Our farmhouse, La Creuserie, lies almost exactly in the centre of France, in what is known as the Bourbonnais. It’s an historic area in the department of Allier in Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes. It had been a small farm for beef cattle, was tenanted for 165 years and passed out of farming in 2003. It then consisted of a farmhouse and barn, facing each other across the farmyard. The yard was of bare, hard-packed gravel, with a struggling willow tree in an iron bowl in the centre. At one end of it, lay the farm pond and at the other, steel cattle fencing, painted white, dividing the courtyard from the fields beyond. Beside the farmhouse was a small cottage, which had originally been used for baking bread and, later, for keeping hens and pigs. Leaning on the other end of the farmhouse, lay a dilapidated garage, and next to it, two brick hen-houses (with typical rabbit hutches in front), and a machine shed. Opposite the house was a magnificent lofty barn, built in a traditional regional style, of stone and oak timber. At 40 metres long, it was considerably longer than the house. Outside the yard lay winter stabling for cattle. It had been a typical Allier cattle farm, with an equally local, regional architecture, for more than a century and a half.
Because it had been a farm, it had no garden or paths, very few trees, and a field. The farm had been stripped of most of its land, passed on to local farmers. Little of its agricultural past remained, save for an empty stable built of concrete under an asbestos roof, and corrugated iron sheds, whose loose sheets rattled in the wind, giving the place a desolate feel. It had been unoccupied for two years. The house was damp. It had a few electric radiators, and no central heating and was not insulated. It had no upstairs, but a grenier, which had been used for storing grain in winter, and which still provided a comfortable winter residence for countless animals, large and small. The cottage was not habitable. I had undulating earth floors, no doors and few windows, no electricity or water and a rat-infested roof.
In a word, the farm had become impoverished, and its grounds severely functional. The farmyard was not a court yard, but, more like a railway station, leaking its identity down the line. The architecture of the old buildings was austere and rustic. It wasn’t in any way, a beautiful place.
But it was a typical Bourbonnais farm, built in the style and construction methods of the Bourbonnais and largely untouched since 1836. It had been a typical “metayer” farm and, as such, had a well-documented human history in the Bourbonnais, of which an understanding would enrich the place we came to live in. It had wide open skies, rolling hills, rivers, streams and forests. It was uncrowded with large spaces, dotted with farms, under orange- tiled roofs. There were no visible neighbours. It was silent; the sky was black at night.
It would be a major challenge to renovate the farm, to restore the old buildings, to create a beautiful garden, and to manage the land, but we had a motive. We would make it a beautiful and sustainable place…
When winter comes to rural France
As I went to shut the hens up at dusk, the sky was pale yellow and crimson in the west, but grey and cold elsewhere. Frost was already covering the wood pile by the gate and the roof of the car, with a rough black-silver coating. The air was still, the cold penetrating. There was no noise except the distant, last settling of crows. By the time I closed the house shutters, it was almost dark. A time to go quickly inside. The living room, by contrast, has been deeply warmed by the wood burner, the cold and dark excluded by shutters and curtains. The lamps cast a yellow light under the dark oak ceiling beams. We ate supper by the fire, where the dogs had barely noticed my leaving. Outside, later tonight, our new year would be born, typically, in cold, black darkness and profound silence.
The winter comes swiftly to central France in January. The cold of the Alps to the East moves westwards, like a glacier in an annual Ice Age. There will certainly be snow. There will be continual sharp frosts at night, when the temperature will frequently fall below zero, even as low as -15. The days will remain cold, seldom above 5C. Sometimes, early on a sunny morning, brilliant white ice crystals, a centimetre long, will decorate the grass, hedges and trees from the farmhouse to the forest. The greatest oaks, in pure white tracery. In this cold, the farm tracks, muddy from the passing of mechanised harvesters, will remain hard and clean underfoot for days and even for weeks. Outside work will be unpleasant or difficult. Water and earth frozen. Thick ice on the pond. The garden tractor will not start and I will use a barrow to take logs to the house.
A few days later, looking out of the window at bedtime, we saw that it was snowing, large flakes in the silence. In the morning we woke to find that seven or eight centimetres had fallen. The wind shifted to the North-East and the temperature fell. It snowed steadily all day and into a second night, only stopping in the early morning, a depth of 45 centimetres altogether. The yard pond had frozen and the sun shone. We set off for the forest with the dogs.
The trees are elemental in the landscape around the farm. They compartmentalise the landscape and frame a variety of views They create sudden perspectives and intimate corners, hiding the tracks and farms, lining streams, isolating or dividing fields. They are especially dramatic in winter, black shapes at dusk, feathery grey in frost, forbidding “walls” guarding the forest, from a distance. There are Beech, Scots Pine, Wild Cherry and Norway Spruce, Medlars, Service Trees and Holly. Acacia was introduced in the nineteenth century to border the newly built railway lines and has spread.
The principal tree in the neighbourhood, and for many miles around, is the common Oak, Quercus Robur. It is the main tree in the thousands of hectares of deciduous forests. It also stands in the fields, sometimes equidistant, in stately lines, providing the cattle with shelter from the sun in summer. It grows in the hedge rows, though today young trees remain stunted after mechanized hedge cutting. There are four oaks by the farmhouse, all of them probably 300 years old, their branches formerly pollarded for winter fuel, according to the permitted custom of the Bourbonnais. One has no crown, few remaining branches and little growth. Its last function is to house a Little owl, ants, beetles and caterpillars.
The oak forests have long supplied local sawmills with timber for wine barrels, building and furniture, for Hi-Fi speaker units in the 1950’s and, today, for parquet flooring and decking. An iron industry developed within and around the forests in the late eighteenth century and remained local when coke replaced charcoal-smelting in the nineteenth century, producing two large industrial towns in an otherwise rural area.
The buildings of the region, built in traditional local styles were timbered with oak. The roof timbers of the farmhouse and barn, and the barn doors, some of them four metres high, and unchanged since the farm was built, are all of oak. Oak used in construction was treated in animal urine to preserve it, and today, after more than a hundred years, is so hard that nails cannot easily be driven into it. Farmhouses were traditionally heated in winter by oak logs, in open hearths and, from the end of the nineteenth century, in wood burners. Logs remain the typical and cheapest fuel, and for them, there has been a resurgence in demand in the early twenty-first century.
We followed the untrodden, pure white track towards the forest. The young trees in the hedges were weighed down with snow. As we neared the outskirts, on our left, we passed a plantation of Spruce, dark between the rows even in the bright light, opposite the last open pasture, against the forest edge ahead. The trees closed over our heads making a white tunnel between the conifers and the uncut field hedge. A tree had come down across the tunnel at one point. Everywhere a profound silence. At the field gate, we looked into the bright sunlight outside, in a clear light blue sky against the young trees hedging the boundary of the forest. Three deer ran away down the boundary, striding and leaping, and then into the forest, but the dogs did not notice. Coming back to the farmyard, the dogs seemed deliberately to amuse us slithering about on the pond ice…
Tony Welch, a former school deputy head, is a Francophile who spent ten years restoring and rehabilitating a farmhouse in France with his wife…