The pull of the Loire

As retirement beckons, Anne Williams and her husband take the plunge and buy a long-dreamed-of property in France

“Ce n’est pas difficile!” This utterance emerged as sleeptalk from my husband’s subconscious, in the middle of the night, after a long, hard day’s work on our recently acquired property in France. I could hardly believe my ears, but it shows how the immersion in the French way of life was taking hold!

We came to the decision to realise our dream of owning our own little pad in France after decades of talking about it. Holidays were synonymous with France in our memories both before and after having children, and although we have spent time in other places, we knew in our heart of hearts that France was meant for us, and we were meant for France.

The moment came as the prospect of retirement – or at least less regular commitment to a full-time job – loomed. Our two children had left the nest and were happily pursuing their own careers. As a celebration of my husband’s big six-oh’ birthday, we rented a large house in the Loire Valley for a fortnight and invited all the family to come and stay for as long as they wanted. This was our opportunity to put our theoretical analysis of our needs and preferences in terms of location, accommodation and ambience to the test.

Considered choice

Before booking the house, we had thought carefully about accessibility for long weekends, transport links and the kind of lifestyle we would most enjoy if we were ever to own a house in France. So, far from being a shot in the dark, it was a well-considered choice. I had compiled a shortlist of potential g�tes from the internet, and then spent a Sunday afternoon contacting the owners to chat about our needs – flexible accommodation for eight to 12 people, wheelchair access, and a bit of character. This proved invaluable, providing as it did an insight into the kind of activities available and giving us a feel for what the owners regarded as their selling points’.

Perhaps the most significant preparation for our long-term plan, however, was the contact we made with a company specialising in finding property for British people looking to buy in France. Once again, we discussed in some detail what we were looking for, looked at their website to see what sort of property was within our budget, and allowed ourselves to be guided by their Loire Valley adviser who made some provisional appointments for us for the first Wednesday of our stay.

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So, with the car packed and our heads equally full of hope and anticipation, we set off. Our destination was a little market town about an hour south of Tours and we arrived after about six hours’ drive from Dieppe. The house more than met our expectations, with lots of little touches to make us feel welcome: a note from the owner, a bottle of wine and milk in the fridge, not to mention a visit from the

next-door neighbour.

We had a few days before our visitors arrived so we had to make the most of this time to focus on househunting! Tuesday was the day we’d set aside to visit the local estate agents. We had studied the local paper and the details in the windows in order to have an idea of the market. We happened on an English estate agent who had lived in the area for 20 years and who took us to view four properties that broadly corresponded to what we had specified, but the magic wasn’t there. We were probably na�ve about what to expect and how much renovation we realistically could undertake, and this was a salutary lesson to us. DIY experts we are not!

A little chastened by how little our hard-earned savings would buy, we nevertheless kept our appointment with the agent on Wednesday. This entailed a drive back up the motorway to the north of Tours, which highlighted the extra mileage we had covered to get to our g�te. This factor would grow in significance if long weekends were to be on the cards in the future, but we still felt that the town where we were staying had a lot to offer and were somewhat sceptical about the northern Loire Valley.

The baguette test

We met the agent as arranged and had a very business-like session in his office. Following the brief that I had given the London office, he had compiled a list of potential properties that we worked through together. We were able to ask questions and he added snippets of information, all of which helped us to appreciate the type of lifestyle the properties would suit. We whittled the list down to about 10 and, after some phone calls, we set off to view them. We all travelled in our car so there was no chance of us getting separated or lost.

Whether we had mentally readjusted or whether he had been more perceptive about our needs, we got off to a positive start. Indeed most of the properties met our criteria although the baguette test’, a phrase coined by my husband to indicate the possibility of walking to buy the daily bread, proved crucial. We saw many idyllic properties with wonderful beams, gardens and even caves, but so far from civilisation that buying a bottle of milk would involve a half-hour car journey. As our thoughts crystallised, we began to warm to the little towns and villages of the area. In closer proximity to one another than the settlements of the southern Loire, they seemed animated and bustling.

With impressions and possibilities buzzing in our heads, we returned to the g�te to prepare for our guests. The agent promised to keep us informed about any new properties and progress on the ones that had met our criteria.

Once our guests had settled in, we tentatively suggested a trip to view the front runner of the houses we had seen on Wednesday, taking in a ch�teau or two on the way. With Chenonceau and Amboise duly visited en route, we met the agent at the property. The value of having some cool heads to give their opinions was never more clearly felt. What had seemed to us a perfect riverbank location, with a landing stage and a hook for a punt, and within 100 metres of the town hall, post office and supermarket, was critically assessed. In fact, the front door opened on to the main one-way route through town!

In our excitement – and perhaps because the agent had taken us through the pedestrian precinct – we had failed to notice this fundamental flaw. The accommodation itself was then subjected to a thorough examination and pronounced too small for the sort of gathering of family and friends that we envisaged. Finally, the derelict building beside the house was destined to be a car park, but the town hall had run out of money. No one could tell us for sure how high the river could rise…

We were chastened and I am not sure how the agent felt. We abandoned the search for the day, leaving him with instructions to keep in email contact if anything really interesting came on to the market. Our stay in France was nearly over but we had been well and truly bitten by the bug to buy. And the northern Loire was exactly right for us, so our quest had not been in vain.

Reality check

Back to reality and the prospect of surfing through property sites on the internet in the hope of stumbling across the perfect place. Then the email came, with four attachments. Among them was property in a busy little village. It consisted of a two-bedroom cottage and a long�re-style older house with four ground-floor bedrooms and a first-floor long room, bedroom, study and unconverted attic.

The brief message was to get back as soon as possible if we were interested. We were! Amazingly we were able to juggle commitments so that on Thursday evening we were crossing the Channel again. Arriving at 4.30am we saw the dawn rise on our hopes as we drove to meet the agent at 9am. By 9.15am we were parking the car in the village square. In our bones we felt that this could be it!

Nestling behind the church, the property looked quintessentially French: green shutters, geranium-filled window boxes and Virginia creeper curling attractively round the windows and doors. The houses faced one another across an enclosed garden with a disused well, a covered barbecue area, a workshop and a wood store. We pinched ourselves as we walked around. The little house would have been a contender on its own, but the old house was the icing on the cake.

It had only been used as a holiday house in the summer by generations of the same Parisian family, so there were obvious signs of damp and the plumbing was antiquated but with all the space and the charm, it was crying out with potential.

In the hotel that night we went through everything again and again. At last my husband concluded: “Well, if we don’t buy this one I don’t know what we are looking for.” That was it. The next morning we phoned the agent to make our offer. By 2pm we were back at the property to meet the vendor and her estate agent. The price was agreed and we shook hands on the deal. It was as simple as that.

That evening we celebrated in the hotel restaurant and the next morning, just before we left, the vendor arrived with a booklet full of photographs of the two houses, so that we could show the family, and a list of useful phone numbers. Back up the motorway, on to the ferry, work the next morning – what a weekend!

The legal side of things was straightforward. Having the English company on hand as we signed the compromis de vente, received the extensive searches and ultimately to accompany us to the notaire’s office for the signing of the contract was most reassuring. The knowledge that we had experienced lawyers working on our behalf whom we could call on at any stage enabled us to (almost) enjoy the process.

So, how has it turned out? It has been a bit of a rollercoaster but we have never looked back. It is still a project in progress, but what fun we have had. The vendor is a dear friend as she lives just up the road in the next town. She invited us to meet all our neighbours at a party in her new house as soon as the sale was completed, so we have had no problems in making contacts.

Our first stay in our own house coincided with the local festival, including a night market, that happened to fall on the day that we were picking up our daughter from Tours airport for her first whistle-stop visit to see what we had done! Stalls were being erected as we left so I judged it prudent to check that we would have access to our gates on our return. The classic response to my enquiry was en principe’, which has entered our family jargon for something that should, but probably won’t, happen. Predictably, we had to move trestles and awnings to get the car through!

Bastille Day brought another surprise: a second-hand market (brocante) where the contents of attics and garages are dragged out on to the square to tempt optimistic bargain hunters. In October we were greeted by a produce market run by the parents’ association of the school. I bought a pumpkin that up to now has remained so hard that it would blunt any knife.

Enriching experience

As well as enjoying these gems of French provincial life we have tried to get to know the village. We invited everyone, including the mayor, to a tea party in the summer. Most people turned up even though they had not replied to the invitation, and ate scones and drank English tea. Indeed some drank more than they bargained for as my husband, ever the perfect host, replenished our guests’ cups when they said merci’. I had forgotten to explain that merci’ means no thanks’ in this context.

Our next-door neighbours, Marie and Claude, have been to visit us in England and are planning to come to seek out bargains in our local antiques market this year. What an enriching experience it has been and as Sarkozy – or was it his wife? – put it on their first state visit to London, it is more than an entente cordiale it is an entente amicale – indeed formidable.

We have both learnt so much about the people, their language, their customs, their humour and their passions. My husband’s fluency in French now stretches as far as poetry. At the end of a delicious meal with Marie and Claude he announced as he worked his way through the cheeseboard: “C’est vraiment dommage, si tu n’aimes pas le fromage!”

And that probably sums it all up.