Life in seventh heaven
As they prepare to move on, Angela Benn reflects on the good times she and husband David have enjoyed in their pretty Breton cottage
We had done the house-hunting, bought the property, packed everything, cancelled the papers and upped sticks. We were heading for Brittany. We left the Midlands in bright sunshine and arrived in Brittany to deep snow; wasn’t that the wrong way round? Nonetheless, the children and the dog were delighted. The family from whom we had bought the house had kindly lit the fires and were on hand to help us unload, and after the long weeks of preparation and anticipation, our new life had begun.
Nearly seven years on and I still look forward to heading for the walnut tree later in the year and picking up its copious crop, watched by curious chickens and a puzzled baby goat who has tried the nuts and given them up in disgust. Last year’s potatoes and onions are stored, blackberries jammed, raspberries and blackcurrants bottled, beetroot pickled, tomatoes chutneyed and the strawberries are a delicious, sunny memory.
The cider press, a machine pulled by a tractor which always makes me think of the fairground – with its tin roof, bright lights and huge noise – will be summoned in November to press the juice from our apples. This will turn, miraculously and without the use of any other additives, into the delicious amber nectar that we enjoy with our lunch and share with our friends.
In the great barn behind the bread oven, the wood is stacked ready for the winter nights when we will sit cosily by the stove.
I can’t say there hasn’t been hard work involved. We started a small renovation business to earn our keep and our own house required some work to say nothing of a lot of decorating. Then there’s the vegetable garden, which feeds us so efficiently now, but was only a rough field when we arrived and we donned wellies and wielded spades and rakes whenever we had a moment spare.
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We have been compared more than once to Tom and Barbara in the Good Life, not, sadly, for the exceptional attractiveness of any part of my anatomy, but because we try hard to be as self-sufficient as is reasonably possible and to reduce our carbon footprint wherever we can. There is a particular pleasure in looking down at your plate and knowing you have produced everything on it and none of it resembles home-knitted muesli!
Every day is an adventure, and we are constantly learning; new French words and phrases, weather lore, customs and, after six years of good intentions, Breton dancing! Throughout the year dances called fest noz (in the evening) and fest deiz (during the day) are held across Brittany. Hugely popular, they are attended by enthusiasts from eight to 80; men and women; girls and boys.
The time-honoured instruments are often supported by modern ones, contemporary tunes and styles superimposed and blended into ancient ones to keep the traditional music of the region fresh and alive to all ages.
We turned up nervously and joined a class on Wednesday evenings. The steps can be complicated and when we have to join hands or little fingers and swing our arms as well it all amounts to being able to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time.
Needless to say, we are pretty catastrophic so far and a source of much good humoured laughter but also the recipients of great warmth and encouragement from our classmates who have all been doing this sort of thing very much longer. It is exhilarating, exhausting fun and we leave each week with glowing cheeks, aching legs and a quiet sense of hopeful satisfaction that we have surely improved a little since the previous lesson.
So, nearly seven years since moving to Brittany, I stand under my beloved walnut tree, wave to our adorable neighbours and gaze at the beautiful Breton countryside, our sleepy garden and our comfortable home and feel a huge pang as we have just put it all on the market.
Why would we leave? Well, actually we won’t be leaving really, there is another adventure calling, another renovation project, another garden to create, and it has two walnut trees... just down the road.
The Benns’ house is for sale at €199,800