An author’s inspiration on the Riviera
- Credit: Archant
For centuries the south of France has been a source of inspiration for artists and authors alike. Vicky Leigh meets the modern-day author putting pen to paper in Provence
The whole future of art is to be found in the south of France.” This was the declaration made by Vincent van Gogh. With its vivid colours, bright Mediterranean light and spectacular scenery, this part of France is renowned for inspiring some of the world’s greatest artists, from Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to Paul Cézanne and Marc Chagall.
And then there are the authors who will be forever associated with this corner of the country, including F Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote much of The Great Gatsby during his time on the Côte d’Azur, Marcel Pagnol and, of course, Peter Mayle.
Now the author of two published novels, Hannah Fielding shares the story of how she came to finally put pen to paper in the south of France.
Hannah was born and grew up in Alexandria, Egypt, where she lived in a large rambling house overlooking the Mediterranean. Fluent in both Arabic and English, she considers French to be her first language, so perhaps it’s no great surprise that she has enjoyed such an enduring love affair with France.
While travelling throughout Europe after attending finishing school in Switzerland she met her English husband Nicholas, and the couple now divide their time between Kent and their home in the south of France.
The seeds of the idea of owning a property in France were first planted during a family holiday with their teenage children in 1999, when Hannah and Nicholas rented a holiday home just outside Ste-Maxime on the iconic French Riviera.
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“We loved it so much we went back four years running,” says Hannah. “However, prices in the summer are very high, so we decided that if we were going to come here every year we should buy our own house.”
Hannah began looking at properties on the internet in the UK, and shortlisted some 30 houses to view during their annual visit in summer 2002. Growing up in a house overlooking the Mediterranean had made a lasting impression on Hannah, and as a result a sea view was at the very top of her wish list.
“I really missed the sea, and although we’re quite close to it in Kent we can’t actually see it, so I wanted to find a view in France,” explains Hannah. “Unfortunately, not many of the houses we visited really had a view of the sea even though the details said they did. I had to stand on a chair in one of them to be able to see it!”
There was one house remaining close to St Tropez, but the estate agent explained that there was little point viewing it. The owner’s wife was the driving force behind the sale but the owner himself was extremely reluctant to sell, as he had built the house himself in 1956 and had become very attached to it. In an effort to thwart the sale, every time an offer was made he increased the asking price.
Disappointed by the 29 properties they had seen and with just two days of their holiday remaining, Hannah convinced the agent to arrange a viewing.
“I thought that if I liked it I could perhaps talk to the vendor,” she says. “The agent opened the shutters to reveal the most wonderful view of the sea, and I burst into tears. Of course this was entirely the wrong thing to do as it showed how much I wanted the house, and the price did go up, but my husband was so relieved we’d found something that we bought it.”
The house was in a poor condition, and it became clear that very little had been spent on it since it had been built. There were only two toilets for seven bedrooms, and most of the bedrooms were on the ground floor, which reminded Hannah of a warren as it was necessary to walk through one room to gain access to the next.
Having paid more for the property than they had originally budgeted for, Hannah and Nicholas decided to live in it as it was until they had the money they would need to renovate it. For the next five years they visited every summer with their children and their friends, often accommodating up to 19 people.
Then, in 2007, they felt the time had come to tackle the renovation work. With previous experience of renovating properties, Hannah was well prepared for the challenge.
“I used to buy rundown cottages in the UK, do them up and rent them out, and I also revamped our English house,” says Hannah. “For me it was a new project and a new challenge, and I was delighted.”
Rebuilding the house was a major project, and the amount of work required meant that it was too big a job for Hannah to take on herself. Consequently she employed the services of local tradesmen to gut the house inside and strip it back to an empty shell.
In addition to raising the height of the dining room ceiling and increasing the size of the kitchen, an extra wing was added to the property to create a new main bedroom and a study for Hannah. The latter has a spectacular view of the sea, and is where she spends many an hour writing.
Once the major structural work was underway, the first thing Hannah was eager to tackle was the “ghastly” flooring. While driving through the surrounding area they came across a reclamation yard, where some Pierre de Bourgogne floor tiles caught Hannah’s eye.
“This particular stone has so many colours to it, and the way you lay it brings the colours out even more. I was rather shocked at the price as it is so expensive, so we looked elsewhere at other options. However, the samples I was shown in the many shops I went to never came close to that original floor I’d seen, so I went back to the very striking Pierre de Bourgogne. The flooring provided my starting point, because I chose the colour for the walls based on the main colour I was able to pick out from the stone.”
The stone is now a feature in the main bedroom, and in the living and dining rooms which are open plan. The fixtures and fittings were carefully chosen by Hannah for each individual room.
“Believe it or not I bought every piece of lighting on the internet, and they all had to be rewired as they were so old,” she says. “I love every piece dearly. I didn’t just go and buy stuff; everything was specifically chosen for each room, because each one has its own soul and colour.”
Hannah and Nicholas soon turned their attention to the neglected garden, which bore more than a passing resemblance to a jungle as it was so overgrown. It has now been replanted with colourful plants and striking palm trees, and a gazebo has been added. They have also built a small house in the garden for their gardienne, who lives there permanently and looks after the property when the Fieldings are at their home in the UK.
Although initially taken aback, an unexpected opportunity arose to make the garden bigger, and the couple were keen to take advantage of it to increase the amount of outside space.
“We were rather shocked to receive a letter from the commune officials telling us that they were going to take two metres from the back of the house in order to enlarge the road,” says Hannah. “There was a larger area of empty space on one side of the house which belonged to the commune and was basically used as a dumping ground for rubbish, so my husband and I agreed to pay a small sum and exchange this for the land behind the house. This was a fantastic outcome as it meant we could create an area for car parking.”
One of the main features in the garden is a large seawater swimming pool, which has now been appropriately fenced to comply with France’s strict regulations for pool safety.
“It’s a very special swimming pool because we pump water in from the sea, and it’s rare because they don’t grant permission for this anymore. We have to renew our licence every year to be able to do it, and we have to make sure we do it in time as we really don’t want to lose it.”
TIME AND SPACE
The entire project took two years to complete, and in 2010 Hannah and Nicholas started to spend longer periods of time at the house. They currently spend five months of the year in the south of France, and the remainder of their time is spent in Kent. With more time to devote to her writing, Hannah’s first novel Burning Embers was published in 2012, and her second The Echoes of Love was published in December.
“I’ve always loved stories and began writing short stories when I was at school, but when I got married and had children I didn’t have the time to give my life to writing,” says Hannah. “But with the house in France finished and my two grown-up children no longer at home, I decided to sit down and write my first book. I write in both countries but in France I have much more time, and the inspiration there is completely different. Everything inspires me – the sunshine, the sea, the colours, the vegetation.”
The children are regular visitors to France, and Hannah often has a full house when she’s there.
The decision to buy a French property all those years ago was certainly a good one. From finding that longed-for sea view to providing both the time and inspiration to write, it has enabled Hannah to realise a number of long-held dreams. I don’t think I really need to ask this question, but does she have any plans to sell the house now that it’s finished?
“My children would kill me!” she laughs. “I love the house, and I love the area. On a sunny day when there aren’t many crowds around I sometimes escape to one of my favourite places on the coast, sitting for hours dreaming and plotting, or in the many pavement cafés, where I can sit and just people-watch to my heart’s content.
“I could never sell the house, because it’s where my heart is.”
‘The Echoes of Love’ by Hannah Fielding, published by London Wall Publishing is out now priced at £6.99