Head over heels...

Christine Gale doesn’t regret her decision to settle in sunny Charente-Maritime for a second – despite the lack of heating or a kitchen!

 Have you ever been on holiday, sitting in a lovely sunny spot looking at the view with a nice glass of wine and thought: "I really could live here." Then you go back home, return to work and it's all forgotten apart from the photos. Well I thought that but I did something about it; that's why I'm in rural France, in a house with no central-heating and only recently acquired hot water! I was living in Sheffield, having moved up north with my company from Norwich. I hated the winters and with my 50th birthday approaching I went to France a couple of times on holiday and joined a French househunting club. Lots of people were looking for an escape to the sun and one of them was Dennis who lived about 10 miles from me in the UK. That was eight years ago. I've taken early retirement and here we are restoring a house in France. Southern comfort Where to live was a problem. France is a big country. In rural parts there is nothing for miles except maybe sheep and it might be 70 miles to the nearest supermarket. Land is cheap and you can see why. We both like the coast but anything by the sea is expensive. Dennis had worked in the Vienne and knew the weather was likely to be good until December so we settled on an area a bit further south. Our search area went from La Rochelle to Bordeaux. It's more of an even temperature all year round and has a micro-climate... or so the estate agents would have you believe. We came to Charente-Maritime for three weeks and saw 28 houses, some of which were ruins. There was a website then called Find A Ruin and many farmers had put their tumbledown barns on it at exorbitant prices. We did find that words like habitable' have a completely different meaning in France. Lots of houses still do not have running water and an inside toilet. Everything we saw needed a mass of work, but we eventually settled on a cottage which someone had lived in recently and brought up seven children. It had plumbing, electricity and water, but not much else, and there was an attached barn at the side for conversion. Buying in France is much less stressful. Once you have signed the compromis de vente and the seven-day cooling-off period has expired, there is no going back. The notaire usually acts for both parties, you pay a non-returnable deposit and the house can't be sold to anyone else. You are given a date about two months or so away, on which everything should be completed. We came back to England and by the wonders of the internet, Dennis found a French Citro�n H van for sale to add to his collection of old cars. If you have never seen one, they look as if they are made from corrugated iron and in France they were used for all forms of transport; a lot are still around as mobile shops. This one was in Orleans and had belonged to an apple grower since new in 1972. It had only ever done 10km to the market and back and was hardly even run in. It did the trip to England seven times picking up all kinds of stuff. We got lots of waves from passing traffic and several people wanted to buy it. The house was in a small village of 80 people and about 45 minutes from La Rochelle. We spent two summers working on it and not getting very far. We couldn't stay in winter as there was no heating. We basically lived in one room. The French neighbours were lovely and took to feeding Dennis lunch and dinner every day so he got even less done than planned. It was never going to be big enough. The car collection expanded and so we decided to sell and look for something with more room. There were no stairs in our house, the upstairs had been used for storage as in a lot of French houses and had to be accessed by ladder. I thought it would be ages before it sold, but three weeks later an English builder bought it on behalf of his mother-in-law, so now it's all finished and looking thoroughly lovely. We found another house, almost by accident, while waiting in the estate agents: an old presbytery in a village we knew fairly well. About 800 people live here and there are shops, a doctor and a dentist. It was about the same price as a UK terraced house and comprised a large house, acre of garden and a four-car garage. They sent us to view with a young lad on work experience from school and were amazed when we said we wanted to buy it. It was built in about 1850 and was being sold by the church. At one time, five priests covered this area but now they are down to one and he is in the next town. Everything had to go through the mayor for approval and in this case he wanted to extend the care home next door and wanted to buy it for the village. We had to go through two council meetings before we knew this was rejected and the house was ours. Up on the roof After signing, the estate agent took nine of us out for a long French lunch to celebrate. The church representative was lovely. We have a statue of the Virgin Mary in the garden which should have been taken away but I have been told I can keep her and must tell the church if we move. She's been there since 1954. The church hadn't spent much money on the place. There was an inside toilet but only because the children came for confirmation classes. The double-seated outside toilet complete with toilet paper is still in the garden. There was no hot water or bathroom, no kitchen, no central-heating and the roof leaked but despite all this, it had potential! The first job was the roof. We used the village roofer who gave us a quote in March but was too busy to do it until November. In the meantime, he adjusted the tiles which in France are not nailed down. All was fine as it was a hot summer and no rain for weeks but in October the attic turned into a swimming pool. He worked erratic hours, often on the roof in the dark. He disappeared when there was a village emergency: the caf� toilets blocked up. The graveyard had to be tidied for All Saints' day, when everybody visits and, of course, he had the usual long French lunch. He did a good job though and we discovered that an English builder working here would have charged double the price. As we had no bathroom, we've converted the smallest bedroom. It hadn't been decorated since 1976 and when we took the wallpaper off, it was lined with newspapers which you could still read. We knew the electrics needed doing as the house had no earth (quite usual here) and no fuse box. All the electrics upstairs were joined on one long circuit, and linked to a spaghetti junction of wires downstairs. When Dennis cut the wire, we found we had no electrics at all and a torch became an essential item. The French electrician arrived to check everything out, and he wired everything up to the mains with the electric light on and his screwdriver tucked behind his ear. Our water is on the mains while most places have a septic tank but during the last week of June every year, the sewer blocks and we have no idea why. We've never been able to find the pipe. The drive looks like the Somme where holes have been dug to try and find it. Dennis is convinced it was laid after lunch as we've seen builders having a morning break at 9.15am accompanied by several bottles of wine. The manhole cover is 60 metres away. Last time Dennis got the drain rods down the hole as far as possible and the drain unblocked with a mighty whoosh. Before he could get out of the way, he was covered in the unmentionable contents, which also went over the gate and the letter box. It was not a pleasant experience! We are lucky that one of us speaks French and we have integrated quickly. It would be very hard otherwise. We have been in the DIY shop and had to mime a wheelbarrow (much to everyone's amusement) because we didn't know the word. Work in progress There are other English families in the area but we know very few of them. We just try to fit in. I think we are a curiosity to the locals and the old cars certainly help. You might come out of a supermarket and find someone posing by the car and having their photo taken. "My dad had one of these," they say. Would this life suit you? It's like living in England 50 years ago most people say. People know each other, kids go off on days out in the summer on bikes exploring like we used to do. Priorities are different over here, being more concerned with family, food, clothes and enjoying life. Things are not open 24/7. If you want nightlife then life here may not be for you. Discos are always out in the wild so no one is disturbed and our nearest traffic light is 30 minutes away. Progress on the house is slow but it doesn't really seem to matter. If you go out for anything it's always: "Come back tomorrow." This happened, even when we wanted €2,000 from the bank. "Oh we don't keep that much," the bank staff informed us. "But you're a bank!" When we went back, it was there in a pile on the desk waiting. There is no security counter as we are used to. Banking is very strict. Go overdrawn and you can be banned from having an account for six years. If you don't know this area, it's famous for its sandy beaches and its islands while inland it's mostly agricultural (a lot like Norfolk) with fields of sunflowers in summer. You'll also find Charentais donkeys, which are a rare breed with only 750 left in the world. We have Cognac grapes on one side and Bordeaux on the other. People have asked us if we will do bed and breakfast but we don't want to be tied. We are here to see France and want to spend time exploring this vast country. What more could you want? Well central-heating and a kitchen maybe!