As he spruces up his new home in Languedoc, Paul Cherry fills us in on his brushes with builders, barbecues, bureaucracy, Brits, boilers and bullocks
One man’s efforts to do up his new home in a Gard village
Life here in the Gard is just as lovely as I had hoped. However, adapting to it has been a two-way street for both me and the locals since I moved here in September last year. Firstly, a lot of things needed doing to the house. My first true friends in the area (and I say this with some irony) were the staff of Mr Bricolage, which is French B&Q to you.
Not a day went by without me visiting to buy or return something. Luckily I am a practical kind of guy and unfazed by most tasks providing I have the right tools and parts. In the end I have done pretty much all the home improvements myself because: 1) I can’t understand the French builder’s pricing, and 2) I can’t understand the French builder’s pricing.
The builder So after five months of hard work, which included fitting 37 new lights (yes, the previous owners took them all) in the main house, I decided to get the guesthouse in shape.
Once I had done all my tiling and fitting out, the only job left was to couple up the kitchenette waste and water. Now this was a little complicated so I called in a professional. If it leaks I will look a fool to my guests, whereas if it leaks and a professional has done it, I can just call him.
So the builder looks at the job and then tells me he will come back with a price. As he is there, I decide to ask if he would also like to give me a quote for doing the same job on my terrace, plumbing in a summer kitchen and building a small barbecue.
Now I’ve been around the block a couple of times so I realise its all about the art of negotiation, but I was flummoxed by the email that popped up with my estimate. The cheapest quote was for the guesthouse. Plumbing in the summer kitchen was going to cost 30% more for at least 40% less work. And the quote for the barbecue? Well let’s just say the price must have included James Martin cooking every Saturday. Even with negotiation it was going to be expensive.
In the end, I decided to get the guesthouse done as it wasn’t something I could do myself. Then I went to see my friends at Mr Bricolage to buy all the fittings I needed for the summer kitchen that I’d bought from Ikea. A total of €135 later, everything was in and working. The barbecue On hearing that James Martin was not going to be available to me on an exclusive basis, I thought about the barbecue problem. A few years earlier, I’d bought an Italian precast stone barbecue from a store in Cheshire, so I ferreted out an old business card and rang Sally who runs it. Now, buying garden and outside equipment is a bit like buying a convertible car – the best deal is in the winter. Sally organised a barbecue direct from her supplier in Italy and I bought a big one for 20% of what it would have cost to have the same one built.
The truck arrived with a pallet of stone components weighing 346kg, which I had to get up three flights of stairs. This is where French communities come into their own. Luckily, I have been taken into their hearts – or maybe they just like helping mad old people – and 40 minutes later we had it all in place.
With this done, my home has become BBQ Central and the visitors have been many, with no bouts of food poisoning as yet!
The bureaucracy Next on the list was to give the outside a makeover. Strangely, in the 18th century the French showed their wealth by covering their beautiful stonework with rock hard cement. This again was a job for a specialist, Pascale, and she was fantastic. Days of chiselling and drilling were followed by what appeared to be a mud-throwing competition – it’s the only way to get the mortar into the joints. One week later, the scaffolding was down and I only had to hang my newly painted shutters which I had been doing in the cellar.
Now this is where I should explain about French planning rules. I live within 500m of a beautiful old church which means that everything in the area must be in keeping. It shouldn’t have been a problem as all I was doing was making my house look like it was in 1751, yet I had to make five – yes five – applications, covering everything from the colour of the mortar and shutters to a request to close the road. Four copies had to be made of each application, sent to four different departments. So I hand all this to the mairie and ask how long it will take to be approved. Four months, I’m told! Well, as you might imagine, that was not what I wanted to hear.
That evening I see the mayor having a Ricard
at my ‘local’. I approach with a view to buying him a drink (he decides it’s easier to buy me one) and 10 minutes later he says: “You can do all the work; start as soon as you want.” In the UK, this would be like building first, then applying for planning permission later. At the end of the evening, the mayor told Pascale to get on with it and three months after she had finished, I got my permission through the post.
The Brits When I bought my home, the estate agent told me the area was the “New Provence” and, of course, I believed him. But in all honesty I do see it. Property is creeping up in value and there is a more cosmopolitan feel to the area.
We are in the bottom corner of Gard, so we have Provence on two sides; however the area has become international. My village has a population of 647 and there are enough Brits to have an argument in the tabac/presse when the four copies of The Sunday Times have all gone. There are also four Americans, a Norwegian who divides her time between California and here, seven Germans and four Syrians. This last group were welcomed into the community in November and are very happy to be safe and among friends.
The boiler I arrived in September last year and the weather was gorgeous, in the mid 30s. In October, this became the mid 20s with lunch and dinner easily eaten outside. November was up and down but never less than 16°C and when it rained it rained, but four hours later it was bright again. December became cold and I had to order more wood for the fire. January and February were not good, though by that I mean I had to wear a coat occasionally. By the middle of March, the heat had returned and continued to rise – bliss.
Wood in winter is damp so you soon learn to buy it in spring so that it will be dry for winter. Oh, and if your local wood seller drops off four square metres, it’s going to take at least three hours to stack. On the subject of heating, I have an oil boiler which does the heating and water for both houses. I filled my tank up on arrival in September and only really started to use it in December. By mid January I needed to top up and that’s when lesson number two came in. Oil is cheaper in the summer; in January it costs 20% more. Ah well, we live and learn!
The bullocks A year on, the house is as I wanted it and the guesthouse is earning its keep. It’s a lovely place to be and I am exploring more and more of the area. The village has just had their version of the ‘running of the bulls’… calves who do a lap of the village then have a rest with water and food. No animals were hurt in this production!
With Brexit the buzzword, life here is as it possibly always has been. The French work to live and are happy with that. I am still a fan of the area, the people and the way of life. Sometimes I look back and wonder if I did the right thing. Then reality sinks in. Yes, yes, yes!
And the quote for the barbecue? Well let’s just say the price must have included James Martin cooking every Saturday
The famous Pont du Gard is not far from Paul’s home Paul has no regrets about his new life in France
The wood runs out pretty fast in winter
View of the River Gardon from the Pont du Gard Paul’s new home in south-east Gard The barbecue has pride of place on the terrace