Sally Crocker bought a run-down Maison de Maitre in 2003. Here’s her story of how she transformed it into a beautiful home
‘Viewed on a hot still July evening, entering into the wide panelled hallway through the double-fronted inner glass doors I was immediately transfixed.
Through the dusky gloom loomed an immense marble Louis-Philippe style staircase that twisted its way up to the top of the house. Beautiful ornate tiles lined the floor of the premier étage and spacious rooms lined each side of the hallway and landings. From the many low double windows were views to the Pyrenees and the vineyards stretching out before it.
Beautifully appointed, this 19th century Maison de Maitre in the Aude known as ‘Le Chateau’ had lain untouched for many years but it was love at first sight. I could see the potential – albeit viewed through rose-tinted spectacles!
We – husband George, children Toby and Tallulah, then 14 and 10 respectively – moved in a week before Christmas. This was a big mistake. Never, unless you absolutely cannot avoid it, move into a house that has no heating and needs major work, ie, re-wiring, plumbing, etc etc.
I soon realised my folly when the cold seeped into our bones each and every day. At night I would cry as I counted the cost of my foolishness. The bathroom was a grim, icy and old with a hole from the leak in the roof which ran up to the stars. The lavatory was even worse – a cold brick affair situated under the stairs and an awfully long way to go on a bitterly cold night. Oh, and did I mention we only had half a front door.
I knew precious little about renovating an old house, even less in a foreign country whilst still trying to run a household and look after a family’s basic needs. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by people all putting in their pennyworth of opinions whether I wanted them or not. ‘If I were you I would…’ rang in my ears constantly along with ‘I hope you’re taking lots of pictures’. I wasn’t. I was too weary, too preoccupied with just getting through each day along with the fact I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be reminded of my ‘folly’ in years to come.
I was determined that the children would suffer the least and so it was their bedrooms that were decorated first. Filthy old carpets were ripped up and replaced with reasonably priced and hard-wearing sisal matting which is often on offer at large DIY shops such as Mr Bricolage although it is only recently that I have found that if you spend over a certain amount they will lend you a van ! Bricked up holes in the wall were turned into built in wardrobes and the doors made with wide with tongue and groove.
Next on the agenda the plumbing needed to be sorted along with the wiring, some of which dated back to WWI. It tended to flicker as we tried to run all our various electrical appliances from the system. ALWAYS choose an electrician who has been recommended. Although ours was from a local firm that had just started out with a fancy shop front we rapidly found that the staff they employed varied greatly. ‘Le Chef’ refused to answer any of our phone calls and from start to finish the job took eight months. We were often left with only half the electricity working in the house. With hindsight, as soon as the incompetence became apparent we should have cancelled the job and complained to the Huissier who can assist when you are unhappy with shoddy workmanship by a local firm. We didn’t know that at the time. Also if we had not been occupying the house then all the vast trunking needed for the electrics could have been dug into the walls instead of running along the outside.
We were luckier with the plumber. Lavatories needed to be installed along with baths and showers. I was completely overwhelmed by rows and rows of gleaming white sanitary ware. I wore a glazed expression on entering the showrooms. In the end I found, quite by chance, a small brochure hanging on the hook in a Mr Bricolage store and there was just the design that would fit well into a house of this age. It was also a fraction of the cost of some of the designs in smart showrooms. Because I was buying ‘in bulk’ I was afforded a discount. I would always go for a simple classic design for a bathroom and it absolutely has to be white porcelain for me especially in an old house. New designs are lovely and exciting but can quickly date.
Meanwhile painting of walls was starting to spruce the place up. Again, hindsight. Paint is a perplexing subject in France. It is so very expensive for a start. Too late I discovered a paint retailer who are agents for Tollens. So this is what I should have done right from the beginning had I known. Introduce yourself to the local paint retailer who will be happy for your business. Explain that you are renovating a house and that you will be purchasing a large quantity of paint from him. Ask for a discount. Next obtain the expensive paint chart that they will have in the shop and ask them to mix up the colour in their own wholesale paint range, a fraction of the cost.
I have done a lot of the woodwork in a pale grey with off white walls. The panelling in the hallway though, despite everyone telling me to cover in paint was lovingly stripped back to its honey coloured old wood and then polished. This is an act of love though. And should not be attempted unless, well, you are truly in love with your house.
With two windows to each room measuring 2m x 1m I suddenly found myself rather in need of some curtains. They do so add warmth to a room and give that finishing touch. I was lucky to find an enormous pile of very old linen drapes with embossed initials and I use these in lots of the rooms. I don’t know how I secured them for 8 euros each but I did. Search Brocantes and Vide Greniers for them but avoid the dealers. E-bay is a good source also. I cannot sew particularly well so use curtain rings with hooks. Lovely floaty pure white embossed sheets look pretty draped back in the bathrooms. The beauty of these is that in the summer they can be used very effectively drawn across and instantly ‘cool down’ a room whilst looking elegant at the same time.
Meanwhile I bought every DIY magazine on the market both in France and England. Every time you see a photograph of a room or a feature that you like cut it out. When my kitchen came to be built I already knew exactly what I wanted. We were very extravagant to begin with and went for a four oven Aga. This, and Aga will of course disagree, is madness for the only function it can perform is to cook. It does no water and no heating. Had I been sensible then I would have plumped for a Rayburn which would have performed all of these tasks. People who buy houses like mine though are rarely sensible.
I spied in a local brocante one of those enormous glass fronted cupboards so the entire kitchen was based around this feature. It is absolutely fantastic as it houses all the glass and china and avoids wall cupboards. I don’t like fitted kitchens although in smaller spaces they are practical. I had a tiled surface round the Aga and sink although in hind sight this may have been a mistake as of course the grouting needs constant cleaning. I did not choose the usual Belfast Sink which is so popular in an older style kitchen because I am short and they are deep and you can lose yourself in them ! There are lots of tile discount places in France but if you are near to or can easily get to Spain then that is the place for tiles.
I have found that second hand furniture even at the brocantes can be extraordinarily expensive. If I had the time I would have hired a van from England after having bought everyday items from a house clearance sale or similar. Keep on popping into your local brocante however and introduce yourself, there are bargains to be as long as you keep an eye out and are prepared to wait. Vide greniers are also great places to seek out all those little trucs that add something a little different to your décor. A word of warning though, no matter how beautiful they may look do not be tempted to buy an old French bed as it is likely to be of a size which a modern sommier or mattress will not fit. This is why it is cheap. Of course you can have new mattresses made for them but it is very expensive!
And finally the swimming pool. Surely the most expensive investment you are likely to make. Do not under any circumstances have your pool fitted by a friend of a friend who knows a man who fits pools. Not only are you breaking the law by employing people on the black but you are very unlikely to find yourself with a guarantee other than for the parts if anything goes wrong. And that’s if you can trace the ‘chaps’ who fitted it of course. It is a false economy. We plumped for a pool through a company called ‘Desjoyaux’ who fit pools with built in pumps thus dispensing of the cumbersome pool house. This one has a salt filtration system which is an attractive alternative to all those chemicals. So far we are happy with it. A salt pool is lovely. No more sore eyes from the chlorine or damage to your hair from harsh chemicals. It came with a 20 year guarantee for peace of mind. Do not be tempted to lay tiles around your pool for at least at year, let the ground settle. To preserve your marriage and sanity invest in a mechanical robot to clean the pool. If not haggle for one as a ‘freebie’.
Now that all the renovation is finally finished at ‘Le Chateau’, it has been worth every ounce of the blood, sweat and tears we put into it. It is a beautiful and unique house but most of all it is a loved home and one of which we are justifiably proud. Much to my surprise I now find myself running ‘Le Chateau’ as an extremely successful holiday property something for which, with its stunning views and calm relaxing atmosphere, it is ideally suited. The house is designed for memorable holidays with gatherings of family and friends. In the distance sunflowers dot the landscape and you can hear the bells of the neighbouring village ring. It is surrounded by the most stunning natural countryside, a walkers’ paradise. Most of all though, Le Chateau offers a tranquil retreat from the hurly-burly of the modern world.
Sally’s clever decorating ideas
* Pure white embossed sheets make gorgeous bathroom curtains
* Tongue and groove, as seen in the kitchen, is an easy way to make what would have been a plain wall look more interesting.
* Lovely old fabrics, glass and china give a house that individual touch
Sally’ renovating advice…
*When buying in large amounts, always ask for a discount
*Choose workmen who have been recommended – and are working legally
* Wait for the ground to settle before you tile around your pool
* Could your home help and inspire others living in France?
If so, we’ve love to see it! All you have to do is email a few pictures to us with a few lines about what you’ve done. Easy!