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Buying a house in the Pyrenees-Orientales

10 years ago, we found it, the house of our dreams, and, from time to time, nightmares! Perhaps I should back up and explain where we were coming from.

I had spent 30 years of my working life in the Pharmaceutical Industry, a job which had taken my wife and I, and our children, all over the world. In 1995, at the age of 49, I was overtaken by the male menopause. I decided that I had had enough of running a 500-employee company in Japan. It was time to retire and settle down.

After 7 years semi-retirement in Scotland, UK, we properly retired, buying a motor home and revisiting the many places in Europe which we had only seen from the air, from airport hotels and from conference centres. We were both semi-proficient in French so we decided to retire to France.

Our wish list was simple, though picky – something old and with character, something which would keep me busy with restoration, rural, but not remote, somewhere where English could become our second language, somewhere with easy access to Spanish Catalonia, the sea and the mountains and last but by no means least, decent connections to the UK where we were still maintaining a base. Actually, this list could apply to many places in the Vallespir, the valley of hope, – the last major river valley in France before the Spanish border. With the help of a young British estate agent we found “the house”.

The Old Forge

Built in 1796, during the French Revolution, The Old Forge was part of the hamlet of Forge de Galdarès. The forge was built to process the iron ore from the nearby sacred mountain of the Catalans, Canigou. This was a very special ore as it was rich in manganese, and so was very suited to making sharp edged blades. Situated by the edge of the river Lamanère, the forge had plenty of water to power the hammers and a good supply of charcoal from the nearby forests. The ore was transported in a two-day journey from the mines to the forge by columns of mules, each able to carry some 130kg of ore.

Back to the house. A few years later, we learned that it had been the family home of the granny of our veterinary surgeon, who kept our dog’s pet’s passport up to date. It was sold in the early 1950’s to a retired French judge – he had served in Africa in the Colonial Service and returned to France as a judge in the court of appeal. He undertook the first major rehabilitation of the house and garden, replacing the floors with chestnut beams and boards from the old forge, which had become a timber workshop. The sitting room floor was laid with the lovely rose-coloured marble from the adjacent Têt valley, and the large garden, running alongside the river, was planted with a selection of conifers, walnuts, cherries and apples. Sadly, in the late 1970’s he succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease and died in the early 1990’s, with his wife living alone in the house for a decade thereafter.

The house was a shadow of its former self, and the jungle had all but reclaimed the garden. Modern conveniences were few – there was mains water, which had recently replaced the well in the garden, but it only reached the sink in the kitchen and an adjacent shower room/toilet, which had a gas-cylinder geyser providing the only hot water. The indoor toilet was a major modernity compared to the still-functioning privy perched atop the cess-pit. There was electric, but the removal of a switch cover revealed blackened plastic and not an earth wire in sight. Uncleared by the family, the rooms were a jumble of lovely antiques, utilitarian 1950’s furniture and shelves upon shelves of books. Everywhere there was teak. Shelves were built from it, the cellar was full of packing cases – all marked with the labels of the shippers who had transported the judge’s worldly goods from Togo to Perpignan via Marseille.

It was hard to see beyond the years of neglect and decay, but the two centuries old, meter thick walls, the date stone above the solid front door, the ring for tethering the mules, and the shed where they were kept all screamed for someone to bring them back to life. My wife had her misgivings, but I had my project…

by Norman Lauritson

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