Fun of the mill

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- Credit: Archant

After months of hard work, the dilapidated mill in Vendée that Lucy Pitts bought and renovated with her husband is now a hub of fun-filled activity for all the family

On 29 October 2010, an unusually damp and miserable day, I fell in love with my dream French house. At the time you might have been forgiven for thinking that my husband and I were having a particularly bad lapse of judgement. Standing there as we were, knee-deep in goat poo, apricot stones and oyster shells, we stared lovingly at a very forlorn, “basically habitable” (not my words) mill house set on a hill in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.

After many years of half-hearted searching, we finally decided to bite the bullet in early 2010 and buy a house in France, and had made a very specific wish list. It had to be within 20 minutes of the coast, need no work, have three bedrooms, a small garden and be ready to rent out as a holiday let.

CHANGE OF PLAN

But here we were, an hour from the coast, admiring a house that stood in just over a hectare of overgrown land, had two large barns, several outbuildings, a goat, a chicken run and a piggery, all of which needed more or less total renovation. So much for the wish list.

The trouble was that, although we’d only come to this particular corner of Vendée as a sort of wild card to compare what you got here to what you could get on the Atlantic coast, and although I really hadn’t liked this house from the details we’d seen, there was no doubt in my mind, the minute I saw it, that this was the house for us.

As a family we are not known for taking the easy option. At the time we first saw Le Moulin our children were aged two, three and four, we’d just acquired a rather larger-than-life puppy and we both had demanding lives back in the UK. But watching the children throw stones into the stream that ran through the grounds and collecting chestnuts from the woods that the mill backs on to, we both sensed this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us and our children. And we really weren’t wrong.

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Luckily, my husband Jason is a builder by trade and very practical, and neither of us is averse to hard work and getting dirty. We officially took possession in February 2011 and threw the kids and the dog in the car and drove down for a week of sleeping bags, washing in the stream and exploring.

SETTLING IN

Everybody thought we were mad because the very first thing we did was move out the goat and convert his shed and the chicken run into a terrace which overlooks the valley. I figured if everything else was a hideous building site at least we’d have somewhere tranquil we could retreat to.

The main renovations were scheduled to take place between March and July, with me arriving with the children in August to start the decorating and entertain the dozens of friends who wanted to come and stay and to see our mad French project.

As with most building projects, things didn’t go to plan. It turned out our original builder didn’t have insurance so we couldn’t use him and had to find someone else in late April. Renovations finally got underway in early June, at which point my husband was due to drive down with an assortment of the eclectic furniture that I had collected.

By the time I arrived in August with the kids and the dog we had no staircase and the well had run dry, but you could just see the phoenix beginning to emerge. As is often the case, the huge attic of the mill had stood empty so we put in four large bedrooms and two bathrooms. We left the wooden beams and the stone walls exposed so all the rooms have a real charm and authentic feel.

On the ground floor we knocked out the nine small rooms which the previous family had used and returned the mill to its original two rooms, creating a very large family-friendly space. Once we took out the many internal walls, we got a real sense of the peace and calm of the mill and could really appreciate the views across its own little valley.

TIME WELL SPENT

In the end, that first summer was the most incredible adventure. My husband stayed for two weeks and then had to return to the UK while I stayed on. We had to wash our plates in the stream, shower at the local pool and we couldn’t have more than one electrical appliance on at a time. I even found a snake in the children’s bedroom and spent an entire day trying to find a water bowser (only to discover my neighbour had one).

I watched in horror as a wall fell down and spent many hours in the cellar trying to fix the pump. I also spent most days covered from head to foot in paint, broke the lock to the front door (and had to get a neighbour’s ladder to climb in upstairs) and did quite a lot of decorating in the early hours with a glass of wine in my spare hand.

Our nearest neighbour is quite a character and it was his family who’d owned the mill before us. He’d turn up regularly with a selection of locals to watch our progress or lack of it. His visits were, and still are, always accompanied by lots of rosé and a fair amount of misunderstanding as he speaks with a strong regional accent.

Luckily, the weather is nearly always amazing and I have a steady supply of good humour and support from a new-found friend who lives nearby.

The main house is now complete and is simply wonderful, and we go there as often as we can for as long as we can. The children just adore it; they have made lots of friends and are normally out of the house by 7am and don’t return until late. They’ve built dams and camps, created their own river island, made wild boar traps in the woods and set up their own children’s terrace in the top field.

They have close friends nearby, and my eldest who is now seven was even invited to spend a day in the local school. I was thrilled this autumn when she accidently asked for a strawberry yogurt in French, and my youngest is often heard greeting people by saying “salut” or “ça va” even when we’re in England.

We’ve still got the two barns and several cellars to convert but now the main house is ready to let. It has two large terraces and is enveloped in wonderful serenity and calm.

There is so much to do and see in the surrounding area, and there are some great walking opportunities, but actually we just love being at Le Moulin. The children have a freedom that I don’t think exists in our part of the UK and while they’re exploring and having fun, we can relax on the terrace and watch them enjoying themselves.

The original plan was to let it out as much as possible, but we’ve fallen so much in love with it that we just want to have it all to ourselves as much as possible!

Lucy Pitts’ four-bedroom home in La Tardière, Vendée is available as a holiday let

www.lemoulin-frenchholidayhome.com