By Fiona Shaw

In July 2003 we began our search for a place in France. After several months of looking for a holiday cottage we changed our minds and decided to look for a proper home. So we upped our budget from 80000€ to 150000€ and changed our criteria from two to three bedrooms. This was inspired as it opened the door to many more suitable houses. We viewed them all on the Internet, selecting a number to see on our house-hunting trip.

It was very frustrating to find that agents had not listened to our very special requirements, single storey, three bedrooms in an immediately habitable state, village or semi-rural position. We saw old apple stores with no stairs to second floor, multi-level houses with two steps up or three steps down to every room, dangerous buildings about to collapse, motorway or TGV line cutting through the garden, you name it we saw it!! Also most of the property that we had made appointments to see only the week before had been sold. How odd is that? What had been a well planned trip appeared to be turning into a bit of a nightmare, until we visited an agent in Cognac. Their English agent was charm personified. She listened and understood. She had sent me details of a property, which was just above our budget before the visit and had also sorted out a couple of others that she thought might fit the bill.

As we turned into the yard of the over budget house, my husband I looked at each other and said “this is the one”. A three hundred year old, two storey building but with all the living accommodation on the ground floor, three bedrooms, a huge lounge and an eat-in kitchen plus lots of possibilities in the form of barns, storerooms and attics. We fell in love and it was pouring with rain too! We visited three further times and then signed the compromise de vente! And we were only supposed to be looking on this visit. So we are mad and impetuous fools but you have to put some zing into your life and this certainly spiced ours up!!

We have been here for two years now and I have found living in the Charente a joy. My neighbours are all fantastic and have invited us into their homes. They are all quite elderly but this has not been a barrier. When we arrived here the vendor had taken every twig of wood and drop of oil for the heating and the neighbours rallied round and gave us wheelbarrow loads of wood so we could at least have a fire. The plumber, who I phoned regarding the heating, came round on Saturday evening and promised to order oil for us on Monday morning. And indeed the oilman arrived at 9.00 a.m. on Monday morning, apparently Mr Zapparin had registered the urgency of the situation of poor disabled lady in freezing cold house and they had responded with speed. We have played boule at our local club, which was great fun. Rather than me having to wheel up and down through the gravel at the change of ends, all games were played in one direction to make it easier for me. No concession on the weight of the boule makes this just an occasional amusement for me. This was our introduction to village life in France.

We went to Barbezieux on Market day and discovered that wheelchairs, hills and markets don’t mix!!! I felt like I was about to sent off down the hill like a bobsleigh on the Cresta Run. I got blisters on my hands from trying to hold myself back!! The whole experience was awful. However Jonzac is wonderful, with its lovely flat market hall. Yes it is a bit narrow but the atmosphere is tremendous and everyone is friendly and helpful.

True, shopping in the old towns can be difficult. Bouncing up and down on the cobbles makes my legs feel like they are about to explode and my eyes like they are going to shaken out of their sockets. I soon discovered that my super funky independent self-propelled wheelchair was totally useless and I have reverted to using an old one that has big wheels at the front and pushing handles so that I can get help up and down curbs and steps into shops and restaurants. I did ask my consultant if I could have a scooter or electric wheelchair and he said no because I still have use of my arms. I suppose that I should be grateful for small mercies.

Every visit does have to be planned and well thought out. I usually ring in advance to check if where we are going is accessible, where to park and if they have disabled loos. Most people are more than helpful. In fact lots of places where they have been forced by legislation to install ramps and disabled loos they are just glad that someone who really needs them comes along and uses them.

We have eaten in loads of restaurants and visited lots of local attractions and only on a couple of occasions have I been disappointed. Visiting La Rochelle was dreadful. It is so beautiful but the streets cobbled with large stones were a painful nightmare and the total lack of disabled loos almost a disaster!! Royan is completely different. Lovely flat promenade, welcoming restaurants that want your trade and plenty of loos. Visiting Bordeaux for shopping is a dream, even using the tram is a breeze but the lack of loos makes life just a bit difficult. Thanks goodness for Gallerie Lafayette!! But I have rung most of the museums and they claim to be accessible, so we are off next week to the boat museum to check it out.

My funniest experience was our visit to the Michelin starred restaurant La Ribauderie at Bourg Charente. I asked if it was accessible when I made my reservation and was assure that it was. And true to their word it is, once you have negotiated the six front steps!! Admittedly they did offer to lift me up the steps, but I am no Twiggy and I could see they were only too glad when I said I could walk a few steps and would climb this obstacle myself! The meal was great but we won’t be going back!

Health care took a while to sort out but now that it is I find it excellent. I have not had to wait for long periods to be seen by either the local doctor or specialist consultants. When I was having some problems with my legs I was referred to a local rehabilitation hospital and went there three times per week for five months. They made me new shoes and new equipment. After bumping over all those cobbles my old wheelchair is falling to bit and I now need a new wheelchair, I feel certain that this will not cause me any problems either.

Last year we bought a second house, which is fully accessible for wheelchairs, and we let it for holidays and this has proved very popular. I have compiled a guidebook that gives information on places to visit and restaurants with reference to the accessibility, loos and parking. Our guests have found this really useful, and have added reviews of their own too.

I feel very privileged to have the chance to live in this lovely area of a beautiful country surrounded by generous hearted people.

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