Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Rich Religious Patrimony of Brittany

There is a respectful observation of religious heritage in Brittany which is to be admired. I'm not a religious person so, to be honest I don't go scouting too far off the beaten track in the UK... but I've certainly developed a curiosity about the spiritual experiences I've had over the last 15 or 20 years... and I've always been respectful about the religious followings of others... You have to admit there was definitely something going on when these chapels and churches were built with such passion, belief and dedication and back then journeymen; masons, carpenters, heraldic artists, stained glass artists and others...travelled far and wide over their careers as indentured apprentices and adult artisans working on ecclesiastical buildings for the glory of God...and probably, if money ever changed hands, it was far less than the minimum wage!

We took to exploring churches and chapels quite a few years ago. It began when Micki was undertaking a project to explore the heritage of her mum's side of the family... My Mother in Law's cousin, Basil, had been a partner in what became one of the biggest stained glass companies in the UK - Heaton Butler and Bayne...supplying religious glass  not just to the UK but also to the English speaking world... 'the Dominions'... Canada, New Zealand and Australia (we restricted our own tour to Sussex, Hampshire and Kent) and Micki 'got' her certificate and practices as a stained glass artist.

So... the pastime of visiting churches, cathedrals and chapels is a given and we tend to do much more of it in France than in the UK... In fact, when we are cruising the lanes and by-ways of Brittany, if we see a sign that points to a chapel... it's a detour that's guaranteed to add an extra hour to the journey - but time well spent. A few weekends ago was no exception... We had planned just to park by the banks of the Nantes Brest Canal south of Lake Geurledan - have a picnic and walk the dog along the tow-path. That's always great but we decided to turn off the main road a little further south after our walk and found a hamlet called Carmes... A weekend to encourage visits and support for the local chapels had been the weekend before. Somehow this one seems to have enjoyed its special weekend of Patrimony (where every church, chapel and remotely religious building is open for locals and tourists to have a closer look at these preserved treasures)... and Carmes it seems was enjoying a second 'Open House'... an extra opportunity for a chosen few. So we were very lucky to come across a group of people taking a glass of wine outside the church... It was a beautiful autumn day with no hint of the cold snap that would remind us that winter was just around the corner. We knew nothing more than what presented itself and, as we were walking with Rudy down the lane we were doing the 'Bonjour... Ille fait beau' routine, I drew the short straw and hung on to the dog whilst Micki went into the church to have a shufty and to take some photo's. I wandered further down the lane beaking into farmyards and the front gardens of enchanting cottages... I turned around as the ancient houses gave way to open countryside and walked back toward the disbanding group of visitors. The stalwarts were left folding up the trestles and chairs... Just as I arrived at the church door Micki emerged and said... "You've just got to have a look in here. It's just amazing!" Obviously I did and it was... An amazing experience...

Having passed through the building being amazed by the stained glass and ornate ceilings I stumbled squinting out into the light... there were by then just 2 or 3 of the organisers of this small event packing up the hardware... So, when you are of a limited vocabulary you offer "C'est magnifique... tres beau, merci pour le opportunité... etcetera... "Would you like to follow me and have a look at  our piéce de resistance?"... offered our emerging new host - a silver haired man in his 70s. "Of course" we both said... "et la chiene?"... Rudy looked worried he might miss out... The keeper of the keys said it was no problem... so off we all went. We'd marvelled over the church interior... now for the extra revelation that lay treat behind the altar

A winding staircase entered via a small gothic stone arched doorway to the rear of the building revealed, after about thirty stone steps, was a 10m x 6m room with wide planked flooring and soaring walls lined with wooden panels which must have come originally from the main body of the church... The wall paintings are from the 15th Century... and the removal of these from the naive enabled the existing church interior to be emblazoned with illuminations for the glory of God. The whole place is quite sensational... How lucky we were to take the decision to turn down this lane and take a look... I've no doubt we will return the next time we wander along the tow path toward Pontivy.

• The Church of Notre Dame de Carmes... Wall and Ceiling paintings from the 15th Century • 
Each year each commune or church community across the whole of France holds what are known as 'pardons', a get together where funds are raised to support the outlying chapels of any village where the main church has soaked up a more mobile community...  These days those outlying hamlet chapels are not regularly used for regularly services. Some are grand affairs and some more humble. The chapel's upkeep needs a nudge now and again and the pardon process does the trick. Locally to us are three chapels and funds raised help with the buildings' maintenance needs. Ten Euros per head buys a ticket and local farmers donate their produce be it animal or vegetable free of charge. There is usually a baptism or two in the chapel before lunch and then the folk of the parish descend on the marquee decked out with trestles and benches with gingham cloths and bunting flapping gently on a warm July breeze. Four course partaken amidst a hubub of animated conversation... Some people don't get to the nearest town, the coast or even the local lake and this is one of their very few excursions!

When lunch has settled it is a live version of 'It's a Knockout' - with all manner of féte style fun and games and drinks at the bar... Some pardons extend into the evening with music and dancing... All in a very good cause.

Witnessing the wonders of this particular chapel and the enthusiasm of our host on this particular visit... It's money well raised and very well spent!

Friday, 14 October 2016

Harvest Brittany Style...

Brittany's a tough,, ramped up agricultural environment. Even the strimmer we bought from the local DIY shop turned out to be 'Commercial Strength', so it's not surprising that when the local farmers here set about the annual Maize harvest in late September or early October... they have to do it 'big style'. The fields are huge and the task is gigantic and hectare upon hectare for miles around here are planted with sweetcorn. I can't imagine how this task would have been completed before mechanical equipment came into everyday use. It pulls into perspective why there are so many farmsteads and tied cottages making up the thousands of hamlets and many hundred villages across the peninsula so that anything on this scale could be carried out with anything like the same precision manually.

It's extremely rare to find fresh maize for sale in supermarkets as a commodity for human consumption ... It's just a big 'Non' from the natives  it seems (parsnips take on the same rarity value too). And the reason that all the fields of maize you'll see are dull russet and very uninviting is that the whole plant as it's sheared from the earth is, within a wink, shredded, stalk and all... into tiny pieces... Shredded to make flakes for animal feed. It rests for seconds within the combine before being blown in a tight streaming cloud through a chute and out into the air directly into a fast moving mobile bin the size of a shipping container. This is being towed behind a 'pumped up' tractor - the whole rig is a cross between a veloceraptor and something out of Transformers . The tractor follows the giant shredder in a ballet round and around the field in a clockwise direction as the crop diminishes noticeably in size... As the bin passes the half full mark another identical rig appears as if from nowhere and latches on to the rear of this mechanical hokey-cokey... Following close behind, the driver awaits his cue. The full bin peels away at a signal from the combine's 'pilot' and the empty one shimmies up to replace it in an instant. He hardly let's any drop...

There's not a moment of hesitation. The full bin is hurried from the field and the rig heaves its way down narrow lanes (nothing can pass - even Cornwall can't compete with the narrowness of some round here)... off to the co-operative's silos to be weighed, logged and stored. Then it's straight back to the fray. This activity is being played out by dozens of teams across the Breton peninsula and the combine and tractor drivers are, for a month or so, the champions of the Bretagne Champs (fields).  They are obviously the same people who a month earlier take on the wheat for the flour mills... They are the cowboys, the plainsmen of Breton agriculture... They are the same harvesters who clear the fields of wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, carrots, cabbages, sprouts, oil seed rape... you name it they cut it!

This vulcanised dance marathon goes on from early morn - moving from field to field - and often through the night according to the weather forecast. Night time goings on, if you are lucky enough to see them are amazing. We're lucky. Right outside our back window is a 5 Hectare field and, when you're just about to turn in for the night it's a privilege to be able to stand at the window with an extra glass of wine or pommeau hooch and watch the late night moon-lit ballet begin where the daytime polka left off!

Friday, 29 July 2016

The Son et Lumiere at Bon Repos.... I'll say it again!

It's a must if you are in Brittany during the first two weeks of August... And, if you're not it's a good reason to make sure you are! And, with this annual event...another year's passing has been marked. August 4th was actually the anniversary of the Acte Finale - the signing of the finalisation of our contract to buy our house at Le Ros back in 1999. To celebrate the passing of 17 years stewardship of our house in Brittany, we are going, again, to the Abbey of Bon Repos to see 'Le Pays de Conomor'. It's a son et lumiere spectacle (a sound and light show) that is both stunning and heartwarming, illustrating a passion that the townsfolk of Gouarec have for just being Breton. Three hundred and fifty of them - mums, dads, kids, grans and grandads, over a two hour period, re-enact, in front of laser projected backdrops, the history of their region... tinged with good humour and expert timing, the story of Brittany unfolds. It's all about Chivalry and Patriotism and fending off those who would invade their lands... (curiously it sounds like our world today) but in those days it was mainly the Romans and, of course, the Brits...

I, in my amateurish way, have turned up five or six times with my camera to this event and hope each year that I will get something worthy of representing the show. It's never easy - what with the speed of the players, the changing scenes and the foibles of modern cameras on auto... Don't ask me to go on 'manual' when the action is fast and furious... (I've already made a mental note that next year at least we'll sit toward the front). Using flash for filling in or arresting movement would quickly get you removed from an arena that depends on total and constant darkness for its success.

If you are anywhere near the Cotes d'Armor in northern Brittany you must get there... The event has gained size and status as the years have passed and technology, with laser effects and projections, enables it to improve year on year. The 'fringe' element has also grown to include a market, street entertainers, hog roasts, bars and a sense of mediaeval mayhem... a brilliant complement to an excellent night out. Last year we rolled up in our VW camper and, as they do, the French had allocated a separate parking area free of charge (for camping cars) so that visitors caould extend their stay to the daytime before and also to sleep the night - so, enjoy a drink or two with your night's entertainment.

Monday, 13 June 2016

The Fosse Man Cometh!

For those who don't know, those who haven't enjoyed or endured the experience - having your fosse septique emptied gives you a feeling akin to filling your car's fuel tank to the brim after you've been inexplicably and continually driving past petrol stations when you know you are running on fumes (Never done it? - I'm not sure I can wholeheartedly believe you). "Let's be daring and pass just one more garage"... and then, when you succumb... that strange euphoria.  Yeh! That about sums it up... That sense of freedom. Facing the open road again with relaxation and the confidence that nothing can stop you now!
When it comes to the emptying of your fosse the rehearsals of the conversation you are going to have when you telephone to book the appointment for the 'sludge gulper' to roll up are all worth it. Fora start there's the language barrier and the esoterics of it all. Although, when you hang up the phone... because it was in fact so simple, you wonder whether they will actually turn up! It's the numbers in a foreign language that make you doubt yourself. The fact that the French bunch them up in pairs whereas I am used only to remembering and delivering them one at a time... I know - pathetic! And, being on the phone, rather than being there in person there is no opportunity to resort to sign language... the flapping of the arms or generally gesticulating in what afterwards seems like a rather pathetic pursuit and looking quite ridiculous - like some giant erratic scratting chicken. Even toward the end of the conversation, when it was almost 'in the bag' I had to hand the phone over to Micki because the poor girl at the fosse company asked me a question just a little too quickly for my tardy, slow to respond, 'English only' brain to grasp. It was just to say that they would call back after lunch to confirm the day and time... Damn it! I am getting there but - inside - when one half my brain confidently opens my mouth the other half just splurges a random stream of unintelligible ectoplasmic nonsense! Ah well... maybe next time...

Maybe even deciding to write a blog about something as mundane as fosse emptying may seem odd to the average mains drainage devotee or even a regular septic tank full time house dweller - one who is resident all of the time... but - we have a house in Brittany which gets just sporadic use and which, at visits of just 2 weeks out of every 8, means that in 17 years we had spent many a visit over the last couple of years wondering just how close our last visit to the loo would be to being the last one that the system could actually cope with!!! How far away, or how near still, whilst you are sitting on the throne, is your last poo? I have to say that we had got it spectacularly right - I reckon there was just room for say 20 further visits to the loo before it would have begun to travel back up the tube toward the house...Yes, quite! Great timing! (apologies to the more sensitive reader).

Turn up? Well they, or rather he... did! A nice very cleanly turned out young man... Mind you we were the first call of the day. Bang on time and with a truck that leaves one in absolutely no doubt that they were the right people to call in and that they can definitely cope with all eventualities.  In fact their truck was too large for the entrance to our drive and several boughs and branches had to be sawn from the trees along the drive in order to squeeze the leviathan through the gap. Affable young man whose procedure was measured and methodical as he went through his set pieces... from donning his 'zoot-suit' overalls and full face helmet... until he waved us goodbye he was very disciplined. His truck, having been deftly reverse through the very narrow gap between lane and courtyard, stopped just short of the telephone cable  which hung perilously close to the hatches on the tanker top. which meant that he had to stop short of the fosse around 30 metres. Pierre carefully stepped out the distance (reminiscent of Basil Fawlty in full flow) from the back of his truck to the septic tank and the filter chamber and then walked back grinning whilst holding thumb and forefinger only slightly apart and saying..."juste ce beaucoup à épargner" which I guessed was 'just enough'. And so with confidence he proceeded to unravel 5 or 6 chunky looking corrugated tubes which, when  screwed, clamped and locked together neatly connected with the business end of the siphon tube already laid by the open subterranean tank. Just a few centimetres to spare... "Parfait!" He said.
He pressed a button on the rear of the truck and it triggered a noise like a Jumbo jet taxi-ing for take-off which filled the courtyard and a triangular warning sign raised itself swiftly and eased itself into position just nudging the telephone cable out of the way suggesting that Pierre was right to stop the truck exactly where he did.

Ten minutes of great sucking force and then, apart from some very handy cleaning up of our volcanic rock filled filter basket with an industrial sized pressure washer, he was done! He spent around as long divesting himself of his protective clothing, hosing each piece as he removed it... gauntlet, boots and overalls... So, back in his now lighter weight and impeccable uniform, he proffered his clipboard with his facture and delivered his parting shot... I have no doubt he learned this especially for the UK owner's abroad market... He held his forefinger to the side of his mouth coughed gently and said "I see that you only use white toilet paper!" We laughed on cue and I said... "Let's make sure we don't leave it for another 17 years until the next time!" 174 Euros well spent - And, when you have it done, as we did, after 15 years it works out to just to €11.60 each year... Bargain!!

Triskel : Based in Loudeac... Magnificent in their efficiency:- Tel: 0296 28 64 17

So glad to be back in Brittany in one piece... he built a chapel.

298 metres above sea level may not seem that high in the overall scale of mountain peaks but that's where, in 1380 a local Knight with his home at Le Quillio ('crest' in Celtic) in the Cotes d'Armor, had decided he would build a homage... the first Chapel of St Lorette. The spot had previously been used as a burial site in Neolithic times (10,200BC) and is marked by 28 stones… There must be some significance in that the stones in a line to the North are of white Quartz and those to the south are of schist or slate. 

So it was that in the 14th Century a then Count of Uzel (a hilltop village, 6km from our house in Brittany) who significantly became Constable and leader of the armies of the King of France (top job) was fighting in Italy and was close to Ancona where the original chapel to Our Lady of Lorette is sited… He vowed, at this his darkest moment, that if he survived and won through during this, his worst ordeal, that he would build a chapel at the highest point on his land and dedicate it to Our Lady of Lorette… He and his men must have pulled through because here is the current chapel. It's setting is stunning and the views are spectacular :- the chapel sits amidst pine trees next to the Neolithic burial stones. Modern accoutrements of picnic benches do not detract from the serene atmosphere that is quite palpable. 

In 1854 the local town council decided that the original chapel was in too bad a state of repair to be restored adequately and should be replaced by a new building. A shame they didn't leave the ruin for all to see and build the new one as a neihbour. Although it seems unlikely, because of its hilltop position, the site is in fact a natural area for the catchment of rainwater and feeds several springs further down the slopes that shelve away from the site. One spring, about a quarter mile down the hill and within sight of the chapel down a straight lane, wooded on each side, is capped with an ornate monument dedicated to Our Lady of Lorette. The water is considered miraculous. Micki dipped her hands in the water and was immediately relieved of a' locked' finger which for years clicked in and out of place each time she opened and closed her hand. That was a moment of amazement. Unfortunately it was back to normal the following day… So filling a few bottles might be an option. The waters have been specifically noted for the relief of ear infections and hearing problems. "Sorry?… What was that?

If you're passing and are in need of a cure... (to be honest just being up there makes you feel good) then traveling through Le Quillio from east to west toward Mur de Bretagne… pass the 'end of the village' sign… (Its name with a cross through it) then keep a look out for a right turn up the hill which is signposted  "ND d'Lorette"… follow the signs until the ornate well monument appears on your left… the turning for the chapel is immediately opposite - to the right. There is random parking amongst the tress… nothing formal and on the occasions we have been there we have been virtually alone… Enchanting. The chapel is open with some very attractive stained glass windows. It is a place of noticeable calm. And it appears to be well supported by the local community.

Note:- For those who don't know, across France there is a custom of communities, centering on their local church of course, supporting outlying chapels via the holding of 'Pardons'. The day often begins with a baptism or two…Local farmers donate the food for the communal meal (a friend calls them pig & potato functions)… but it's a 4 course meal with coffee to follow and plenty of wine And the long lunch is often followed by typical village fete attractions. Villagers pay 10 Euros each… Everyone has a good day out, a hearty lunch with good conversation and the chapels have their maintenance funds for another year… Voila! 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Brittany Bound? With this level of value, style & potential - at 238,000 (GBP)* why not?

An 8 Bedroomed Manoir, PLUS a 4 Bedroomed Longere/Farmhouse on a large courtyard, with stables, outbuildings and 7 Hectares of land - divided amongst parkland, woodland, grazing and gardens close by the house. Sounds idyllic, ne fait-il pas? Well it is... and it's now available for just 300,000€ + Fees! (£238,000*) Exceptional it certainly is and deserves to be seen! If this was in the Home Counties you wouldn't see change out of £1.25 million - but in Brittany at today's prices they are just this side of 'hen's teeth in terms of their rarity!

At A House in Brittany we don't often publish blog posts about individual houses - but now and again there is a good reason to buck that trend... and this house deserves it in spades. It has been on the market for a good while now and started off, as you can imagine, at a much higher price - some 650,000€ + Notaire's Fees. The current owner, from the UK had the misfortune to have a successful career cut short by illness and, not surprisingly, priorities as regards owning a house in France as well as maintaining a home in England changed things somewhat. The price of property in Brittany has always offered life changing opportunities at fairytale prices...

So this property has been reduced once more and is now priced 'to sell' and really just requires to be seen by the right prospective buyer to strike a chord with their future plans. Plans that will allow the complex to realise its true potential. It has possibilities as a leisure, wedding or holiday venue, a residential course centre or equestrian venue or, simply, a large family home with Chambres d'Hotes and Gite possibilities. The commercial uses are many and varied, as wide as your imagination in fact...and the price is definitely right, having just been reduced to *300,000 € plus Notaire's Fees!... Last one to click the link loses out!

Originally built as a hunting lodge and country residence for the Count Lanlay de Landemond, with a farm to support the manor house's gastronomic requirements... it sits between St Nicholas du Pelem and Rostrenen in the Cotes d'Armor, approximately 35 miles from St Brieuc (the Cotes d'Armor's departmental capital) and the beautiful Emerald Coast... 70 miles from Roscoff (ferries to Plymouth/Cork and 68 miles from St Malo (ferries to Portsmouth)... Air services are available at Dinard (73 miles) and Brest (74 miles).

All in all this complex exemplifies the difference in property value between the South of England and the Northwest of France with the added difference that a real human story and a desire to sell quickly can make. Not withstanding that it is an investment that can earn its new owner a new life, a new project at a price that makes it a reality and not merely a dream!

*The price of 300,000 € equates to £238,000 (GBP) at Currency FX rates as at 13th April 2016 (rates vary according to market fluctuation).

If you are interested as a potential purchaser or as a publisher wishing to feature this property then e-mail or telephone us, Chris or Micki on 01903 202272. More photo's and details are available.

Chris Slade • A House in Brittany Ltd.,
01903 202272

Rain... but No Clouds... Now that's a Weird Start!

There was no inkling when we rolled up that anything was unusual about Le Roz... 'The Rose'... an 18th Century Corps de Ferme (the heart of a farm with all but 3,000m2 of it's land redistributed amongst neighbouring working farms) we plucked it from dereliction. And from under the noses of some local would-be buyers, who we pipped to the post; those who might have had a weather eye on the place themselves...but bought by this barmy couple from England. Since March 1999 and the signing of the Compromis and the paying of 10% deposit, we had eagerly awaited the call to say that all the documentation was complete and we were ready for the Acte Finale... Balance wired to the Notaire for placement in his clients' holding account, we were on the blocks and ready for the 'off' when Russell (who had introduced us to the house in the guise of introducing agent) called to give us the preferred date for the transfer of ownership. He suggested that we should meet him at 3 O'clock outside the Notaire's office in Uzel, a small hilltop town, more suitable maybe as a location for a1960s Eastern European movie with grainy, moody shots and subtitles rather than the place where our Brittany property ownership saga might begin. He also suggested that we should 'swing by the 'ouse' before hand just to be sure that everything is as we might want it to be before signing the paperwork. Uzel is around 6km down windy lanes (Cornwall style) from Le Ros.

It was August 4th and everything had gone well on the channel crossing. Once again there was no shortage of enthusiastic chatter and, laughably, we had packed the interior of our (2+2) Audi soft top with all manner of nonsense... A Gaz Lantern, a miniscule camping stove, Lilo airbed and even a petrol strimmer poking through the hole above the rear seat armrest through to the boot where Audi designers intended us to store our skis! (lol)...I'm not sure that feature was included with us in mind... maybe wood from a DIY store or today the trusty strimmer - but not skis. There may even have been a spade and a garden fork in there too... All the required paraphanalia for our first night's stay before we made a more lasting base camp from which to tackle some meaningful renovations.

As we rolled to a stop in front of the house there was not a lot to separate this visit from the view we had looked at the last time we were there... The garden (that's a laugh)... was severely overgrown in front and to the sides of the house. Undergrowth of fairytale proportions engulfed the house and outbuildings and the house itself looked as neglected now as it had done four months earlier but the windows that had been open and that had allowed us to take a look round were now locked shut. The barn opposite was accessible - someone had obviously opened the doors as the grass had recently been laid flat in two arcs... like sections of a mini corn circle; windscreen wiper sweeps of flattened straw - for the summer sun had dried the grass. When we had viewed the place back in March opening the barn's doors revealed two old trailers tents, an upright freezer topped off with a cow's skull complete with horns... there was all sorts of detritus, hay bales, rotting timber, - bits and bobs you might expect to find in places like this scythes, sickles, pitchforks - even an adze and the rustiest old plough... All of the tools and implements to work a fermette were there. And everything had been covered with layers of dust.

The sun was shining (see pics from the day)... bright white clouds, just a few, skirted the valley beyond the drive in from the lane and they moved smoothly and gently on a warm breeze. So, engine off and, looking round over my shoulder for my camera...reaching for the door handle to go and explore. And suddenly - a clap of thunder preceded an instant downpour... No messing! Stair-rods that punched the ground and machine gunned the windows of the car and beat on the roof like a phalanx of Japanese drummers... It sounds hysterical but the deluge onset so fast and was so furious and unexpected that we could not get out of the car. Restricted to looking out of the window at what was going on and having to wipe the windows clear of condensation, puddles were forming on the mud and grass driveway within just a few seconds. The rain persisted for 30 minutes and hardly changed its pace or consistency. But, as if on a timer, it stopped as  just as quickly as it had begun. Just as instantaneously as switching off a power shower. 'Click' and it was gone... leaving just a steaming landscape... but after emerging from the car, avoiding the standing water and having a cursory wander around it became obvious that only the house and garden had actually been affected by the rain. Walking back toward the lane and having a look at the road's surface itself it was completely dry.... A further cautious walk around - because now it was beginning to feel a bit spooky... across the garden in front of the house - peering through the dripping foliage to the adjacent field... the wheat growing there was as dry as a bone and rustling in the slight breeze that still blew gently.  Walking right around the perimeter as best one could because the place had not been maintained and was a mass of brambles and undergrowth, it became obvious just the land on which the property we were about to buy stood - was wet...! The neighbours' house, which backed immediately onto land beyond our two barns, was completely dry... not a drip mark on it. It did seem very odd but it couldn't be said that it wouldn't be possible. So, returning to normality but now pressed for time we had a closer look at the house but without proper access we were restricted to squinting through the ground floor windows. It appeared to have been emptied of some of the nicer bits and pieces that we remembered... We were even able to recognise some fire damaged hinges from some cupboards we had admired (there had been some really handsome looking items and we had passed a message that was not heeded) and we recognised them as having been attached to items in the house when we had scurried from room to room when we had our impromptu viewing in March. Right now there were still puddles around the car and the grass steamed across the drive. "Shall we go"?

When we arrived at Uzel Russell was leaping from one foot to the other outside the Notaire's office. Maitre Didier Pencemont was waiting for us at his other office in Loudeac... rubber stamp poised. Loudeac is a larger town some 10 kilometres away. So, off we went... Russell was not the slowest of drivers so it was an eventful journey. The signing of the Acte Finale went smoothly with plenty of nodding and occasionally some explanation of clauses that either he or Russell felt that we might not comprehend. Having worked our way through the initial Compromis where simply we agreed to buy at 120,000 Francs and they agreed to sell at the same price and what exactly was included... this was not a surprise - nor was it that difficult to follow. We merely had to place our initials... all of us... at the foot of each page, indicating that we agreed to all of the points hitherto and then sign in full and date etc., on the final page. Representatives of the LeRoy family, the vendors, engaged the Notaire to sign the documentation on their behalf. The transfer of funds had been received and, indeed, we were given a cheque for the equivalent of £175 to represent, I think, the discrepancy in funds between Francs and Sterling since the first document had been signed back in March. This came in handy in the bar round the block to which we repaired immediately after we had done all of the forelock tugging that was necessary as we backed out of the Notaire's office, keys to Le Ros in hand!

As I said it was August 4th and, as the deed had been done, we booled round the corner and watched Russell burn rubber out of the town centre car park (it's always free to park) and we headed toward a hotel which we had spotted a few times as we'd passed through Loudeac - and asked if we could have a room for the night. "If you have not a reservation - then I am afraid we have nothing" said the concierge. "It is August and hotels everywhere are complet" he said with glee. We hadn't booked and so having tried also the hotel across the town square too to no avail, we quickly realised that the tiny stove we'd brought with us and the Lilo were about to come in very handy. We popped back to the bar that we'd been in with Russell and enjoyed our first meal out as French property buyers! Then we headed in a winding back roads kind of way back to our very own house in Brittany!
It was still way before night fall, being only around 7pm so after letting ourselves into the house we pulled a couple of unmatched chairs out of the barn and a circular folding metal table, patterned with holes and enjoyed a fine sunset and a bottle of red... but not before we had set up camp on the first floor and had an opportunity to have a look round at our bargain buy... Biggest moan? Obviously one of the team who had cleared the house of all the decent stuff and burned what they didn't want for themselves... they had taken the plastic tap tops from the kitchen sink - so turning taps on (sorry, tap singular) and off was a mole grip job. That night, because we'd had a fair bit to drink, sleep came quite easily amidst the excitement of realising we had a house in France... but, at around 3am I reached the floor with my bum and my shoulder blades as I realised we had a slow puncture. Foot pumped back to full pressure took us back to sleep state until morning proper.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Grass Really IS Greener on the Other Side! •  Brittany & Normandy!

Our £12,000 house when we first saw it in 1999.
Have you outgrown life in the UK? or almost anywhere else for that matter… Apart from all the hype and hyperbolé about Europe the 'are we in', are we out - is it good, is it bad?... How could we have turned this down at £12,000 back in 1999? Maybe you're empty nesters - We were in our time, 'rattling around' in a house that is getting a bit baggy now that the kids have left home. OR, you're younger possibly… and maybe technology has set you free and - lucky you - you can work from home…wherever the difference between income and expenditure is the widest (George Osborne - take note) - anywhere at all in fact. You are, as were are - and still are, 'have laptop… will travel' and all that,. Brilliant! But, whatever makes you footloose, you might just want to take a look at North West France. Out of reach - but not out of touch. Brittany and Normandy have plenty to offer apart from Moules Mariniere, Crepes and Galettes, Calvados and Croissants. Economically speaking property in France hasn't been better value for money for years than it is right now. The UK economy has made your existing house worth more than you might have imagined and the Sterling-to-Euro exchange rate that has been through some stormy times has settled on a very positive note for those thinking of buying in Euroland. Recently it's the best that it has been for years but it's walking the high wire at the moment because of referenda and Euro - tensions etc., Good time to make a silly offer in my book!

My but the wisteria has grown - 2014
We're not all renovators… Some of us wouldn't even class ourselves as DIYers. But that doesn't mean you lose the ability to take advantage of the increased value wrapped up in buying an 'ugly duckling' that can be turned it into "a very fine swan indeed". There are still great bargains to be had because of the undulations of the market. The European market - the Euro specifically, and within France too and this has meant that vendors are lowering their prices to appeal to the UK market which is set a rung or three above.

Speaking for ourselves we were lucky enough to happen upon a house in Brittany on our 3rd leisurely viewing trip. Toward the very end of our time and right out of schedule (we should have been on our way to the Channel port when we viewed 'our find') when we happened upon an executor's sale - that of a Corps de Ferme. The land holding had been pared down to leave the 3 barns, the well, the bread oven and three quarters of an acre Brilliant!. The ridiculous price meant that we were at the house - big scale map in hand at 9am on the day of our trip home. The check-in time for our boat back to Portsmouth was to be 3:30pm but the drive to Caen would be more than three hours (St Malo is just 75 minutes)… well we couldn't just walk away and put it down to bad timing. Something had to be done…So there we were on the doorstep…well, getting through the kitchen window actually!

The Lounge Fireplace... uncovered. Not the monumental original...
that was ripped out in the 1960s...
On climbing out of the car we knocked on the door, we walked back to the car and sounded the horn, we waited, we wandered up and down the small patch of grass that hadn't given way to undergrowth. We knocked… we sounded the car horn again, we waited. And, throughout this carry on our attention kept being diverted to an open ground floor window. After a long silence poised… like a diver on the high board I climbed in! I'll admit to just a little apprehension. No actually - quite a lot! And then, having decided I'd 'crossed the Rubicon', I launched into a zoom, careering around the house like a thing possessed - with a video camera clasped to my shoulder… 

This is how the lounge looks today
I was very taken with everything that I saw and it wasn't just the price talking. Upstairs on the higher side of the house, two bedrooms, one, worringly, with beds unmade even with items of clothing scattered around… Like the Marie Celeste. They coild be back any moment! I didn't hang around. Back downstairs on the lower end another staircase led to a huge open loft area… all manner of detritus there - even a pair of skis… and more amazingly, water skis. the amount of seemingly useless stuff, bales of moth eaten material, hundreds of polystyrene ceiling tiles, about ten pairs of patent leather shoes - assorted colours… Market traders? Hoarders? It wasn't possible to tell. But as a house for sale it looked like … well, like a bargain! When I emerged blinking into the sunlight I encouraged Micki to make the same trip around the house. Hesitating at first she decided to give it a go too and must have got as far as the lounge (we used the term loosely) at the opposite end of the house before a second open window in an upstairs room, it's angle, disturbed by the change in air pressure, clattered and slammed shut giving her a jolt - at which she rushed headlong back to the point of entry. Feeling all the while that we were trespassing (actually we were!) we determined that this place, at just £12,000 in 1999, was just what the doctor ordered at our time of life. Kids off our hands and the sails set fair for an adventure discovering the delights of Brittany and Normandy…

These two regions of France are pretty much the nearest 'abroad' you can get to on either a permanent or dip in, dip out basis without the need to fly (for those bothered by that kind of thing)…and also, to give you that delightfully out of the country, but not totally out of touch feeling. Relatives - if you are daft enough to tell them exactly where you are - can visit and you can nip back to UK at the drop of a beret… provided you can find someone to look after your dog, cats, geese and donkeys… No? Oh… well that's what I have talked myself into, when I'm there long enough to put down roots. But each to his own. 

There is (why use a few words when a thousand will do?) a longer version of our story which includes much excitement, misunderstandings, tales of hapless Brits buying abroad finding the most incredible bargains, how we came, as a result of a ragged system (in those days) to be running a business dedicated to creating a better path for those who  but thus began a journey that we are still very much on and which has given us entry to the most exciting chapter of our lives. I must admit that the prospect of downsizing/relocating in the UK, spending more time in Brittany. There is always plenty to do there… The Forth Bridge analogy springs to mind and soon, with the acquisition of a camper van, the prospect of exploring more of Brittany, France, Spain, Italy… the world - when the schedule of life allows sounds just great to me... Forgive me if I don't come back quite all the way to UK 

We are renovating, in bite sized chunks... and for me :- the grass is still greener on the other side

Monday, 14 March 2016

Is A House in Brittany a Good Investment?

....You bet it is!..
I'm starting 2016's posts off with a quick appraisal of a few properties that show what a stonking investment a house in Brittany can be... according, of course, to what sort of buyer you are... Don't be insulted, but some people are just nutters (in fact this is the category I probably fall into myself)... We, that's Micki and myself, in 1999, bought a dream of a house for just 12,000 of our English pounds (plus Notaire's fees of course). I know - amazing isn't it! We have since proceeded to visit the house 6 times each year for around two weeks each trip and, up to this point, never spent any more time than this over there together. On two or three occasions I have spent a few weeks more than that over at the house when major works were on the agenda - such as when two rooves were replaced... bathrooms created from scratch; including floors, walls, wiring (there's one bloody light fitting still doesn't work properly) plumbing etc., and an emergency kitchen (year 2000) which unfortunately ("maybe next time" is my mantra) is still in use have made longer stints essential.

But (you see I've already digressed)... the point is that today it would sell (if we wanted to let it go) for around maybe £150,000). If we had been speedier in our renovation/restoration, it could have been earning us a tidy sum in gite rental. Forget that neither of these have been the eventuality... either would have shown us a tidy profit so "Yes' a purchase such as our own would have been a great investment... And anyway we do enjoy our trips to the house - especially those in Spring, Summer and Autumn. Winter? Well a trip in January this year was miserable because cold, wet, quagmire goes to make a combination that is downright opinion forming shite (excuse me).

Of course if you are the second kind of buyer... one who has had that 'renovator gene' burnt from your brain and all you want to do is walk in flick the heating and the kettle on - sit down and watch TV., then you are obviously going to pay substantially more for whatever you buy... But then again you will also get much more back... You can be giting and reaping an income before you can say 'underfloor heating' (now there's something I wish I'd said in the right shop before we laid tiles on the ground floor!).

Anyway, friends we made only recently said that they were interested in buying a house in Brittany and we were able to introduce them to one of our agents who had been contracted to sell the property above. They travelled to view and... get this - they have bought two houses (from one vendor) offered in one lot on a private courtyard... One house has three bedrooms the second two. They share 3,000 square metres of land (3/4 acre). By the gates leading into the courtyard is a double open fronted stone garage with a loft above... There is a barn with workshop, a summer kitchen - plus a separate outbuilding and another closed garage. After an almost cheeky offer and a very well timed currency exchange, the price of the house distilled down to just £103,000 (that's pounds sterling)... Astounding value for money!... No-one north of the English Channel would argue with that. In fact many are in disbelief... If this property were to be in the Home Counties of England then £750,000 (Iknow, it sounds incredible but the UK property mrket is quite mador even more might not be out of order and here we have an instantly letable pair of gites which might command £350 to £400 a week each between them  from May to September. At the bottom of the garden is a gate which opens onto a path which skirts the wetlands of a 5 kilometre lake which has its own beach and a bar/pizza restaurant... And, even if you get tired of a cook-out on your alfresco summer kitchen and dining area the coast is just a 20 minute drive away, where wide open beaches offer superb sandy beach or craggy cliff-top walks or evenings whiled away over Moules and Frites downed with a beer and they are all just a spontanious 'let's do it' away...  So it's a resounding "YES"... A House in Brittany is a very, very sound investment.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

A House in Brittany... Buying into a dream... and providing for a rainy day...

12,000 English Pounds got us this place in 1999!
Though, of course it NEVER rains in Brittany! But that's probably as true as the one about how it ALWAYS rains in Manchester!

The first thing to say is... we have been very, very lucky with property over the years. I'm not sure that I should carry on buying lottery tickets... because I'm certain we have had a lifetime's luck in the surprisingly few houses that have marked out our lives. In 1999 we bought, in addition to our house in West Sussex, what is known as a 'Corps de Ferme' in Brittany, in the northwest corner of France. We had been on a couple of viewing trips and seen some frightening stuff, some total ruins where a complete rebuild would be the order of the day and, on one occasion, whilst holding on to the local Immobilier's details which showed a reasonably maintained and attractive looking property we drove round and round the village for so long that the locals were gathering and commenting, beginning to point and some even wave each time we passed by... It was only on the ninth circuit of the winding lanes that we realised the house we were looking for had recently parted company with its roof since the agent's photo had been taken. So we drove off slightly deflated to our Chambres d'Hote for the last night before our journey home. The lack of a roof put that house outside our comfort zone from a level of renovations point of view, although at £9,000 it did tempt someone else just a few days later!

...The price looked like a typographical error....
No! just another barmy bargain!
But little did we know that Le Ros, our 'Body of the Farm', would fall into our lap on that final night of our third Brittany viewing trip - when bad things, like the lack of a roof or being threatened with a shotgun by a shy and retiring would be vendor (we didn't have an appointment to view) were becoming commonplace so, when our BandB host suggested we go and visit a neighbour (half a mile away) who had just returned from exhibiting at property exhibition in the UK it seemed like a no-brainer... we turned up with wine aplenty and Micki and I curiously earmarked the same three properties from the fifty houses on offer. and one in particular. We should I suppose sign up as contestants on Mr and Mrs. We have always shared the same taste, in fact often would choose to launch into the same subject at the same time with the same point to make... That's what 46 years together will do!


So, at 9am on the following day, we were in the courtyard of an18th Century Farmhouse with 3/4 of an acre of land with three barns, a well and an ancient bread oven. The price of this gem was just £12,000. This was looking like another easy decision. There is little doubt that if this house were to be picked up and dropped in the Home Counties it would not disgrace the pages of Country Life at an asking price of a quarter of a million or more just for the opportunity of developing its potential. Nowadays? The mind boggles - but this is the nature of the economics of cross channel house purchase. Our BandB host had loaned us a large scale map in order that we should find this remote gem more easily and so we felt we should return it as it was on our way back toward the port. Rather than just accept his map Rick encouraged us to play the video we had just shot of the house and, when it came to an end - he said, "so how much is this place?".... "Twelve thousand quid" I said. "So obviously you're going to buy it then!" He pointed to the fax machine... gave me a pen and paper saying - "If you offer the asking price the place is yours". He pointed to the Notaire's fax number on the details (I know... 'fax' - well it was a few year's ago!). So... the fax was sent...

Our ferry crossing home was filled with the most animated stream of conversation of our married life. I'm sure that we didn't really believe that the place was actually going to be ours until - bags unpacked and back at work on the following day, we received a call from the Notaire to put the wheels in motion... con firmation that our offer was accepted, documentation, 10% deposit wired and, then a 3 month gap between signing the Compromis de Vente and the Acte Finale, we were back in Brittany - bank account opened balance transferred signing the paperwork and the place was ours.

 We have now been to-ing and fro-ing between Le Ros and Sussex for 16 years - renovating by stealth rather than speed and we also became involved in the property market a year or so after buying the house... straightening out the buying system for other would-be purchasers of similar bargains - because the systems and means by which it is achieved have changed dramatically since our own haphazard experience. In this day and age, in fact at a certain age it is a good idea to put something away for a rainy day - We have found that by buying a house in Brittany and downsizing in the UK we have been able to do that - augmenting what (low) provision we were able to provide for ourselves in a pension. But are there still bargains in Brittany that, given the passage of time, are still as barmy as our own? Surprisingly... "yes". Admittedly it calls for a close watch on what's becoming available...but certainly there are. Here was one such property...

Two adjoining hamlet houses - one with 3 bedrooms, one with 2, on an exclusive (you have the outside space all to yourselves) enclosed courtyard with two stone garages, a workshop and barn plus an outdoor kitchen for summer dining with a 3/4 acre garden. It was snapped up after it came in to us from an associate in central Brittany... just an easy woodland stroll from a 5 kilometre lake; a fishing and bird-watching paradise (a back garden gate opens onto a path overlooking the wetlands). It did sound too good to be true. 

The price? Well, after an almost cheeky offer and positive currency exchange.... £100,000! Internally both houses are very habitable with heating and up to date wiring and plumbing. At a very attractive extra negotiation were all white goods, some very nice traditional furniture... Oh and a ride on mower and a vintage cider press (sounding more annoying by the minute eh?)... The buyers may need to make your own mark on the decor - but the property can immediately provide an income as two gites, or as your own permanent or holiday home with earnings potential...  A thousand miles nearer to 'comfy-cosy' than Le Ros on the day we took possession. All I can say is... because if the new owners hadn't - then I might have.... is Good hunting!

Watch out... There's a Banker About!!

Buy a House in Brittany or Normandy - Definitely! But... Don’t do a Dave! Buying Abroad?  Got a minute? Read this... It could sa...