Tidings of joy?


And before you know it, it was Christmas again – this time with partial heating AND my parents. In less than two years we had managed to take a house with no water, heating, walls or heart and turn it into a family home. A warm, bustling, family home for the first time in twenty years. With noisy meals, heated games of table football and plenty of rowing about what time bedtime is. Regular, family stuff.

We had learnt by now via neighbours a little about the enormous french family who once lived in what we, the White family now refer to as La Maison Blanche (see what we did there?) It was once home to a family called Mouledous. The Mouledous had eighteen children and they all lived in our house in Gensac. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe. There are now dozens of Mouledous scattered around the local area. There’s Dr Mouledous in Maubourguet who we took Seb to once for scurvy or some such Victorian illness for which Seb is a magnet.

Then, there is the genteel and elegant Francoise who is no longer a Mouledous by name as she married. She is a retired paediatrician and lives in a beautiful old windmill on the edge of our village and invites us over for aperitifs and speaks such posh French we can understand every word (unlike Serge our other neighbour, with whom a conversation is probably the French equivalent of a chat with Gazza). Francoise’ daughter is married to an English Dr and they live in Ealing with their three ‘English by birth but French by manners’ children.

Finally, the best Mouledous of all is Frank Mouledous. Frank recently returned to his family home in Maubourguet with his Hawaain wife to open up rural France’s, one and only California surf shack, burger bar. Called The California Kitchen it’s the kids fave place to eat in France – go figure – but it’s not just the enourmous burgers which are made from scratch and delicious. Or the american style cheesecake which Mrs Frank makes from scratch and is delicious. Its not even the fact there is no loo at the California Kitchen so you have to run across the street to the Town Hall if you need a pee which the kids think is way cool. the big draw of the California Kitchen is the fact that Frank is a big bear of a man in a chef’s outfit who talks to the kids in a French/American accent. He might have stepped out of one of those dreadful shows they watch on the Disney channel where the Dads are always overweight and bufoony, and the Mum’s naggy and in charge. And Frank always offers up free desert for which my children would happily follow the child catcher, never mind a man who could be Selena Gomez’s onscreen Dad!

So this Christmas we would have a family Christmas the like of which our still a bit shabby house had not seen for about twenty years or more. A Christmas to make the Mouledous memory proud.

Peter and the boys bought a huge tree that filled one ‘kings speech’ style corner of our salon. And because we now had a concrete floor in the salon, we moved all Christmas operations into it. The table we normally use in the garden with a white linen tablecloth to disguise the fact it’s an outdoor table. And mistletoe found in abundance in our woods.

And my mum had brought onesies for the boys from Primark so they could feel cosy when they got up on Xmas morning to see if he’d been. Which of course he had.


And we could begin to see how our holiday home could actually be a real home. With a sofa, (ikea natch) and lots of rooms that we could spread out into. We may not be a family of 18 but when all our new Mouledous friends pop round for a glass of wine and some cashews we hope they’ll be impressed. And perhaps explain where they all used to sleep! Because readers, next Xmas we’ve got our friends the Candys coming to stay and they are the closest thing to Mouledous we know as there are six of them! We may need a bigger goose!



X marks the spot

GensacThis post is thanks to my friend Pippa. In response to an earlier post where I discussed having to wear flip flops at all times as to get to any nice room in the house. “You know what you need?” said friend Pippa, who I get the train to work with every other morning after we’ve dropped our kids at school. “A map. A floorplan map of the house Pooh Corner style so we know where all the things you’re talking about are.”

What a genius idea. A Harry Potter Marauders Map. So here it is for PIppa and anyone else who is interested. Drawn by me so excuse the non accurate nature of it.

Elephants breath vs mouses back


Not quite Babington yet…

We may have had our fair share of guests by now but we’ve relied on their pioneer spirit to see them through. That and a supply of flip flops for crossing unfinished floors. The house was slowly taking shape and with each holiday that passed we became more confident that one day we would have one of those holiday homes you could imagine on a website of ‘baby friendly boltholes’. We had a few finished rooms and had started to collect some bits of furniture.

Until now we had vacated our master bedroom and bunked into a little room next to the boys room when people came to stay. You have to walk through it to get to the boys room which curtails any chance of privacy and means that Arthur wakes us up with his 5am rises which he has done since birth and even now age 10 doesn’t show any signs of changing. I am hoping that one day he will be one of those teenagers that you have to drag out of bed with threats of cold water. And the room itself is fin. Cute even. I found the granny quilt on ebay (you actually search for just that – granny quilt) and we have no problem moving in while guests come to stay.


Our room when guests come to stay. Cozy.

But as another Christmas loomed large, and this time my parents were feeling brave enough to make the trip (the prospect of heating and not peeing in a bucket had increased their levels of interest in another holiday) we wanted to get a proper guest room ready. The room pictured at the top was the one we had earmarked. It was downstairs and next to the one finished bathroom (see below). Image

So together they would make a really nice guest suite. I could possibly start sidelining as a B&B landlady. But as usual there was a lot of work to be done before getting Alistair Sawday round to give us a five star rating.


The loo/rats nest was in the far corner. Like Nimh. Then it was gone.

By this stage we were old hands at doing up our rooms. And this room did not phase us. Oh no. Despite originally having a loo in the corner with a rats nest underneath it (we tend NOT to share this info with guests before they’ve slept in it) The most horrible peeling ceiling. A funny coat rack thingy (technical term) which I actually kept and put in another room later on and broken windows.

We got to work with a vat of decorators caulk to fill gaps in the wooden ceilings. A gallon of white undercoat and gloss for ceilings and woodwork. Another gallon of white emulsion for the walls and a lot of patience to apply all of the above. Ourselves. And finally hours of pouring over Farrow and Ball paintcharts to choose the colour for the walls, about six changes of mind over which particular shade of beige or grey to go for (Elephants Breath vs Mouses Back – #firstworldproblems) We settled on Old White

Old White

Beige by any other name. Old White if you want to pay lots more for it

And we painted. And painted. And I got the children to help and they painted. And then Peter filled the holes in the ceiling and I painted that too. And this was probably some sort of school holiday/half term or other and my friends were facebooking about their sunshine breaks to Morocco/Dubai/Majorca (I even had pangs of jealousy as people fessed up to being at Centreparcs – not for long admittedly)

And it was finished. Although it didnt yet have a floor – just some mucky cold concrete but I bought a rug at Marks and Spencer and that would do for now. We bought a Leirvik bed from Ikea and carted it back from Toulouse. Along with yet more Hemnes drawers (I will be calling my next born Hemnes FYI)

Thanks IKEA

And finally we added a great glass chandelier we’d found at a Vide Grenier. And i made some curtains out of my favourite hessian fabric bought on ebay – with black out lining for extra warmth. Voila. And the rather splendid 1970s pic of the fallen madonna with the big boobies was found in a Vide Grenier for ten euros. A bedroom fit for parents and anyone else who descends from now on. Want to come and stay yet?




Where’s my water?


Tom Daley wouldn’t stand for these conditions!

Every holiday home needs a pool. Somewhere to focus the all day lounging. And in the first summer as the temperatures had soared in SW France we had made do with the above. It was even too small for Arthur but Seb rose to the mini challenge (he was behind on the pain chocolat consumption something he would make up for in years to come!)
We had, by now an exhaustive list of local pools of which there are many but they all only seem to open for one month of the year. When we first bought the house and had no hot water I had the genius idea of going to a swimming pool where we would be able to shower/swim/shower (any other combo would have resulted in us getting thrown out for environmental reasons). And so we spent days in our early first visit on a crazy wild pool chase – finding one on the Internet, driving for miles…. Finding it closed. We finally googled an indoor one in Lourdes where I hoped I could bathe in holy water and come out a size 8 but when we arrived at it – it was the one day of the week it closed. So much for spiritual enlightenment.

Even our little local French villages have amazing outdoor pools but they reserve opening for July and August only. I have no idea how the business model on this works but there is clearly little economic sense in opening before then.

We did eventually find one brilliant outdoor leisure complex in Mirande – only twenty minutes drive away which opens in June.


Ludina at Mirande

A combination of three pools, slides, table tennis tables, sunloungers and snack bar – we thought we’d hit the jackpot one June half term when we discovered it open. As we paid our entry fee though, the lady behind the counter eyed us suspiciously – “les anglais?” She posed. “Oui” we said excitedly. “Ah” she said as if that explained it all. We were the ONLY people in there. It was warm and sunny outside but not boiling and as soon as our pasty, white, english flesh hit the water we understood why we were solitary bathers. It was FREEZING. As with most french outdoor pools, there is no heating. So if you happen to be there at the beginning of the season when the water has had little sunshine on it – you may as well be in that bit at the end of Skyfall when Bond tussles under the ice with a bad guy. Obviously so as not to lose face we carried on regardless. The kids feel no cold anyway and were thrilled to have the slides to themselves and I shivered in the shallow end praying for it to be over.

Once it IS July or August though there are loads of great local pools to visit in Marciac, Vic-en-Biggore or Plaisance. And best of all in years to come we discover the Lake at Aignan which is a man made beach next to a gorgeous green tinged lake.


Aignan and on and on….

With slides and a rope park with zip wires and dangerous climbing feats to attempt. The kids love it.


Peter got ready for his bushtucker trial

And we love the amazing restaurant there with prawns the size of small aliens you can crack out of their shells and get covered in prawny juice but not care cos you are in a damp swimsuit anyway! Best way to eat seafood. Which makes sense really – perhaps that WAS the original purpose of the bikini – to eat seafood without spoiling your clothes!


Breton cover up you say?

Of course the easiest way to do some swimming in rural SW France is to build a pool. And this of would have been Peter’s preferred option. In fact he had plans to do this before we even had a kitchen or a bathroom but good sense prevailed – in other words I told him not to be so ridiculous. The truth is, if we did build a pool we could rent our lovely holiday home out for others to enjoy and charge more and find it easier to rent. And readers – I hope in the not too distant – real life we will be doing this, but you’re still a couple of years behind when we had not the finances or the time to do this. So instead we bought an INTEXimage pool which takes days to fill, is freezing cold at first and which Rebecca Adlington may find restrictive in terms of Olympic length swimming, but for our two boys it was ideal. At 15ft across there is plenty of room for them to swim about and for peter to float in a lilo with a bottle of beer in hand at around the 5pm mark. We have none of us worked out yet how to take chips n dips in there with us – but if we did it would be just about perfect.


Day tripping


We were still finding our way around the Gers. It’s a little known part of France without the glamour of Côte d’Azur or quaint picture postcard lavender fields of Provence. And as we’d bought the house without any advance planning or investigations we really had no idea what we would do for every holiday, for the rest of our lives in this part of France. Drink wine? Eat cheese? We did by now have French versions of trivial pursuit and scrabble but this alone could not fill four, two week holidays a year. We had a striped hammock for lazy day, book reading and we had explored a host of local eateries (in the early weeks with no heating or water, we ate out just to keep warm and use a nice toilet) our nearest restaurant is called Les 3Bs and serves everything with a nouvelle cuisine style whipped sweet potato mousse. Hake, pork or beef all with sweet potato mousse. And aguilettes de canard for the kids. But after almost a year in the house we could barely utter the words sweet potato without feeling billious. Besides, eating and drinking could not fill our days (well it could but we’d all be the size of pavarotti by the end of the holidays) so we began some local explorations. Here are our some of our favourite finds should you ever find yourself in the Haute Pyrenees or Gers.

1. The Maison des Chamaux
As I’ve already blogged, our friends Paul and Sarah Bird run a fabulous animal park only fifteen minutes drive away. And as we were now friends we could see camels and drink wine concurrently. This is not the same experience for paying visitors. But go anyway as its fun. Camels can be stroked, goats are jumped through hoops and wool is spun. My personal fave are the pigs. In mud. Happy as.

2. Biarritz
My craving for a slice of old school glamour led us on a day trip to Biarritz. A two hour drive but a place that makes me feel like I am actually on holiday. Chic people, posh restaurants and a faded glamour. The beach is big and if not directly in season, not too busy. We built sand castles, ate salad nicoise and wished we had more time to rent boogie boards.

3. Le petit train d’artouste
Discovered when our friends Ian and Alice came to stay. A good, almost two hour drive into the mountains, this is a cable car ride to a tiny train which then takes you on an hour long ride around the edge of a mountain. Best of all, along the way are dozens of beavers which being the only English people on the train we took great delight in shouting each time we saw one. Leslie nielson eat your heart out. At the end of the route is a great walk to the top of a mountain lake and a great sense of satisfaction that we had lung fulls of mountain air to flush out the night before’s peach schnapps marathon. Then, as bad fortune would have it, but giving us something to remember the day by, on the way back the train tombe en panne. We had to walk the final kilometre to the car park, dodging beavers as we went. But as we trudged wearily back to our car, we agreed that Beavers and Breakdowns would be the perfect title should Ian ever write an autobiography.
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4. The Marciac Jazz Festival
For which Uncle Ricard came to stay and did his best akerbilk impressions. The one thing guaranteed to send the children into spasms of embarrassment is uncle richard’s singing. Made worse only if I join in sonny and Cher style. Made even worse if the song in question can be sung ‘club singer style’. So imagine their horror and our joy to discover the local jazz festival which runs through the month of August features not only real, snare drum and trumpet style jazz, but also, New Orleans style jazz bands in the town square where you can all sing and dance along. The village of Marciac is taken over each night for a month by tented restaurants, bars, ice cream vendors and jazz bands so you can sit outside, eat amazing food and sing as you eat to ‘when the saints come marching in’. And on a balmy summers evening tHere really is nothing nicer, even when uncle Richard insists on conducting himself throughout the meal in his ‘dobby the free elf’ voice (dobby LOVES Harry Potter….) and Sebastian danced for a crowd, and we all had massive ice creams and Arthur prayed for a replacement family.

I could go on, but suffice to say, we had found plenty to do in our funny little, unfashionable part of France. And when all else fails, there IS French trivial pursuit where you can answer Charles de Gaulle or Vanessa Paradise for everything!



So before another winter drew in (which makes us sound like the Ingalls in Little House on the Prairie right?) we had to do something about heating. we bought a large wood burning stove (some very long convoluted way I seem to remember probably involving ebay) and had it delivered to south west france.

The one thing I do remember is that it weighed a tonne. And having gone to all the trouble of getting it from somewhere in the middle of england via ebay and then having it driven the fourteen hours to Gensac which by our standards is a major investment (had it not been so heavy Peter would probably have made the kids pull it down on the back of their bikes!) Parking up. Getting a complex array of ramps, jemmies and towels to soften its landing across the gravel driveway, and with some help from puffing and panting frenchmen. Using a hydrolic jack, peter managed to get it up a ramp, up the front door steps. Then, in slow motion, we saw him stumble, the stove wobbled, he stumbled some more and the brand new, most expensive thing we’d invested in, stove crashed onto the gravel driveway. And the glass window made of special fire resitant glass which comes at vast expense smashed. Into many pieces. I might have shouted MORON at this point in my typical empathetic manner. Peter looked crushed. And we were still freezing.

But, long story short. We ordered another piece of glass and fixed it. Dozens of cast iron radiators were bought on eBay and driven over to France. Two at a time so as not to ruin the back axel (technical term right) and Peter installed them all.


If you want to know how this wood burner pumps powers all these radiators – don’t ask me! Check out husbands blog www.gensachouse.co.uk it talks about water being pumped etc. pressure etc. blah blah. All I know is that the downstairs of the house was toasty for the first time in its lifetime.