When I found the house of my dreams in Pas-de-Calais, France, I took my Dad to see it – his immediate reaction was that it ought to be knocked down because it was in such a state and in his opinion dangerous. He walked around the rooms with a pen knife stabbing it into old beams saying “see that, that’s woodworm” or “see that, that’s rotten” and other such comforting things.
The house is what the French call a longère – literally a long building and almost always of a rural nature such as a farmhouse as this one is. One end of the house is clearly very old with what we call wattle and daub walls – otherwise known as hay and mud (torchis in French), some of the beams are huge and quite beautiful (to me). The other end is a modern add on with grey breeze block bare walls.
These are my notes from my visit: Some of the rooms have earth floors some have concrete and tile floors. There is an element of plaster boarding in some rooms, others have horrible orange coloured tongue and groove wood covering up something awful no doubt, some are covered in garish coloured linoleum but most are bare breeze block or covered in dried mud which seems to have been used as some sort of insulation.
The loo is vile – it’s even worse than the outdoor one I remember as a kid in our Victorian house in the Old Kent Road in London and that’s saying something. My feet stick to the dirty kitchen floor as I walk through, bits of ancient wallpaper hang from some parts of walls – it’s clearly been put up on bare breeze block. The house is freezing cold despite a huge and ugly wood fire in the corner; I shudder to think what is behind all that wood covering the ceiling and the walls.
There are windows which are ancient and were probably used on another building before they were transplanted into this one as they don’t fit properly, the front door has a huge gap all the way round which lets in the cold air and rain and the back door of the house is actually just a large sheet of corrugated metal – big enough to drive a tractor in.
I look around and think my Dad’s got a point but I am still in love with the idea of this house which is set in a tiny isolated village in the North of France. It’s an hour to the Eurotunnel station and if need be I can get home to Dad in three hours. Not only that, I can just about afford it if the English owners will drop the price a little and I give up my gym membership and any other luxuries and carry on working like a mad woman.
We traipse up the incredibly narrow and twisting stairs and I hope that none of us have an accident or I’ll never hear the end of it. There is a bathroom which has to be seen to be believed – the walls are chipboard, there is a bare bulb hanging out of the wall, the floor is chipboard and there is a filthy shower unit in a corner – it is horrible.
Going along the upper floor the length of the house it just gets worse, the floor sags – an indication that some of the beams are not holding the floor up properly; the floor moves as we walk across it and I don’t feel safe, there are massive spiders webs everywhere, you have to climb over and under beams to get into the rooms, it’s all on different levels.
It’s a mess – I haven’t even mentioned the outbuildings which are clearly falling down. It would be a huge challenge to renovate, it is probably a money pit … and yet, I am strangely drawn to this place and I say to Dad “I expect you’re right, it should be demolished but I’m going to buy it and give it a go”.
A week later my offer is accepted and I was the new owner of a French farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.