily digestible answer to that but as I was planning for our upcoming trip I saw a comment about how a guesthouse was ideally located for the Frankton Trail. Intrigued I did some Googling and read up on Operation Frankton which was a sort of suicide mission by some British commandos during the second world war that involved kayaking into the Bordeaux estuary and bombing German ships there. Unsurprisingly most of the team either drowned or were caught and killed by the Germans but Frankton himself and his co-sailor made it to Ruffec where they were spirited away to Switzerland before making it safely back to Britain.
I emailed this piece of trivia to Dad. “That’s really weird,” he replied, “they made a film of that in the 50’s called ‘The Cockleshell Heroes’ and I saw it as a boy.”
Last thing. Because we wont make it to the Notaire’s office in time to sign the paperwork ourselves, we have given him the power of attorney so that he can sign the papers and then we can pick the keys up from Rachida on Saturday. This morning he sent me a draft of the contract and said that the actual contract would be signed this coming Wednesday. But in his quirky English (and that is not a slight, his English is a million times better than my French) he translated “the actual contract” as the “authentic act”.
So…17 years after the universe first presented me with an opportunity, I was given a second chance to complete this authentic act.
Whilst writing this I wondered if the name Rachida had any special associations. This is what I found:
I’m almost too scared to mention that name of the lady who’s dealing with the house insurance is called Angélique!