When we first saw the neglected farmhouse the spring air resounded with the throb of croaking frogs and we discovered to our delight that it faced a sizable oval pond enclosed by the shimmering arms of giant poplars, wild willows and other bird-filled trees and below the grassy banks yellow flag iris and the spiky leaves of bulrushes. Various water fowl skimmed to and fro and I could hear the musical trilling up and down the scales of a family of little grebes. It is one of four in a hamlet of which only one is visible, the other two are on the other side of the pond hidden by trees. We are flanked by rolling fields of bright yellow rape in flower whose perfume is quite overpowering at the moment and the dark green shoots of wheat against the patches of dark forest that the French so wisely leave between their fields. Oh yes my heart said– oh yes - this is our home!*
While Geoff and I were wintering in Spain we wrote this list of non-negotiable requirements for our future home in France:
- an old dwelling requiring restoration
- room for expansion
- privacy – no close neighbours
- close to water – canal, river or large pond
- established orchard
- nearby trees or forest
Once the estate agent opened the heavy wooden door we realised that all our requirements but one had been met; it was decidedly uninhabitable though had been occupied for several hundred years (though empty for over a year) and it showed; there was neither bathroom nor any sign of a lavatory – not even an outhouse of any sort; the kitchen had an ancient wood stove and a sink with a cold water tap. Even if we had been able to contemplate moving into three dingy, low-ceilinged, airless and smelly rooms with centuries of grime and dirt encrusted over the plastered walls the need for a lavatory and bathroom remained paramount. But apart from that – it was all we had dreamed about and more importantly the property was only a few kilometers from the port so Geoff could start work and we could live on our boat moored on the nearby canal nearby.
There was a flourishing orchard of old and gnarled cherry, apple, pear and plum trees and a well full of water; two other wells had run dry and been filled in. There were vestiges of a garden back and front with many shrubs and trees in spring flower. We had found the archetypal French farmhouse – at last.
Winter the following year. Evening in early January and a heavy fog has drifted down with a whisper just before sunset enveloping the dark line of forest trees before settling on the fields and the pond. It is going to be damp and dark to-night whereas last night was clear, moon-bright and very frosty. This morning the pond was frozen over but for the edges, and while we breakfasted on boiled eggs and crusty bread I watched a coot walk gingerly across the top of the ice then it fell into the water with a flapping of wings before it flew rapidly to the side of the pond, feathers fluffed. It’s been sunny all day and quite warm but not a bird in sight though I put some grain out; this evening two robins hopped by on their skinny legs looking as if they had come off a Christmas card while a pair of fussy blackbirds tidied up the still frosted garden leaves beside a black crow that was feeding on the grain.
We have almost settled in yet I still have a feeling of remoteness – as though this tranquil and beautiful old house and surroundings is just a temporary resting place and we will be moving on again. Strange but not surprising considering the moves we have made these past years. Now, looking around I have a sense of peace and contentment and the certainty that we really are here to stay is seeping into my bones. The Spanish lemon tree in the blue Puisaye pot that stands inside the east-facing French windows has tiny white buds that will open into those heady scented flowers – it thinks its spring like the northerly flying cranes – our builder tells me he saw a flight of cranes heading north. I wish I had seen them.
These short daylight hours have been bathed in winter sun, frosty at night with the pond still frozen, but warming to glorious days. This is my first winter in northern Europe – can this be the pattern? If so I can cope with it and I have no regrets.
About the Author: Valerie Helps is a well published travel writer now settled in the Loire region of central France where my husband is restoring our 200 year-old farmhouse. “A Third of a Pond” is the title of the journal that records my enchantment with these new and gentle surroundings.
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