Ar­chi­tect’s di­ary

It’s all in a week’s work for France-based Neil Vesma

French Property News - - Contents - Neil Vesma’s ar­chi­tect’s prac­tice is at Villeréal near Berg­erac Tel: 0033 (0)5 53 01 74 20 neil­

De­sign­ing new homes and im­prov­ing old

Back in the Pyrénées with my bi­cy­cle, hooray! My ped­alling pal Tony is here again too af­ter last year’s de­ba­cle where I ended up in hos­pi­tal for heart surgery (all good now, thanks for ask­ing) and he in­sisted on go­ing for the din­ner we’d re­served at the lo­cal Miche­lin-starred restau­rant, all on his own. I’ve only just for­given him for this, and he’s only just for­given me for scar­ing him by fall­ing over in the street.

We are proud MAMILS we are, Mid­dle-aged Men in Ly­cra. Many peo­ple stop and stare at our fine physiques as we pass, though I don’t un­der­stand why some of them are smirk­ing. To­mor­row’s the moun­tains; today we’re warm­ing up in the foothills and the climb up out of Bag­nères-de-big­orre soon has us gen­tly per­spir­ing. The ban­ter dies away as the climb con­tin­ues and we stop at the top at the chapel of Notre-dame de Roumé, the old­est re­main­ing chapel on the pil­grim­age route from Véze­lay in Bur­gundy to San­ti­ago de Com­postela. Sur­rounded by its river-stone bound­ary wall, it has over­looked the hills and high moun­tains to the south for 800 years.

It’s an easy free­wheel from here down to the Cis­ter­cian Abbey of L’es­cal­adieu with its clois­ter and tai­lored lawns, now a cul­tural cen­tre with con­certs and ex­hi­bi­tions. I love the idea that, une es­cale be­ing a stopover, its name can be trans­lated as ‘the stopover to God’.

It’s then an ab­so­lute pig of a climb up to the Château de Mau­vezin, built by Gas­ton de Fébus. This 14th-cen­tury mon­ster sits brood­ing on its head­land, dom­i­nat­ing the coun­try­side for miles around. I’m not sur­prised it has never been stormed by ma­raud­ing cy­clists as I’m ab­so­lutely pooped by the time we get there.

I love the idea that, ‘une es­cale’ be­ing a stopover, L’es­cal­adieu can be trans­lated as ‘the stopover to God’


Chan­tale, our de­light­ful land­lady at the Petites Vos­ges B&B in Bag­nères, gives us an enor­mous car­bo­hy­drate-laden break­fast of toast and honey, home-made jams and home-grown fruit, yo­gurt and muesli to fuel us for the ride ahead. Our aim is to climb the Col d’as­pin, one of the iconic routes taken by the Tour de France. The pro­fes­sion­als treat it as an ap­pe­tiser for the mur­der­ous Col du Tour­malet next door but for us, it’s a real chal­lenge; 25km long and all of it up­hill.

We start early as the day is go­ing to be hot later, and take a break af­ter 20km of steady climb­ing, pass­ing and in turn be­ing passed by a 68-year old from Tarbes, who tells me be­tween gasps for air that he is re­cov­er­ing from cancer and ped­als a lit­tle fur­ther every day to get fit again. I tell him be­tween gasps for air that I am im­pressed.

When we stop, I check my GPS feed and yes we’ve come 20km, but we’ve also gained al­ti­tude by some 900m or 3,000ft. I am gob­s­macked. That’s as high as a 300-storey build­ing and we’ve done it in an hour and a quar­ter.

The fi­nal 5km is, how­ever, too hard; the road is twice as steep and looks like a wall in front of us. We try our best but even­tu­ally give up. As we whizz back down to town I ask Tony how it’s made him feel. His re­ply sums it up for me too: “Weak at the Pyrén-knees!”

In the af­ter­noon be­fore leav­ing, we head off to the spa baths just across the road for a mas­sage and a wallow in the vast 34-de­grees in­door swim­ming pool. This has a flat glass roof 15m over our heads with, dis­con­cert­ingly, a young lad laid out on it sun­bathing.


Back in the of­fice feel­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­ally fit and re­ally tired. Today’s chal­lenge is ar­chi­tec­tural: Gra­ham and Pauline’s house near the of­fice at Fer­ren­sac, where we’re im­prov­ing the in­ter­nal lay­out and mov­ing the front door from the street frontage so small chil­dren don’t get in­gested by pass­ing com­bine har­vesters. We’re go­ing to move it to the gable end of the at­tached barn, and I need to re-el­e­vate the barn so it matches the main house in the qual­ity of its fin­ishes, and the new front door feels like a proper front door and not an af­ter­thought.

The barn was orig­i­nally open-fronted, with rather spindly wood­work, and is not among the most beau­ti­fully crafted build­ings I have ever seen. The house, on the other hand, is. Dressed stone, two and a half storeys, it’s both solid and grace­ful. Sadly, Gra­ham and Pauline’s pock­ets are not filled with enough gold bars for us to repli­cate the ma­sonry of the house on the barn, so I’ve sug­gested we try colom­bage – tim­ber fram­ing – us­ing re­claimed tim­bers with ren­dered in­fill pan­els which will be half the cost. If this is pro­por­tioned to echo the stone façade it may be the right so­lu­tion, so I’m get­ting out the HB pen­cil to see what works and what doesn’t. This mix­ture of styles un­der one roof is not un­com­mon in the area; I cy­cled past one only last week, but it has to be de­signed with care if it’s to sit right.

FRI­DAY Nearly the week­end al­ready and, it be­ing the sum­mer sea­son, ev­ery­thing’s rel­a­tively quiet. Un­til an email comes in to tell me I’m called to Paris in three weeks for an in­ter­view for a place on a part-time Mas­ter’s de­gree course to qual­ify as a Char­tered Her­itage Ar­chi­tect here in France. I had hardly dared hope to even get the in­ter­view, so I’m very ex­cited on read­ing it, and show it to Charlotte, my glam­orous prac­tice man­ager. She reads it slowly, looks up and eyes me shrewdly. “It says here if you’re ac­cepted on the course that you’ll have to spend two days a fort­night in Paris for the next two years. That’s a tough gig, isn’t it?”

I hes­i­tate, and blush a lit­tle. “No you’re right, I don’t think it’s go­ing to be ex­actly an up­hill strug­gle.”

Top left: Chapelle Notre-dame de Romé, the old­est chapel on the San­ti­ago de Com­postela pil­grim­age route Above: The clois­ter at L’es­cal­adieu Abbey Below: Château de Mauzevin tow­ers above the coun­try­side

Neil’s sketches for the at­tached barn pro­posal

Gra­ham and Pauline’s house as it stands at the mo­ment

Above: Neil and Tony’s B&B in Bag­nères- de-big­orre Below: The cy­cling pals took on Tour de France routes in the Pyrénées

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