I’d quite like a bathroom now please….

Who wouldn't fall in love with this?

The house that belongs to the ‘King of the Village’ but what would my mother think?

It is one thing entirely to fall in love with house with holes in the roof and a snake living in the utility room. To see beyond the rats nests and broken toilets yourself. And to then exist in a little bubble of contentment, reassuring yourself that ‘one day’ it will be a palace. It’s rather like falling in love with a boy – you love him despite his habitual refusal to close a drawer after taking something out of it, his manky Ramones t-shirt and his love of You’ve Been Framed. And so it is with a home. You see BEYOND! Mice scurrying away in the room next to your bedroom? Ah, yes that would be the ‘at one with nature’ feature! The inability to have both cooker hob AND the kitchen lights on at the same time? Cooking by candlelight – how romantic! An old tin bath and no shower. POTENTIAL! But when others enter your heavily blinkered world – you begin to see it via their eyes and suddenly you have a broken old house and a holiday that only weird intellectuals wanting to ‘test’ themselves would go on. Club Med it was not. And so it was with my parents impending visit – would they love it? Would they see it’s charm? Thank god parents don’t judge – right?

A hot water tank. Which means - HOT water!

Not the kind of en suite my mother is used to

We needed a bathroom. And we needed one fast. One that not only had a bath, a loo and a hot water tank but maybe a floor. Some tiles perhaps. I’d already optimistically purchased some Missoni towels and a bathmat – oh and a lovely Cowshed soap and handcream dispenser – optimism you see – it even says on the Cowshed website that this set is a MUST for any kitchen or bathroom!

The rotting wooden ceiling in our bathroom needed all the gaps filled and each bit painted at least three times with eggshell. Our arms grew tired from reaching up to paint and our hair, faces and clothes were permanently splattered with tell tale droplets of white paint. Our friendly local pizzeria patron (also called Serge – confusing!) grew used to us turning up in search of les pizza royale (ham and mushroom) exhausted and looking as if we were an installation in Tate Modern so indelibly splattered were we.

Got to be time for a tea break lads?

Got to be time for a tea break lads?

I think from memory – Peter must have gone again by himself and driven the actual bathroom over to France because although we salvaged the original cast iron bath, the loo and sink were bought at a discount bathroom specialist near where we live in Greenwich. Luckily for me – most people don’t want traditional looking bathroom suites any more – they want Stark toilets that hurt your bum when you sit on them because they are square and your bum is not. They want fancy open spout waterfall taps and don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff too in my London home. In fact, watch out for my spin off blog ‘we bought a wreck in south east london’. But for rural France, I needed rustique, homely and ecclectic. One of the major allures of this renovation project was that I could decorate and furnish this home with lots of things I wouldn’t have in London. I wanted it to feel a little bit countrified and traditional. I wanted wallpapers, pretty light fittings and faded antiques. So, I got myself a Victoriana bathroom suite – unwanted by London urban sophisticates – snapped up by me for a couple of hundred pounds including taps. And the tiles – well B&Q’s finest (cheapest) slate floor tiles and good old white metro tiles with dark grey grout completed my modern country theme.



When we first went to look at our house – the bathroom was DISGUSTING – like the onewhere Ewan McGregor falls down the loo in Trainspotting – only with Ivy growing on the inside. It was dark, gloomy and almost impossible to enter. But I could always imagine how it would look. And now it does. The walls we painted Cornforth White by Farrow and Ball and then we had just a few finishing touches to add. A cracked mirror and old painting were found at local Vide Grenier’s – I’m going to do a post dedicated to all the tat (interesting local artifacts!) we have bought over the years at Vide Greniers – I just need to photograph it all! Held on a Sunday they are like car boot sales but much much better – and they usually have wine at them even at 10am in the morning! And a cupboard was found in a local Brocante shop and tied to the top of our car and driven back slowly.

Time for a soak

Time for a soak

IMG00675-20110419-1428So, our bathroom was finished. We were finally able to retire that bucket! Although by the time we actually had a working toilet, the boys had got so used to peeing in the garden they were a bit loathed to go back to using sanitaryware. And you know what – I was kind of fine with that. Just not while Gran and Grandad were around!!!!


Gained – 1 kitchen. Lost – 1 husband….

Image 8


The heart of any home is it’s kitchen. Particularly a rambling french house where you hope one day to entertain friends and family. In my head I could already see myself whipping up a coq au vin with copper pans hanging behind me. Sprigs of local herbs stored in rustic tins on higgeldy-piggedly shelves – studiedly so obviously, in fact probably not even real herbs just nice faux ones that never die. I scoured Amazon for French cook books (Ripailles is AMAZING btw and also At My French Table. ) There is an abundance of fabulous cooking ingredients thanks to the dazzling combination of Super U (a grocery shopping monolith), local markets and my neighbours fields. in short, shopping, cooking and eating played a big part in my French plans but my kitchen looked like this…….

flinstones grotto - we still have no idea why?

flinstones grotto – we still have no idea why?

As everything in the house needed total renovation, it was hard to know where to start. But as the kitchen had our only source of heat – an enormous fireplace complete with iron chain to hang cauldron. Plus it needed little structural work – except for a large Acroprop needed to keep the ceiling in place and the floor above. AND as my parents had promised an imminent visit and would for sure want cups of tea, maybe even somewhere to sit, this was the place to start.

Now, the next crucial thing to note at this point is that we had NO MONEY to do this house up. Nothing. No, slush fund, no contingency money and no cash to employ people to help us out. Nope our beautiful rambling, falling down in fact, french house was a two person, two child fixer upper. And when things got tough we were possibly going to have to auction the two kids on eBay to raise funds.

So, how do you furnish a 4×4 metre kitchen on no pence? Well, enter two well known cheap renovating buzz words. Two brands who were to become our closest allies and indeed friends – IKEA and EBay. Funds were so tight that we couldn’t even afford new IKEA (this is not one of THOSE houses on Grand Designs where a neurotic woman gets upset that French builders have ruined her hand-made-in-Italy marble topped kitchen – ‘Oh My God NOT the Gaggenau!’) So, unlike normal families who drive to IKEA, maybe have a nice lunch of meatballs and chips, then drive home with their spanking new units, Peter bought used, old Varde units on Ebay via saved searches and trips to the outer reaches of the home counties. We lucked out when he discovered a cooking school that was closing down who sold him not just a couple of very large units which would become our ‘island’ but also a barely used Smeg range that they had several of and needed to sell. Result! And then it was all driven down to France, by Peter on his own, in the back of our estate car. And several gallons of white emulsion later, it slowly began to take shape….


A tidy kitchen is a tidy mind, right?


THAT acroprop!


My favourite place in the world

We missed Peter in the months that followed as he drove to and from France in cars laden with increasingly large loads. And when he sent us pics of himself covered in paint and dust – we looked on jealously as we continued with our daily commutes to work and school. Dreaming of our house with a bucket for a loo. Skype meant I could still bark instructions from the other side of the channel, making sure he put everything just where I wanted it. Ensuring, he placed my island unit in exactly the right position so eventually I could oversee all kitchen related activities like a conductor with his orchestra. And I spent several weeks poring over colour charts to establish the perfect shade of green for the walls. In the end we went for Overtly Olive by Dulux on the main walls with Farrow and Ball’s James White on the wall with the windows to add some lightness to it all. Huge lampshades were bought in IKEA and some open shelving to store the lovely rustic looking crockery donated by my parents (BHS Lincoln – still to be found on Ebay – we had four gravy boats last count as Peter insists on buying every piece of it that comes up like my granny used to buy up sugar in case of another war). And it became a room. A proper room that you wanted to spend time in. I could use Serge’s bountiful courgette crop to make courgette quiche, courgette cake and courgette risotto – we haven’t eaten a courgette since. Sitting in front of the open fire, with a glass of wine, reading a book is still possibly one of my favourite places in the whole world. I eventually found a fireside chair but will save that story for another blog post as it involves a fight, in french in IKEA!

By that first Easter and a trip down there together with our several weeks absent husband/father and it was perfect. Really, perfect. We had a room! A finished room! And we spent all our time in there. Eating, playing board games and trying to avoid bumping into that flipping acroprop!


Smeg range via Ebay


The remaining thing from the old kitchen – painted up and its now a telephone table


Crockery courtesy of Mum and Dad


And from another angle!


Seb makes himself at home


ta da!



renovating a la mode


Seb and I hit London Fashion Week

So one thing I forgot to mention so far is my day job. I edit a fashion magazine for young women called Company. Swilling out toilets using a dirty bucket is not my usual day to day (well there was that time that the plumbing went – the Facilities Dept had no idea they had a secret weapon sitting on the second floor in an editor’s office!) My readership are young, fashionable and cool. A second home in rural france is not something they relate to. Other than something their parents might do. Which is probably one of the reasons that from my first visit to Gensac village – I fell in love with it. No pressure to be seen in this season’s clothes (though Serge the neighbour I am sure appreciates my love of a Breton stripe. Plus, I lucked out the first year there that Espadrilles were one of summer’s surprise fashion hits – ‘les chaussures paysannes!’ (peasant shoes) exclaimed Serge in horror when he saw I had dressed the entire family in them. While in France i have no worries about listening to obscure indie bands or electro pop duos – I can, without shame, dance around my kitchen to Olly Murs greatest hits (eldest son close to disowning me though). And I can EAT – carbs, fat, wine – it’s your basic fashionista food nightmare. There is absolutely no chance of bumping into any ‘media types, in our local big village, Maubourguet. But then, a holiday where I find myself in conversation about breakfast prices on the up at the Wolseley just isn’t a holiday if you ask me. In short – imagine Anna Wintour in a slanket and you get an idea of how far apart my two lives are. And that’s how I like it.

So back to visit number one and I think it might be time to introduce you to Serge – our neighbour. The tale of La Maison Blanche and Serge go hand in hand. Like a French version of Corrie’s Norris Cole but with a kind heart, NOTHING escapes Serge. And when you have a vacant property you only visit ten weeks a year, this is a godsend.


Doesn’t Serge look like Woody Allen from behind?


His mother worked in the washrooms of our house many years ago and he has grown up watching our Maison de maitre slowly fall down around its inhabitants. He has an immaculate house across the road from ours where he lived at the time we first visited, with his mother. Like a French version of Sorry – with Serge in the Ronnie Corbett role. (Readers under 35 – ask your mum!) so thrilled was he that finally someone had come to rescue the ‘Maison du roi du village’ his words not ours, that he gave us a much harder sales pitch than the estate agent. In fact all the villagers of Gensac have embraced us with les bras ouvert! From invites to the village fetes to providing us with summer fruit and veg from their farms, they are all a little intrigued and excited by Les Anglais. And although we sometimes worry about the noise of our children playing in the garden in the summer, I suspect it makes a nice change from the relative silence of Gensac’s ageing populace.

And so Serge has become a bizarre constant in the lives of both Peter and I, and our children. A funny old Frenchman who speaks not a word of English, and even his French is so locally accented that we struggle to pick up some of his words. But he makes us delicious cakes, leaves fresh flowers from his garden in the house for me before I arriveand makes sure no harm comes to our beloved house while we are away.


les fleurs des serge

It was on this first visit, almost three years ago however, when a strange, Serge related incident occurred. As we had no hot water we had been unable to wash. Which is kind of fine when it’s just the four of you and at first we treated it as if we were at a music festival only without the music, fake tattooes and jugglers. But after four days we began to dream of a shower, some soap and a towel. And Serge, seeing our discomfort – or possibly getting a waft of the smell even 200m away, offered us the use of his shower. Which, it turned out, was in an outbuilding in his garden. In we all trooped like the wolf leading chicken little and his compadres into his hut to avoid the sky that was falling. Serge closed the door from the outside and all four of us showered. And it was blissful. And we were happy. And then we went to open the door and it was locked from the outside. Now, bear in mind this is the shower block of a man we had met only three times at this point. In the middle of nowhere. Pulling at the locked door with relative force, Peter said breezily, “I’m sure it’s fine. Serge must have absent mindedly locked the door.” But the look on his face told me he was thinking the same as me and it involved Kathy Bates and a Sledgehammer! We shouted and screamed to Serge but he was all the way over in his house and couldn’t hear (although at the time we suspected this was part of his dastardly plans!) so in the end, Peter squeezed out of a tiny window and unlocked the door with the key which Serge had left in the door. It turned out that Serge was so flustered to have us there he’d locked it without thinking and was mortified about the whole episode. And we were clean. And then he helped us chop down a tree with a massive chainsaw. I didn’t like to ask if he had a sledgehammer too? Best not to know probably.


And now our tree is a spaceship!

Come on kids its like Disneyland but with no water. Or heating. Or Mickey

Look what Mummy and Daddy bought

Look what Mummy and Daddy bought

So I won’t bore you with the year it took us to actually buy the place. There were unusual french laws, strange bank demands and a bizarre incident where Sebastian pulled the 1970s style lace curtain down in our solicitor’s office (a child with taste – obviously). But almost one year to the day after we put in our offer – we had the enormous, Scooby Doo-esque key to the house!

From memory I think Peter went twice before us on his own taking down Calor Gas heaters and some thermals to get electricity and water connected and all that sort of thing. He has his own ‘building blog’ with the deets on it http://www.gensachouse.co.uk


Anyone for scrabble?

And then we all went for a holiday. And there was no water for loo flushing so I learnt how to do this by pouring water down with a bucket. We had a fire to keep us warm in the kitchen and nowhere to sit except for four old wooden chairs we’d taken with us.

And it was AWESOME! We discovered the joys of the local Super U – ate out – A LOT, met our neighbour Serge – more on him later, discovered the joy of the vide grenier (literally translated it means Empty Attic and is the french equivalent of a car boot sale but with the odd hidden gem!
And we spent our evenings in front of our fire, drinking wine and planning. Planning how we would transform our new french home. Thinking of how we would redecorate each room and how to best utilise the space. Dreaming of a time when we would come here and it would be warm, comfortable and chic. And until then we were happy as it was. Happy with Scrabble and a bottle of Madiran. A steak cooked on our Smeg range we had driven down with us in the back of our car bought on ebay. And happy to go upstairs and see our two boys sharing a room with a fireplace big enough to climb into. Like something CS Lewis would have written about. And if you think I’m exaggerating about just how bad it was…


One day this will be a dining ro

flinstones grotto - we still have no idea why?

flinstones grotto – we still have no idea why?

the only working (ish) bathroom

the only working (ish) bathroom

Its just like a boutique hotel really

Its just like a boutique hotel really

Maison a vendre

I’ve decided to write a blog. I am roughly three years too late. Well, I’m actually about six years too late – even my nine year old already has a blog but in this instance I mean I am three years too late on my chosen topic. We bought this house in rural South West France almost three years ago and I knew it was the perfect project to document Grand Designs style on a blog. But I didn’t. But I am now. I’m starting from the beginning and eventually I will get to present day, like Kevin Mcleod turning up in his North Face parka to see ‘how it all turned out’. A sort of suspense thriller blog of doing up a house….. do we ever finish it? Do we find just the right shade of grey on the Farrow and Ball colour charts for the bathroom? Well you will have to wait and see…..

Found on the internet. One visit later and we bought it.

Found on the internet. One visit later and we bought it.