Wednesday, 9 April 2014


IN some human beings there lurks a sometimes a worrying capacity for acts of flagrant stupidity. This week I was reminded of my tendency towards such behaviour.

BBC 2 had launched their hybrid programme, Escape to the Continent, and there stood Nicki Chapman looking inordinately pleased with herself whilst expounding the myriad benefits of living in Poitou Charente.

In one moment of malice, I considered TV companies’ remarkable propensity for reinventing so-called celebrities, and wondered how the hell Nicki Chapman had effected the transition from pop music aficionado to homes guru in such a modest passage of time.

Unjust? Possibly. But, by presenting this particular programme, Ms Chapman was belabouring me with a metaphorical baseball bat, and I was inexpertly attempting to cauterise the wounds she seemed intent on inflicting.

To proceed to this sorry tale: in 2004, after much vacillation, my wife Margaret and I decided to buy a second home in France.

We had moved house on 23 occasions in our 29 years of marriage, survived countless renovations and counted fingers fatigued by dirt, dust and disaster. We imagined we’d built up an immunity to reckless behaviour, so we agreed on a prerequisite for our de facto holiday home. It needed to be in pristine condition.

Oh, yeah? Typical of two people occasionally driven by impulse and irrationality, we bought a beautiful, if dilapidated, agricultural barn in the Vienne sector of Poitou Charente. There were no windows, an earthen floor and enough holes in the roof to satisfy the exacting requirements of a latter-day Galileo.

Worse, it was situated four feet from a busy D road at one end of a deserted hamlet that advertised decay and the occasional flight of tumbleweed. The one factor in its favour was a countryside view for which a man might have volunteered his life. Few barns in France have the luxury of such vistas.

Anyway, did we attempt anything approaching due diligence? Did we consider the noise or danger factor generated by drivers who obviously believed that one day they might be equipped to compete at Le Mans?

Did we investigate the somewhat depressed local area, its strengths and frailties, none withstanding its capacity for regeneration? 

Did we indeed investigate the locals, who had an endless fascination with the Euro?

Did we for one moment wonder if integration into this rather reactionary piece of real estate was feasible?

The sorry answer to all these questions merits a two-lettered response. No, we were comprehensively seduced by the aroma of rural France and the view that stretched to the south east.

Why Poitou Charente? We were in fact searching the vast acreage of Normandy when one of the owners we visited told us he was moving 300 kilometres south because of the microclimate. He had, in reality, just applied a shotgun to his right foot and talked himself out of a certain sale.

The Poitou sounded like an even more inspired bet, so off we went, all cylinders firing in the old Mercedes, brains decidedly disengaged. How bloody stupid can a couple get?

This, however, was only the genesis of our folly. Within a couple of days, we had purchased a barn for 30 grand. Our agent, taking ten per cent of the proceedings, recommended an architect who looked antiquated and indeed thought antiquated. His plans, which incorporated walk-through bedrooms, were necessarily jettisoned on our return, but not before they had cost us plenty.

The insanity continued apace with the proposed renovation works which, I’m afraid, bore the stamp of our own inadequacy. We’d taken three quotations from builders and these all hovered around the six-figure mark and beyond. We believed we could do better.

On the last day of a three-week trip, having failed to reach an accommodation with anyone, we lunched at a local restaurant and decided to shed the calories by walking through the main thoroughfare of the nearby town.

Suddenly, I became aware of Margaret talking to someone in a doorway. It was an English voice, a helpful voice, a builder’s voice, damnit! My uplifted spirits flagged temporarily on seeing him, however: here was Fred Flintstone come to life; an Anglo Saxon John Goodman.

But when he accompanied us to the barn and estimated it would take £50,000 to complete the work, those spirits were restored. Now, knowing that the authorities insisted on foreign workers being registered, we quizzed him about this and he claimed he was in the process of securing his registration. Deal done.

And thus our 200-year relic came to life, piecemeal, over the next six months. There were additional tariffs: a new roof; extensive electrical work; the kitchen and bathroom units; the application of cream cement to the exterior stone walls; double glazed windows for the gargantuan doors; and the installation of a septic tank - all of which drove costs towards the skyline.

The latter bill caused particular consternation because the nearby town council had agreed to extend the mains water system to our hamlet, charging our new neighbours roughly £400 each. Incredibly, this offer was refused.

The £50,000 promised to “John Goodman” had grown exponentially and we’d arrived at a figure considerably north of that. But the more encouraging news came when we were summoned by our builder/project manager and told that the barn was finished and fit for inspection.

We touched base on Friday night when the light was fading. We were sorely fatigued, but this had no longevity. Maggie’s Barn, as it had been christened, was a sight for eyes made sore by over a thousand miles of driving.

It had cost the best part of £150,000, but it represented itself as a million dollars, with one room flowing freely into another, chic floor tiles from Provence, a fireplace anchored by an oak bressumer, countless ceiling beams, and an expansive entrance hall and feature mezzanine.

But, being a serial mover - remember the 23 homes we’d owned - you are rarely satisfied with the end product unless it has a price tag. Some time later, we asked the local estate agents to give us his best estimate.

He was a man of few words, but the one word of encouragement I picked up was“superbe!” Less encouraging was his final fiscal analysis. Eighty-five grand. Sacre bloody bleu! With our chins dropping towards the exquisite tiling, he reminded us that we were in a relatively poor area.

I don’t know whether it was at this precise moment that my vision of Poitou Charente began to colour. I do know that little things multiplied my frustrations: those auditioning for Le Mans were starting to pound in my brain, for starters.

There were 50 kilometre per hour signs at either end of the hamlet, and yet these were summarily ignored as drivers thundered by. Perhaps irrationally, I would race into the road, screaming “cinquante!” at the miscreants.

With our grandchildren arriving on holiday, this obsession with the reckless intensified, and I began to take pictures of number plates. It lasted only for one morning. Then I was visited by two gendarmes, who had responded to a complaint.

In France, you are apparently violating a person’s privacy by doing this. I told the police that I had in fact been capturing the extremely photogenic countryside, Was there a law against this, I asked? They smiled conspiratorially.

While this good humour was still in place, my fractured French permitted me another rejoinder. “Why are people allowed to drive like devils through this place? Is it normal?” They failed to answer.

My concern over aberrant driving strayed, I confess, into other wider areas, and gradually the joy of French living began to dissipate.

I objected to the infernal bureaucracy of the nation and the copious amounts of forms for inconsequentialities; the exorbitant charges of tradesmen when they suspected (wrongly in my case) a rich foreigner was on their doorstep; the insouciance of shopkeepers who’d totally ignore you while they exchanged small talk with locals; the utter arrogance of the belief that the only way is the French way.

Leaving such negativity aside for a moment, we loved the weather, the scenery, the fastidious maintenance of major roads. We further enjoyed the good restaurants that provided value for money (finding them is not always easy, in spite of French propaganda); and delighted at meeting some really nice locals away from our hamlet of doom, where only one neighbour talked to us on a regular basis.

There is inevitably a coup de grace in any fraught situation, and ours arrived in 2013 when three caravans, two cars and a Dormobile, a squad of young men, women and children, two dogs and a goat took possession of a disused house and over grown garden to the rear of our property.

Our wondrous view was speedily compromised by the new backdrop. Then, the side access to our barn was blocked by a six-foot wall. I reminded one of the new owners - he sported a hairstyle which a Mohican would have gladly endorsed - that we had the right of passage. Our heated exchange proved unproductive.

Indeed, it was counter productive. The minatory dogs, a Boxer and a Jack Russell, arrived each morning snapping and snarling at the boundary fence 15 feet short of our front door. Such intimidation only abated when I visited the gendarmerie and registered a strong protest.

We are all subject to inevitability. The trick is identifying that inevitability. It was time to leave Maggie’s Barn and the land of our holiday dreams.

Over there, house sellers can employ more estate agents than you can shake a French stick at. We settled on four agencies and eventually such a concentration of manpower worked: a French couple seemed willing to put up with the veritable circus that had moved in next door.

The price in Euros had not improved, but the currency’s strength against the pound meant that we would receive approximately £105,000. An initial elation was quickly cancelled with the revelation that fairly draconian tax deductions were on the way.

Consequently, we left Poitou with just over 90 grand - some 60 grand less than our initial outlay. This was partially the responsibility of “John Goodman”, who had failed to register his credentials. There was no recourse: well, would you argue with John Goodman?

Please don’t interpret the message here as a recommendation for people to ignore Poitou Charente, or indeed the highly seductive tones of Nicky Chapman. We simply urge them to be prudent - in the fervent hope that no-one repeats our stupidity.

Meanwhile, I have a message for the BBC who, judging by the lack of variety in their programming, rarely lead the field as regards innovation. May I suggest another property programme, one perhaps with a bit of caustic bite?

So how about Escape from the Continent?

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