A holiday home bought on a whim in the Vendée in the 1980s by Kate and Alan Rayner was the source of a lot of happy times, fond memories and good friends
My late husband Alan and myself bought our cottage in the Vendée in January 1985 on a whim really! Alan was the founder of Lakeland, the well-known mail order kitchenware company in Windermere, and many years ago we’d had a French division of Lakeland Plastics (as it used to be known then) based in Calais.
We’d always had a bit of a love affair with France and so in December 1984 when we saw a cottage in western France advertised for sale in the window of a small estate agent in Welshpool, Mid Wales, near where we lived – something unheard of really at that time – we went on a mad three-day trip in January to look at it!
Unfortunately, the said house was in a terrible state with a caved-in main beam. However, as we were there for 36 hours, we dashed around the countryside looking at other properties. None was suitable, but while looking at one, we got chatting to an elderly French gentleman digging his garden who told us there was a house for sale in the next village. We drove over and as we approached saw an à vendre sign in front of a promising-looking house. There was no-one around so we knocked on a neighbour’s door. There was no answer but we could hear music coming from a house further down the lane.
We walked down and asked the owner if he knew any details about the house for sale, and he replied, “it’s the field that’s for sale, but this house is for sale. We’ve just made the decision and haven’t advertised it yet!”.
A couple of viewings later (within 12 hours!) and we’d made the decision to buy it. A coup de foudre as the French would say. I often wonder what would have been the outcome had the neighbour whose door we knocked on first been in!
We’ve enjoyed the house for several weeks every year during the 37 years we’ve owned it. It’s in a small hamlet, too small to be named on the large-scale Michelin maps, with about 12 other houses. It’s an old stone village house with an original huge bread oven in the kitchen, which we’re told was the bread oven for the whole village many years ago. It has enormous beams, a very large inglenook fireplace and terracotta floors, and what my late husband used to call ‘features’ – quirky bits!
Alan and I spent several winter months there in 1988/89 during which time our three boys, aged 10, nine and three, went to the local village school – one of the best things we ever did for them! They all speak French and the friendships we formed at the school gate with other families still stand 34 years later.
In the 1980s when we arrived, several travelling vans called in the village every day: a baker, two butchers, fishmonger, fruit and veg, hardware and charcuterie every week and a clothing company once a month! Today sadly there is none, but there is one of the modern dépôt de pain baguette vending machines in a nearby village – how times change! There’s a supermarket three or four miles away and one of the fabulous hypermarkets a 20-minute drive from the village. Four or five beautiful beaches are within 30/40 minutes’ drive and the world-famous Puy du Fou historical theme park is about an hour away.
I find the Vendéen people very friendly with a tremendous history of loyalty and pride for their department. The account of the Vendéen Wars at the time of the Revolution tells of their courage in holding out against the insurgent Revolutionaries who were sent from Paris to quell the uprisings, a protest against the annihilation of the priests and the king and nobility. Many thousands were killed in the four years they held out, finally to capitulate when their hoped-for help from across the Channel wasn’t forthcoming and their chief leader, Charette, was captured and shot.
We spent some wonderful holidays there – enjoying aperitifs with neighbours on the terrace or plateaux de fruits de mer in the garden. Many of them have come over to stay with us in Mid Wales where we have our permanent home, and their children have had extended stays while gaining work experience and improving their English; one came for two months and stayed a year! So I’m pleased to feel we’ve done our bit to cement the Entente Cordiale in our little corner of La Vendée. We’re still the only English-owned property in the village and have some lovely friends there.
But sadly, the time has come for me to sell. It will be hard, but I’m 73 and have health problems. As I finish writing this article, it marks the end of an era. In a week, the final acte de vente will be signed as I hand over ownership to a lovely British couple. My hope is they will enjoy family holidays there as much as we did.
Mercifully, the sale was a quick and simple process (using arbfrenchproperty.com). I’m sad to be saying au revoir to my many friends, but I shall certainly return to visit La Vendée; it’s been a wonderful welcoming second home and I’ll always be grateful for that.
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Lead photo credit : Mareuil-sur-Lay in Vendée - Shutterstock