Lucy and Jason Pitts from London bought a home in the beautiful Vendée area, Pays-de-la-Loire, France. They have three children, and two giant dogs (Leonbergers) and an assortment of other animals and foster animals. Lucy was a barrister specialising in family law based in London but gave it up when the children were born and re-trained as a copywriter. We talked to Lucy about life, laughter and neighbours in France…
What inspired you to buy a house in France?
We had talked about buying a house in France for many, many years but the time had never been right. When the children came along, going on holiday became an absolute nightmare (there are 2 ½ yrs between all 3 of them). Then friends invited us to stay with them in France and we had a wonderful time. At about the same time I was victim of a very unpleasant incident which sort of rocked my world for a while. I needed a bolt hole and we thought to hell with it, let’s do it.
What is your home in France like?
It’s very special! It’s a former water mill sitting on a hill with its own little valley and stream and backing on to the most amazing woods. It’s set on 3 floors and needed almost complete renovation and fitting out. The previous owners hadn’t used the attic at all but had built 9 rooms on the ground floor. We knocked them all out so that it was back to the two rooms it had originally been when it was a mill and we put 4 bedrooms in the attic. There’s a games room in the cellar. Attached to the kitchen is a piggery leading on to what was a goat shed and chicken coop. The first job we did was to turn that into a “wine terrace”. As with all renovations we had lots of problems along the way from having to change builders at the very last minute, rotting beams and spiralling costs. Whatever we can do ourselves, we do.
How did you find your property in France?
Our original property search was based around the coast and we wanted something ready to rent out. I spent 8 months online identifying properties and then narrowing them down to the ones we wanted to view. We spent 10 days viewing but saw nothing that really inspired us.
We thought we’d have a look inland for an hour and see how much more you could get for your money. Le Moulin was the last property we viewed on the last day and was a real wild card because it was nothing like what we’d been looking for. It is very large and was in a sorry state but we both instantly knew without a word passing between us!
What do you like best about the Vendée?
It’s a different pace of life there. You step out of the car and drop down several gears. The weather is great and you can walk for miles in the Jurassic woods without meeting anyone and there are many beautiful lakes. It’s very inspirational, very relaxing and very medicinal. The children have so much more freedom than you can get in the UK and they’re outside from dawn until dusk building dams, camps, bridges and hunting wild boar.
What are your neighbours like?
My immediate neighbour is Gerard. He’s very well known in the community (some might describe him as paysan) and is always tinkering on his small holding. In the summer he wears very dubious shorts and in his cave there is barrel after barrel of home brew, made from everything nature provides from apples to almonds and quite a lot in between. Le Moulin was his childhood home so I sometimes have to ask him about things and I’ve found although he’s helpful, I rarely get a consistent, logical or accurate response.
I once had a long conversation with him about our septic tank which he had told me was in one place and it turned out it was somewhere else. I asked him how often it needed emptying and he then explained at length how in France they have a sophisticated system whereby the waste goes from the tank to a pit of stone which breaks it down etc etc. After 20 minutes I asked where our pit of stone was, to which he shrugged and replied, “oh you don’t have one, it’s just a normal tank”.
One time he got his tractor well and truly stuck in a ditch. Nearly the entire male population turned up and managed to get a second tractor stuck whilst trying to pull him out. They desecrated the landscape but every one of them seemed to think it was my fault. I have no idea why as I told him not to do it. It took an entire day to get him out!
How have you found becoming a French holiday home owner has been?
I’m lucky because I can view France through tinted glasses as I’m not here permanently. There are lots of things about France that could drive you nuts, such as the slow bureaucracy and rules. I often find things are shut, like our local restaurant which closed for 2 weeks in peak season and the builder’s merchants which shut for 3 days because of a one day bank holiday. EDF can be a nightmare because they have a nasty habit of taking large amounts out of our bank account and then not repaying it until the end of the year.
Any interesting anecdotes you’d like to share
My son Monty loves living creatures. Apart from releasing frogs into the supermarket he did on one occasion stick his finger into a scallop shell at the supermarket fish stall and it snapped shut. He screamed and threw his arm up, sending the scallop Frisbee style across the fresh meat section!
Our first summer was a series of strange and funny events. Our builder turned out to be a nudist [Ed’s note – first time we’ve heard of that one!], the well ran dry and I found a snake in the kid’s bedroom. My husband had gone back to the UK leaving me with the children and the dog. We had to go to the local pool to wash ourselves and the dishes. Monty got bitten by a praying mantis, a stick insect, a hornet and put his hand in a snake’s nest (the mole came later). We didn’t realise the well had run dry so spent days in the cellar trying to fix the pump. Our neighbour Gerard offered to bring us water in his van. We stopped to have so many glasses of rosé on the way that by the time he’d got it from the communal well to our well, most of it had leaked out through the many holes…
What do you love about living in France?
From the very first moment, everything about buying Le Moulin has been a massive and amazing adventure and I wouldn’t change a thing. It has defined the children’s childhood. I thought they’d get sick of being lugged across France (and we do break down a lot – last count I think was about 9 times) but they love it and they have a freedom here they don’t get in the UK. When my daughter Greta accidently said something in French – it was a real highlight for me and she has a great accent.
There is so much to do in the area for adults and families alike but it never feels busy and you could forgiven for thinking there is nothing here. I love that…
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and writes a monthly column about the Vendée for The Good Life France. She divides her time between the UK and the Vendée.