How it all began

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Friday 6th May 2011

I’m so excited. Five years after I bought the House with No Name, the first phase of the renovation is almost complete and we’ll be staying there this summer. Our architect and builder friends have worked miracles, keeping its character while transforming it into a place of charm. Lots of readers have asked how I came to buy it in the first place so I’ve gone back to my old diaries and reprint the story here.

With the pound sinking like a stone and endless press reports about the British selling up in France and hurrying back across the Channel, what possessed me to buy a derelict farmhouse near Avignon? It’s got a dodgy roof, a major damp problem and a garden littered with old scrap – and two years after I signed on the dotted line the place is still completely uninhabitable.

I first began thinking about buying a small house in France when I met friends who’d sold up in rain-soaked Cumbria and moved lock, stock and barrel to a rambling house halfway up a stunning hillside in the Drôme, a little-known region sandwiched between the Rhône Valley and the foothills of the Alps.

Next I became transfixed by Matthew Parris’s A Castle in Spain, the story of his spur of the moment decision to buy a ruined castle in the wilds of Catalonia. Parris called it “one of those foolish challenges that grip us in middle life.” How true.

Then I was enthralled by C’est La Folie, Michael Wright’s uplifting Daily Telegraph column of how he bade farewell to his safe south London existence and moved to a farm in the Dordogne with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company.

Within months – and without giving the matter nearly enough thought – I’d thrown caution to the wind and done exactly the same thing. Well, without the aeroplane or the cat.

I’d vaguely asked a friend who’s lived in the Drôme for 35 years to look out for a holiday bolthole and out of the blue she sent me an email about a farmhouse for sale. “Beautiful place,” she said. “Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”

Much to my horror, and before I’d even set eyes on the place, my husband rashly put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was far lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the 80-year-old owner and her four grown-up children. Only it wasn’t.

By the time I pitched up two weeks later to see it, accompanied by my two teenage children, the estate agent and the notaire, the vendors were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in a nearby town.

I took one look at the house and wanted to scarper. I’d envisaged buying a low-maintenance, two-up two-down with a sunny terrace and here I was, halfway to buying a tumbledown six-bedroom wreck with half a roof, water seeping through the walls and a bathroom inhabited by a plague of rats. The garden was a three-acre jungle and the whole place needed, as the estate agent so delicately put it, “bringing back to life.” The notaire, immaculate in a pinstripe suit and snazzy black polo neck, was visibly shocked. He wrinkled his nose at the damp and scuttled back to his car at the first opportunity.

But despite all this, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to wreck the owners’ plans by saying “sorry, it’s all a horrendous mistake. I’m not touching this dump with a bargepole.”

The following day I pitched up to the lawyer’s office in the sleepy nearby village of Puy St Martin and signed the compromis de vente.

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