Nicky and Steve tell their story of how they bought a property in Normandy
Then common sense prevailed. Transporting the horses was worry enough. Their combined travelling experience was virtually nil and the thought of taking them overseas gave me sleepless nights. In the end, I handed that problem over to a reputable company with vast experience of whisking horses across the Channel. Next on the list: Oscar and Leo’s passports, followed by the removal of our worldly goods.
Had it not been for the introduction of the PETS scheme, we would never have risked moving to France. I would sooner have all my teeth pulled out than put an animal in quarantine. Even with a passport, Oscar and Leo could not re-enter the UK for at least six months, but that was fine by us. All being well, we did not intend to return, but at least we knew we could if the need arose.
Moving our own things proved more straightforward. Quotes from removal firms left us reeling, so we decided to do it ourselves – though finding a rental company willing to let us take their vehicle abroad was a challenge. Eventually, though, a small firm came up trumps and all we had to do was pack up the contents of a five bed-room house and sift through the result of years of happy hoarding. All was going well until I was struck down by pancreatitis and spent a week in hospital.
Determined not to change our date, my moving day came and went in a blur of pain, but I recall being amazed at how much you can cram into a seven-ton lorry. As we bid adieu to our home of 17 years, the only things left behind were my beloved piano, three crates of cuttings from the garden – oh, and the fish, which we gave to a friend.
We had rented a house in the Limousin, complete with field and barn, so that we could search for our dream home at leisure. After attempting to house-hunt at a distance, we had concluded that trying to sell and buy in one fell swoop was just not practical. (A wise decision in hindsight.) So, after a few days of settling in, armed with optimism and a clear idea of what we wanted, including a list of ‘must-haves’ – land, outbuildings, lake, potential income – we set off in search of Shangri-La.
Our enthusiasm drained away over the next few weeks as we viewed a stream of unsuitable properties, covering mile upon mile in the process. Even Oscar’s passion for expeditions began to wilt under the daily onslaught. On the plus side, we saw a great deal of the countryside, made good friends among our French and German neighbours, had numerous ‘Peter Mayle’ moments, and discovered the myriad delights of life in rural France.
Our new friends took great interest in our search and joined in with gusto, seeking out properties for us to view with cavalier regard for either our brief or our budget. This led to some interesting interludes – such as the time we were offered a ruined village – but, sadly, did not result in us finding a home.
Unfortunately, by now time was running out – our rented home was due to be taken over by holidaying Parisians. We had known this from the start, but had blithely assumed that our three-month tenancy would give us ample time to find, buy and move into a home of our own. Ha! Thankfully, the mayor came to our rescue and we all decamped to his mother’s house for the duration (an adventure all of its own).
However, quite aside from the lack of suitable property in our price range, other worries had begun to arise. The ticks, for a start. South of the Loire they carry a disease potentially fatal to dogs, and can also transmit Lyme’s disease to humans. Rigorous tick-checks became part of the animals’ routine, though we didn’t bother to frisk ourselves until Steve found one of the foul things lodged in an extremely delicate area. The safest way to remove ticks is by twisting them out with a plastic hook, but this particular extrication will be engraved on my memory forever!
Then there were the flies. The poor horses were tormented by a plague of flies that swarmed out of the forest with the sunrise. The worst were the flat-flies. Spider-like in appearance, they land on their victim and scuttle up under the tail, where they nestle in bunches until disturbed. The horses didn’t like this one bit and removing the flies became a perilous daily necessity.
Last but not least were the thunderstorms. During our six-month sojourn in the Haute Vienne, eight households we knew were struck by lightening, including our immediate neighbours, whose chimney was split like a banana skin the day we arrived. All things considered, we decided reluctantly that this region of France was not for us after all. But if not the Limousin, where?
Providence intervened at this point and we stumbled across an old advertisement for the place of our dreams in Normandy. We phoned on the offchance and it was still for sale. A hectic visit to view (12 hours solid driving) and the deal was done. Two months later, we bid a poignant farewell to the Haute Vienne and headed north.
We took up residence at La Chataigneraie on Hallowe’en, 2000, in the pitch dark. Very apt, we thought, given that our new home included a Menhir (standing stone) and a Dolmen (burial mound). Built on an ancient religious site, the property had everything we were looking for: 30 acres of ancient pasture and woodland, a huge timber barn that was perfect for stables, three holiday gîtes so we could earn some income, a cider apple orchard, a boules court and a functional bakehouse. Oh, yes, and an old farmhouse for us to live in.
The property had been badly neglected, and for the first six months our feet hardly touched the ground as we scrubbed and painted and weeded and raked, but nearly five years on, it feels as though we’ve been here forever. The Normans have proved every bit as friendly and helpful as their Limousin cousins and we have made good friends in the neighbourhood, both French and English.
The climate here is more equable than further south, which suits the animals, though the lushness of the grass (which never stops growing) is something we have to be wary of, horse-wise. Our menagerie has extended to include three more horses, two pygmy goats, eight ducks, and a hen. The days are never long enough and brambles have become my bete noir.
Running the gîtes has been a rewarding experience. Many of our guests have become good friends and come back year after year. The most satisfying part is seeing people relax and unwind in these beautiful surroundings and leave refreshed and revitalised at the end of their stay. Providence has treated us kindly and I’d hate to tempt her in any way, but hopefully, we feel that we’ve made it.