Christmas at La Maison (2014)

We finally have a home worthy of a picture postcard Christmas – or to paraphrase my friend Lorraine ” I remember when it was like Christmas in Beirut in that sitting room….” (See blog post about their xmas visit two years ago here! She has a point.) But this year we were going to do Christmas in style. It was to be like a White Company Brochure so long as he kids didn’t ruin it by trying to put tinsel everywhere – like I always say, kids eh? Anyone would think Christmas was for them! I did however let Seb wear the Santa Costume we bought at Super U several years ago.

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So rather than ramble on about our goose eating, Perudo playing, Bond film watching (thanks to a new projector bought for Peter’s Christmas present) I shall just show you the pics.

Joyeux Noel….

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Meet the ‘Neigh’ bours……


Just your average Saturday morning

I love a challenge. I love doing anything for the first time that I’ve never done before. “What’s the point in living if you don’t feel alive” as a Bond villain once said (answers on a postcard peeps!) And if you can’t do things you don’t do at home when you are in your French holiday home, then when can you? Which is how I came to take up horseriding….And force my sons to do so too.

In the next village to ours, Lafitole – population 454 (a throbbing metropolis compared to Gensac with its population of 85 and that includes us!) is a Riding Stable. And not just any riding stable but a WESTERN riding stable. I had hoped this meant people like Ray Krebbs from Dallas would be wandering around in Stetsons, but what it actually means is you ride on horses with western saddles – and the technique is a bit different to English riding. Sadly, no bucking broncos or inter-famial fights at annual BBQs – well not so I’ve experienced yet!

Growing up in relatively rural Northumberland, I was surrounded by girls at school who rode. Who were obsessed with horses – many of them had their own ponies and I was determined not to join their gang. Like Lena Dunham to their Blake Lively, this was not a pursuit for me. And so, I stubbornly got to the age of 42 without having learnt to ride. The last time I was on a horse was probably when I went outward bounding with the school aged 12. But a chance meeting at our local wood (this is how we roll in SW rural france!) with Sonia who runs Western Paradise, the riding stables in Lafitole, persuaded me that we should all give it a go.

So on Saturday mornings when in France, I began dropping the boys off with Sonia and a collection of french children (mainly girls but I have told the boys this is because there are NO boys in Lafitole or Gensac except them.) They don’t seem convinced but as they don’t speak good enough french they cannot confirm or deny this and those french girls boss them around in french so much they are terrified to object.


The only boys in the village!

And then one Saturday, Sonia suggested I come too and saddled up a larger horse for me to ride around the fields of Lafitole with her and six children including my own. And I loved sitting on a horse and riding around our neighbourhood. Through sunflower fields in Summer and woods in winter. Shouting Bonjour to locals as we ride past. Down to the lake where we play Pooh Sticks but this time on horseback and while we ride, I teach Sonia english to help with her ex pat customers and she teaches me french for saddle, bridle and reigns (all useful stuff should I find myself in Kentucky with a frenchman) and we chat about her baby or my boys.


A horse called ‘Chanel’

And although my boys complain a bit about ‘having to go horseriding’ I think deep down they quite like the ritual and when Sonia and the bossy french girls make them groom the horses before and after, clean the bits with toothbrushes and carry the heavy saddles back to the saddlery, I’m convinced this is all what constitutes – life experience. Plus, it stops them playing Minecraft or watching youtube. And it means that I have a ‘friend’ in France. A french friend who I look forward to seeing for a chat, in french. Now if only I could find a paragliding centre nearby…..


A load of old pony!








Be our guest (part 5)


We’ve got the keeeey…

I have lost my thread blog wise… (And frankly in all other aspects of my life most probably) but in particular I’ve veered off on a tangent chronologically. So let me take you back – cue wibbly, wobbly, blurred screen device…..

We are still in summer of 2013 – I warned you in a blog post here that this was a summer of many parts. Guests, fetes and pigs. And while I’ve told you of the arrival of Dawn and Cora here And talked of parental visits and holidays with baby Io, there were five guests still to come – the Murray-Leslies.

We first me the Murray-Leslies when they were just a couple back in the early 2000s via some mutual friends. And then we never saw them again…. well not really. Not properly until the same friends hosted a 40th birthday in Northumberland (which coincidentally was the inspo for our treehouse – see post here)

By now there were 5 Murray-Leslies and our eldest two children who hadn’t met before that weekend struck up a friendship and so as parents we did too – forced together by our children’s love of ipad film viewing. And after a great weekend we stayed in touch and met up occasionally for Greenwich Park fun and we introduced them to the joys of Nandos. And when Peter suggested with his customary hospital flourish that they come and visit us in France (The Murray-Leslies are seasoned travellers and have not one but TWO campervans parked up at their home so he figured they could cope with the shortcomings of La Maison Blanche) they said yes straight away. Great. I thought. And then I thought again. We didn’t know them THAT well. They seemed like very nice people but did we want them in our home for five days of summer? Was this going to be one of those occasions when you realise that two hours of Nandos and chat you can do – but FIVE whole days of someone else and their three kids???? But we prepared the house for their arrival and planned fun stuff to do….


Making the place look nice

When it comes to hosting guests it CAN be a tricky business. Over the last three years we have come to realise that everyone arrives intending to be brilliant guests. Our friends and family all love us and are good people so no one would intentionally irritate or annoy us when in our home. But at the same time, having a holiday home that is a holiday for others and then becomes a hotel for you can be a bit stressful no matter how brilliant the guests are. And so, over time, we’ve realised that as hosts it is up to us to make it as easy for guests as possible to be perfect guests… And so the Murray-Leslie’s were our test case. We specified that in return for staying at our home they had to plan, shop for and totally co-ordinate one kids meal and one adult meal. This helps ease our food bill and gives me the chance for one eve at least to sit in the garden drinking a gin and tonic with nothing else to do!


I never did finish Wolf Hall (I did finish the G&T tho)

And as it turns out, the MLs didn’t need any help on how to be good guests. They were actually some of our best (sorry everyone else, it’s not a competition although we are tempted to turn the kitchen blackboard into a Top Gear style league table…)
Not only did our kids all rub along brilliantly, but we adults did too. And as well as a delicious dinner cooked for us, Nick and Liz also insisted Peter and I go out on a date night while they looked after the five kids. They had read my imaginary manual of dream houseguest behaviour and delivered on every chapter.
(chapters include 1) thou shalt be stupid fun at all times 2) thou shalt have children who do not behave perfectly at all times thus making ours look bad 3) thou shalt go to the shops and buy a large bottle of Ricard then help us drink it all and dance in the kitchen 4) thou shalt embrace Peter’s broken garden tractor and tools with geniune (or faked) intrest.

And most of all – thou shalt make day trips to all our fave places even more fun…. Come back soon MLs!!





Seb was such a gracious loser to Lulu


Just an ordinary day out stroking a camel


How to train a llama




Ready to climb!!!


Home alone…again


I’ve written a feature for Red magazine next month. It’s about my single summers. The up-to-four weeks of every year since we bought La Maison Blanche that I spend home alone in London while my boys get fattier, dirtier and scruffier in France. Like Peter Pan’s Lost Boys refusing to grow up, ignoring the inevitable start of another academic year. One day that summer will be the summer before GCSEs or A Levels. One summer, in the not too distant future, it will be the last summer before leaving home….oh who am I kidding? This generation are NEVER leaving home…
Anyway, this summer (or rather, last summer, because, blog readers I am still a year behind real life! Keep up at the back there…) I had less time home alone than usual but it was, as ever, a combination of whooooppppppeee free, free at last. And the odd evening of meal for one, Coronation St on catch up and sleeping like a starfish in my super king.
The funny thing about being alone is that I never seem to get any time to myself. My friends book me up so that I have something planned almost every day and night. While weekends become a blur of all day drinking at Shoreditch house – and I can at times exist for days on nothing more nutritious than wine and peanuts. I pointed out to a childless friend for whom this is the norm all year round – that perhaps the real reason we have children is just to safeguard our livers.
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So when we ARE reunited – we go out and drink rose. And appreciate our marriage, our partnership and we heartily recommend that all couples spend a bit of time apart. It makes you realise how nice it is being together.

Oink oink


The Two Little PIgs

It’s time to talk pigs. My youngest son, Sebastian has for quite some time been nagging us about getting a dog back in London. We have said no. Many times. As husband, Peter points out, he would end up walking it, feeding it and picking up its poo. He is, funnily enough not that keen on this. Sebastian always insists that he would ‘help’ but until they have produced a dog in a lab that can use his paws to play Minecraft it’s unlikely that Seb’s interest would last beyond a fortnight.

When in France, one of his favourite things to do is visit our friends who own a camel farm (click here for their story – it is too long and complicated to explain again why they have camels in south west France!) and on an early visit there they showed us this year’s bumper crop of piglets!


Please can we have one????

And so his campaign began…. “Pleeeeease can we have one?” And both Peter and I quite liked the idea of some cute pigs roaming around the patch outside our back door (a ready made pig sty in fact), rushing up to us for food and strokes. Oh yes, it would be like Babe only without the talking. And Sarah who owns the Camel Farm insisted we take two (an only pig is a lonely pig) and that’s how we ended up with two pigs living at La Maison for the summer.

We had to decide on names. Ant n Dec? Kate and Wills? Eric and Ernie? Kim and Kanye were all ruled impossible as the only two pigs slow enough to let us catch them and take them home were girls. And so it was left to the children to suggest one name each and they chose…… Dawn and Misty!! Peter said they sounded like strippers and vowed to check the parental settings on our laptop when we got home to see just what the boys had been watching on youtube…. .but it turns out they were Pokemon references which he persuaded them to change to Dawn and Cora (marginally less ‘stipperish’). And the names stuck.


They ate like pigs!


Trotters Inc.

And for at least a couple of days, everyone was fully committed to feeding Dawn and Cora. A diet for baby pigs of bread, milk and sugar sometimes topped up with the scraps from our meals (anything as long as it wasn’t pork – inadvertent cannibalism, even among pigs was considered very dodgy). But unsurprisingly after about a week and the realisation that pigs don’t really DO much except eat and then run away into a dark corner squealing, the boys got bored of their porcine friends. And despite my efforts to get Dawn and Cora to interact with us, they remained terrified of anything except the Marks and Spencer Andante bowls filled with bread and milk (maybe they’d seen that Gordon Ramsay programme and knew their eventual fate at the hands of humans – maybe pigs are born with an inante fear of humans – like the rabbits in Watership Down!) Whatever their reasoning – they steadfastly refused to become our friends.

But at the end of the summer, when we packed them back into their box – after a most amusing game of ‘catch the squealing pig’ which involved us all falling over a lot in the mud until Peter finally pinned them down – we were a bit sad to see Dawn and Cora leave. Especially as we knew their fate and it wasn’t a lifetime of running about in fields growing old and fat. And the bowls we used to feed them for the previous six weeks wound up back in our human crockery rotation. And if I sat down to eat soup out of those Andante bowls, I’d find myself getting a bit emoshe – especially if it was ham and lentil….

A baby at La Maison


Children make the best childcare

NOT FOR ME!!! Dear god – that horse has bolted…..but there are moments like when baby Io came to stay this summer that I do wonder if our French House could be just a little bit fuller – I mean we have the space….

Anyway broody feelings notwithstanding, this is a tricky post to write as it features my friend Ian, who is a writer. And he is a very good one. Writing a blog post about a writer is rather like putting on an am dram production of Iolanthe and asking Robert de Niro to swing by for a look.

Only last week Ian wrote a brilliant piece on turning 42. It was featured on the Independent website – and although I was apparently quoted in it, there were many ways he had found to describe the subtleties of aging that seemed so spot on I was a little envious I hadn’t written them ALL myself. Finding a successful path in life is surely about being so good at something that others simply don’t understand how you do it. And this is sort of how I feel about Ian’s writing. I feel the same way about Peter and plumbing. My Mum once said to me that she couldn’t understand “how you come up with so many ideas for things to go in your magazine each month” and it was one of the best compliments anyone had ever paid me. I do it without question or analysis. And I love it and maybe, I hope, I’m quite good at it. One of my main hopes for my children is that they find something that they are good at. That they get to spend every day of their life doing that – even if it is building Minecraft servers or googling pictures of poo!

Anyway back to Io – enough of her parent (who for the sake of blog continuity I should mention is a friend from Uni who, along with his lovely wife Alice had already visited La Maison Blanche once – it was pre Io, they didn’t just leave her in the car with the window cranked a bit… The sun shone while Io visited physically and metaphorically. My children were angelic, picking up on her good girl vibes, offering to look after her so that Ian and Alice could head off to Super U alone (for those reading without small children – at this stage of parenthood, a trip anywhere without having to pack a nappy bag is like a week on Necker with Ryan Gosling)


Seb’s in charge

And we were happy that Io liked the big plastic toys we’d been amassing at vide greniers for her in the run up. The boys even used their allocated €5 to get her some wooden building blocks at one. And Ian cooked us an amazing dinner of chicken with baked bread and we lolled and LOLed in the hammock with Io squished in between us. And Sebastian asked why he couldn’t have a baby sister – at which point Peter shuffled uncomfortably and announced he was going for a long run. But with our combined baby girl god-daughters Mabel and Bo and slightly older goddaughter Cara we have more than enough girlyness at La Maison and at home in London. But we did suggest that Io comes again next year and every year after that if she wants to – she can get her Dad to write a book about it!

Mum and Dad and Marciac and Jazz


When Grandad and Gran came to stay…

My Dad loves jazz. But not in a ‘smokey, dingy basement bar with people in roll necks listening to students with a double bass’ jazz. What my Dad likes is big band stuff or ragtime or the kind of jazz that you’d imagine you’d hear on a New Orleans’ paddle steamer. And luckily for him (and it turns out for us as we’ve been every year since we bought our house in France) one of the world’s best jazz festivals takes place 15 minutes drive from La Maison Blanche.

The Marciac Jazz festival runs for a week (or it might be two don’t quote me) during the month of August in a sleepy, quaint French village. Only its not sleepy at all for those weeks – it comes alive like the Enchanted Wood at night. Some of the world’s best jazz musicians descend and although jazz is not really my thing and I’ve never really heard of any of them (I think Jamie thingy who is married to Sophie Dahl may have been there one year but I couldn’t swear on it) the atmosphere is amazing as our sleepy little Marciac is filled with music, wine and even stalls selling touristy tat.


Ice cream is crucial when jazz listening!

Each of the restaurants in the village expand into tents in the market square and there is an ice cream seller with around 100 different flavours. And each year we book a table at Le Monde A L’Envers a great restaurant on the square and we eat fine food, drink fine wine and listen to the jazz bands playing in the square. And when the kids were smaller they would dance but are now far too cool for such things. But as it turned out they could hand that mantle over to someone else this year. As the square got dark and the jazz got louder everywhere around us people started to dance. And when we lost Mum and Dad for a little while we wondered what on earth could have become of them but it turned out they had found a corner of the square where a band were playing and people were dancing so they’d joined in. A proper dance that only parents seem to know how to do.

And my Dad declared it was his best night out for years.

You can rent our lovely house if you are thinking of visiting the Marciac Jazz Festival click here for details.

Kids, animals and the Fete de Maubourguet


Thinks he’s made of candy…

So there we were. The summer lay ahead of us with the promise of lots of visitors, temperatures of up to 38 degrees and the only renovation projects we had were minor ones (finishing the Salon painting mainly). So like Cliff Richard and Una Stubbs we set off on our summer holiday.
We had almost a week before my parents arrived and there was a lot to do. First things first – the fete de maubourguet. Most French villages host a weekend fete at some point over the summer. These are two hedonistic days of wine drinking (or as I spotted in maubourguet a combo of beer and absinthe drinking!) game playing and dressing up as women. (Fetes bring out the Les Dawson in the burliest of French men!)
The tiny square in Maubourguet is transformed into a fun fair like Rydell High at the end of Grease. For a small village there are some big rides but the main attractions for my boys are the giant balls you can roll around in on three inches of water and the trampolines with harnesses so you can bounce and spin – referred to by our friends who have some near their holiday home in Cornwall as ‘bouncealines’.


The most fun in the world

There are slot machines, coin slide machines (where Sebastian hit the jackpot and thought he was James Bond when presented with a watch as a prize) and there is food – loads of it. Candy floss as big as your head, crepes, popcorn and ice cream. And local children are allowed to stay up as late as they like and the adults get stuck into the wine. And at some point in the evening, burley men, dressed as women encourage the local children to join them in a giant tug of war competition. And for the first time ever this year, our children elected to join in. And as we watched them grab the rope on opposing sides with dozens of French children of different ages, laugh, fall over and speak the universal language of silliness, we remembered one of the reasons we took on this crazy project.


Tug of war in maubourguet

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To try and give two, urban, London, relatively privileged kids, a slice of life that money can’t buy. To show them that sometimes pulling a rope with thirty, non English speaking village kids in rural France can be way more fun than an x box. And the sense of achievement when one brother came in on the winning team was Millibandesque for whichever one of them it was.

So we went and bought silly hats to celebrate.


The wurzels


Maubourguet in fete

What’s French for Christmas?

Joyed Noël obvs. Today’s slightly – ate too many mince pies, drank too much mulled wine – blog post is a lazy one. I thought you might like lots of lovely festive pics of La Maison Blanche at Christmas. I’ve blogged about previous festive seasons in France here and here and here but for an easy peasy tour of Christmas Chez nous – I’ve rounded up my fave pics. They go from Christmas number one to our most recent. And this year we’re off to France on Boxing Day…. I’ll be adding more pics then. Bonne Fete xx


A tree – dig it!


Children refuse my protestations for a ‘minimal’ tree


Yule fool!


Nom nom


Berry nice right?


Giz a kiss


Shabby…. But cosy


He’s been!


Finally get my minimal tree


A dining room fit for xmas

I Know What You Did This Summer


Holiday Selfie!

Without a doubt, summer is when having a house in France is less folly and more jolly. The prospect of weeks with no school, constant sunshine, a pool to splash about in, ice cream and crazy golf means we pile into our knackered and dirty estate car like kids going on a school trip! And this is despite a 14 hour drive ahead of us. And once we’re through the Euro tunnel, we get Virgin Radio blaring (as Peter insists on Radio 4 when anywhere within reception – he did once manage to even get crackly, faint reception for Gardners Question Time somewhere around Calais, but once we hit the motorway, the boys and I take over). And after twelve hours of listening to Olly Murs, Icona Pop and Robbie Williams, we get to our house tired, excited and sick of the sight of each. It is, by now, sometime in the evening so we do what everyone does when they go on holiday to France – we head out for Pizza.


Our usual table!

We have been eating Pizza at Restotop – a shabby on the outside, top pizzas on the inside – local restaurant since Sebastian was so little they used to bring him a booster seat just to reach the table. Serge the owner (another Serge – it’s confusing I know) greets us like long lost relatives on arrival, probably as, since buying our house we’ve racked up around 100 visits to Restotop bringing large groups of friends with us each time so in essence have possibly doubled his profits.

And a quick flick back through my photo stream shows dozens of photos of the White Family eating pizza and drinking diet coke or Pression or Rose (delete as appropriate) outside Restotop. And the children have gone from throwing tantrums in there (Seb aged three), to smashing glasses (Seb aged three and a half), to learning french for mint ice cream (Seb aged 5) to sauntering over to Serge at the end of our meal and asking, in French, for the bill (Arthur aged 10). They’ve also boldly expanded their pizza ordering from margarita with olives to Calzone with mushrooms and a runny egg. And there is something very reassuring about arriving at a restaurant when you are tired and emotional and having someone say ‘Bon soir’ and kissing you. And so the tradition sticks – first night equals Restotop night.


And then we do it all again on the last night too. The Restotop bookends we call them. And its not a holiday if we haven’t done this. Even though its not french, its not quaint and its not very pretty. The pizzas are delicious and the kids love it and secretly we do too. In fact, the only sad bit about our final visit to Restotop is it means the holiday is over…..


Sad Face Selfie!