Hearth and home

While spending Christmas in the French Alps, Lisa Dancy and her husband Ludovic decided on a plan to buy a home in France. The romance of the snow-capped landscape drew them to the windows of Alpine immobiliers and they began to dream of life in the mountains.

“We simply couldn’t get enough of France: the culture, the wine, the food,” Lisa explains. “Ludovic, who is half French, had always wanted our girls to learn about their roots and to converse in the native tongue, for at that point they were unable to communicate with their extended French family, except by using sign language.”

The couple returned from their winter holiday to discover they were expecting their third child and the news led them to re-think their idea of a mountain chalet.

“We agreed to overlook the attractions of bijou piste-side chalets in favour of family-sized houses in Savoie, home to Ludovic’s extended family; farmers and purveyors of some of the best saucisson you have ever tasted,” Lisa smiles.

However, it turned out that Savoie wasn’t quite right either, as property values were disappointingly high and the larger houses way over budget. They went back to the drawing board, and the south-west coast looked promising, as it offered great value properties, and they already knew and loved the chic �le de R� and bustling seaport of La Rochelle.

“We decided to focus on Charente-Maritime just inland from the Atlantic coast, which promised it all: sunflower fields, white sandy beaches, delicious fresh seafood, sailing, Cognac vineyards, and the second sunniest climate in France after the C�te d’Azur,” says Lisa.

By the New Year, the search was in full swing, and they spent long weekends visiting French properties, happy to discover that Charente-Maritime was easily accessible from the UK, with great road, ferry and air links.

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“Being on the ground was a vital tool in sorting the good from the bad and the ugly, as agency details often painted a very different picture from reality,” says Lisa. “One cottage looked chocolate box pretty, with a climbing rose weaving its delicate way between pale limestone bricks and chalky blue shutters. Yet our hearts sank as we pulled up in the driveway, for it was barely 10 metres from the thundering autoroute. Another g�te was truly exquisite, aside from the pungent aroma of mould emanating from its rising damp. We also saw plenty of ancient granges, but many were badly decayed and required more love, devotion and finance than we had to offer.”

It was at the point of almost giving up that they finally found what they were looking for: Pierrelys, a ‘tr�s belle maison ancienne � renover’, close to the historic spa town of Jonzac; a traditional Charentaise farmhouse standing in a private courtyard, flanked on each side by authentic stone granges and cherry trees.

“It was love at first sight,” Lisa remembers. “Okay, the farmhouse was a little yellow in the face as the limestone had been painted with a thick ochre goo, and weeds were running amok but it had a unique charm and character. We heard that the place was already half-renovated, with operating electrics, new windows, doors, oak beams and freshly plastered upstairs walls, we begged to see it immediately.”

Once at the property, however, the true extent of the necessary work became clear.

“The place was more of a barn than a house,” Lisa says. “Admittedly, it contained an allegedly functional kitchen with years of ingrained grease offering some evidence of prior use, but it wasn’t a kitchen I’d have chosen to boil an egg in, and there were no indoor toilets.

“True enough, the property ticked certain boxes, being a traditional farmhouse of good size within half an hour of the coast and offering barns ripe for future renovation, but the negative factors, together with a sagging first floor and a wild jungle of a garden, were enough to make us reconsider.”

Luckily, just before they left, they peeked behind one of the warped plasterboard panels and there, completely hidden from view, was the most exquisite fireplace.

“We could imagine it then, a huge roaring fire lighting up the wide-open spaces of this farmhouse. Yes, this place had potential. We were jubilant. This was it, the new home we could build for our family,” Lisa says.

The biggest problem they faced was where to put the bathroom. Oddly enough, the seller had got so far as installing TV power points and telly recesses in two of the bedrooms, but hadn’t considered the obvious. They didn’t want to lose one of the bedrooms, so were happy to see that the upper landing was plenty big enough to accommodate a bathroom. With that idea in mind, they were ready to move forward, and following a second visit, put in an offer, which was accepted the very next day.

With the contract for purchase in place, they set about finalising the building plans, which proved an arduous task, and involved many long hours searching for willing and able artisans. Most didn’t answer their calls, and of those that did, many were unsuitable.

Eventually, they sought the help of a local builder recommended by their estate agent. At 6ft 5ins, with a white beard and booming baritone, Christian turned out to be a real character.

“He assured us that our plans would be fine, ‘pas de probl�me!’ What’s more, he would install the electrics, fosse septique and central heating, and had builder contacts for the remaining jobs, which included flooring, masonry repair, and the fitting of the necessary structural support for the first floor. On that basis we agreed a ‘devis’ for the build,” Lisa explains.

In September, their daughter Lola was born and two weeks later they signed the acte de vente for Pierrelys before returning to London to project manage renovations from afar.

“We relied on email for communication with our team of workers,” says Lisa. “Things began well, and by Christmas, the extended farmhouse kitchen was in place, terracotta tiles covered the entire ground floor, and the limestone was beginning to look fabulous. However, it all tailed off in the New Year, when our main builder fell into financial difficulties and began to demand money for unfinished work.

“A real low point was arriving at Pierrelys to find that masonry works, for which we had paid in full, hadn’t been completed as promised. In fact, they hadn’t even started! It was a highly upsetting time, as both the builder and his wife had become friends, and we’d spent many evenings together.”

Sleep deprived, with a babe in arms, one friendship over, and the renovation falling apart at the seams, Lisa was close to tearing her hair out.

“However, Christian came to the rescue by organising another builder able to complete the snagging items over the following few months,” she says thankfully.

Finally the work on the property was complete and the family was at last able to put the trials and tribulations behind them and to reflect on what was ultimately a rewarding experience.

“Our hearts and souls went into the build, which demanded more time, energy and euros than we really had to offer, but now ranks as one of the most rewarding challenges of our lives – bar children of course,” Lisa smiles. “Pierrelys has become a true home from home, an oasis of tranquillity in the midst of the Charente-Maritime sunflower fields, and a special place where our children can run free and lovely neighbours are always to hand with a bottle of the local Pineau de Charente or a basket of fresh cherries.”

Lisa, Ludovic and their girls currently divide their time between France and England, and the farmhouse is available to rent for the peak summer weeks, which brings in an excellent income and has generated an enthusiastic response from guests.

“As for the future, we hope to put in a pool, landscape the gardens, and spend more time at Pierrelys, waiting for the day that our working schedules will permit a more permanent move to France,” says Lisa. “For now, each time we visit, it gets harder to tear ourselves away.” LF

www.charentefarmhouse.com