Rain in June….

This is turning out to be a very strange year. Back in the winter we had weeks of freezing cold weather with snow lying on the ground for longer than we can remember. Our olive tree dropped its leaves and the cammelias, planted by Roger’s Dad, gave up and died. Working on the final draft of the Loire Valley Guide, we burnt heaps of old roofing timber on the small Godin in the office and wore several layers of fleeces and sat at the computers with blankets over our knees.

The book deadline having come and gone, we were free to ski and get more material for MountainPassions. Off we went to the Alps at the height of the season… and we get a heatwave. Temperatures soared into the 20’s and the snow turned to slush. We were lucky enough to get a few hours skiing most mornings but rain put paid to two days and we had to mope about hoping for an improvement so that we could get some decent pictures. On our last day the temperatures had dropped slightly but it was still raining. The forecast was for snow. As we gained height on the skilift, rain turned to sleet, then snow, then a blizzard. One of the lift guys gave us directions down and we skied back in the most heavenly powder – the best snow we’d seen all week but we were soaked to the skin and glad to get back indoors for a hot chocolate.

Back home, April turned out to be a scorcher and we thought it would last. Wrong!  When May arrived, we would normally have long cleared out the stoves and be spending evenings sitting in the garden and strolling around in T-shirts. Instead we were hauling logs and pulling the sofa up close to the fire. What was going on? This wasn’t the climate we signed up for.

Now things have just got worse. Flaming June has been dowsed in rain and we haven’t seen the sun for a week or more. A freak hailstorm ripped through my vegetable patch, the garden is overgrown with weeds, and waterlogged roses are hanging off the walls, piles of soggy petals building up on the ground below.

Whatever next? It’s a very strange year….

talking about old photographs…

Whilst searching for the story about the citerne, I happened to find an old article by Rog about how we came by the old photos of our house. It was published in 2005 and here it is in its entirety with some of the pictures….

It all began innocently enough. Ever since we bought our old farmhouse, incredibly already six years ago, we’d been trying to discover a little more of its history. True, there was no shortage of general comment from local people who’d known ‘la maison-de-maître…’ since childhood, but somehow the sum total of what we’d discovered didn’t add up to much and delving ever deeper around the house and its outbuildings only seemed to raise more questions than answers. Then a chance remark to our most immediate neighbour provided a spark of hope that we might at last be onto something more revealing: ‘Yes, I’ve got some old photographs of your house somewhere – I’ll look them out for you…’.

It would prove to be a waiting game. We’d been on first-name terms with monsieur Imbert since our very first meeting, but despite having been born in the village – in the property adjoining ours, in fact – he only appears infrequently, and actually lives for most of the time down among the hills of Pagnol country, not far from Marseille. Last week, though, our patience was finally rewarded during one of his longer visits when Jean-Paul and his Paule, Provençal wife invited us to come and see what he’d found.

The following morning, after exchanging handshakes and kisses (three for good friends), we found ourselves seated around a small white notebook PC gleaming incongruously in the otherwise traditional cottage interior, while the results of his rummaging among the family archives began to appear on the screen. Things began, as expected, with a selection of colour images shot during the ten or so years prior to our arrival, and showed for the first time the scale of what had been done by the previous owners. Only now could we see just why the creation of Julia’s vegetable garden had been so hard-won, for the huge amount of stone and rotted timber we’d had to clear (still are, in fact) were obviously the remains of a substantial barn, with an adjoining blacksmith’s workshop. Heavy horses and similarly-proportioned wagons once occupied the space now given over to a developing potager, but both they and the generation who worked them have long since vanished into the memory which we were now able to share.

house2_oldb+w

More poignant still was the nearby terrace of farm cottages, which by the time we’d acquired them with the property had already been plundered for their roofing materials (presumably for the restoration of the main house). Some of Jean-Paul’s photographs showed the interiors, with much of the last occupants’ furniture in situ and forlornly rotting away. It was a sad sight. As, in its own way, was a vast remaining area we’ve only known as a constantly regenerating jungle, but in the photos freshly cleared by a mean-looking bulldozer.

Emile MARSACThis was as nothing, though, to what came next, in black-and-white territory and clearly much further back in time. First came a young man with a shock of black hair and sitting proudly astride a De Dion-Bouton bicycle in the lane beside our house. The year was 1920 and his name was already familiar to us, being plainly visible among those inscribed on various stone barn doorways. Another piece of the jigsaw fell into place in a sepia school photograph from 1909, including a young Leopoldine, who was to marry his brother and live for the rest of her life in the old house we recently restored for my father. Next came the farm labour in the surrounding fields, followed by more formal images recording the great wedding party gatherings which took place from time to time in the village. The most recent, still taken over fifty years ago, included two young people who we’d previously only known as the long-retired couple who now keep chickens and tend their vegetable garden nearby, plus a small, bespectacled boy who turns out to be Jean-Paul himself.

Finally came one particularly large group carefully assembled in tiers six-deep in front of our largest barn, in what is now our garden, and gazing back at us wide-eyed from another world. The date is uncertain, but the older women are wearing lace bonnets, while their grandchildren are smartly attired in an assortment of sailor-suits, straw bonnets, petticoats and silk ribbons. How many are still with us we have no idea, much less what they would make of all the changes they must have witnessed.

©Roger Moss. Photos courtesy Jean-Paul Imbert.

mariage Henry MARSAC et Germaine

sourcery….

Our neighbours have a hectare or so of land on which they grow organic vegetables. They do other amazing things but their most pressing task in this hot and dry summer is finding water. Every household in France is metered so you can imagine how much it costs to water all those veg. Another source was needed or they wouldn’t be making any profit. They invited un sourcier (water diviner) to search for somewhere they could make a borehole. He arrived on Thursday afternoon and sure enough, walking over their property and somehow sensing the water, he found them a suitable source. Our neighbour remembered how we had discovered an underground tank or citerne in our garden. I’ll publish the story again if I can find it. He brought the water diviner round so he could mark out where the tank was. He methodically quartered the ground holding a small cone shaped piece of metal in front of him. When it started turning, he placed a stone on the ground to note the spot. We eventually had the tank all marked out. It’s an impressive piece of work as it is not only lined with beautifully finished stonework but it also has a vaulted ceiling. Quite common around here no doubt but would be practically impossible to build today. That evening, we went over to Blanzay for Roger’s monthly open mike night which he hosts alongside his friend Den. Some new faces brought a few surprises and one or two magical musical moments notably a saxophonist from Lille, who invited Steve, a piano player who he’d never even met before to back him on Girl from Ipanema- stunning.

Back to Blanzay last night where singer songwriter Angie Palmer was performing. It was a warm summers evening so we were outside and Angie was set up in the barn. As the light fell the atmosphere warmed, Rog joined Angie on stage for the second half and with songs like Michael Angelo and Deep Blue Sea, the audience were spellbound. See Angie’s MySpace page for forthcoming gigs in the UK and France.

Angie Palmer singing at Blanzay, Poitou-Charentes accompanied by Roger Moss
Angie Palmer singing at Blanzay, Poitou-Charentes accompanied by Roger Moss

our garden…

The main garden is dominated by the large chestnut tree. It’s shadow moves across the garden in the summer and provides welcome shade for us when we start wilting in the afternoon heat. The disadvantages are that quite a lot of the garden is too shady for many plants and also too dry because the rain hardly penetrates the canopy. The garden is surrounded by a stone wall on two sides and is about 5 feet high. It protects us from a freezing wind in the winter and retains plenty of warmth in the summer. The house, adjacent barn and the old cottage stretch the width of the garden on a third side and face almost due south. The big barn at the bottom provides privacy and shelter and a cool wall for climbers.The ground is calcareous and very stony. You cannot plant anything without digging out a barrowful of stones.
To the rear of the house is another walled area which is dominated by the back wall of the old farmworkers cottages – still in the process of being cleared away. There is a lot of stone lying around and several tons of it have been shifted by hand and by machine to clear space for two small but productive vegetable gardens.
We also possess an area outside the main house and garden which we call ‘the green’. It’s just grass at the moment but we have planted a wild cherry, and also a tulip tree in memory of Roger’s mum and dad.
Planning the garden has been lots of fun and although the development is slow through
lack of funds, it’s beginning to take shape. We still have lots of projects in mind, mostly inspired by our visits to gardens around France and especially in Provence. We love the Mediterranean feel we are achieving in our own corner of France. We most of all want to introduce an ornamental pond and some running water into the main garden. We’ll have a central square pool fed by a water spout by the side wall and flowing down a runnel to the pool. It will probably be fed from our underground water tank which we will bring back into use by directing all the rainwater from the barn into it and installing a pump.

the house transformed…

house_beforeWe had always wanted to change the front of the house. The render badly needed redoing and there was an arrangement of windows and a door encased in concrete which clearly didn’t belong. Jools wanted French doors opening out onto the garden from the dining room so Rog came up with a design which would retain the old proportions and transform the facade. Our neighbour was able to recommend a local mason, and as we had seen some of his work, we were happy to employ him. It took 2 years and three months before he arrived but it was worth the wait…
Here is a pic to remind us what it was like before.
The weather was perfect for most of the week, slightly damp and mild. Unfortunately, it absolutely poured with rain one day but typical of French artisans, they carried on regardless without a break (apart from lunch – of course!)
house_beforeafterThe end of the house was completed first and it enabled us to see what the rest of the house would look like. The render is a lime mortar which is a traditional material. The colour of the render was really important to us as we wanted a real southern feel. In this case, the colour was achieved by adding a dark sand.

house_facadestripAnd so to the front. They stripped off the old render, then made the opening for the French doors. All the cut stone required for the new openings was recuperated from our ruin. Some of it had been frost-damaged so they had to dismantle and sort quite a lot of stone to find the right pieces.
house_facadestrippedIt was quite tempting to leave the facade as bare stone… but we knew it was never meant to be like that.
house_masonThe stone is first coated with a grey cement to seal it and give a smooth base. Then the render is applied, smoothed with a hand trowel then finished with a spiked trowel and a wire brush which gives it a nice textured surface.

Voila !
Voila !

History Lives in the Buildings

We believe our house was built around 1850. Back then, rural France was much more densely populated. Balandière, had over 50 people living here within the memory of our oldest neighbours. It is now only 28 full time residents in 12 households. We had some cottages to the rear which were occupied by farm workers and pre-dates our house. Our neighbour Christine, can remember visiting her grandmother there, who apparently kept a moped in her living room!
Most people would have worked the land, and as we find out from photos and from clearing out cottages and outbuildings, it would have been a poor and hardworking life. However, Henry Marsac wasn’t an agricultural worker. He became a policeman and ultimately had a distinguished career.

Tucked behind our wonderful “marronnier” (Horse Chestnut) the house has had an interesting history. Fondly referred to as “la belle maison” by some locals, in its recent past, it had been divided in two by the Marsac brothers, Henry and Emile. Their names and other scribbles are etched into stone doorways and lintels around the property. Thanks to our neighbour John-Paul, who was born in the village, we have some wonderful photos of the Marsac family.

Marriage of Henry Marsac and Germaine, Balandière
Marriage of Henry Marsac and Germaine, Balandière. The wedding photo was taken in front of the barn.

The house underwent its most drastic transformation when the previous owners converted it back into a single family home. Unfortunately, circumstances changed for them and we turned up at just the right time to rescue it from its state of despair. Here is the house in an old picture showing a mysterious central chimney and no bathroom window. Most of the transformation was carried out by our predecessors, an English family, who brought the house back to life.

An old black & white photo of our house before it was converted back into a single family home
An old black & white photo of our house before it was converted back into a single family home

We have continued the restoration work, albeit slowly. The ivy has been replaced by a climbing rose and wysteria and the garden is no longer a jungle. However, It wasn’t until October 2005, that the facade finally had it’s facelift when the mason M. Moreau and his son arrived and worked solidly for one week and gave the house a new lease of life.

The house as it is in 2009.
The house, 2009.

A bit of background

We moved to France from Cornwall in the south-west of England at the end of 2002. I had left my career in environmental management and sustainable tourism a year prior to that and was already working with my husband, Roger Moss, who is a photographer and travel writer specialising in France and a musician. Since moving over we have been renovating our house and garden and continuing working to promote France to a worldwide Anglophile audience . We still love travelling in France to research features for magazines and recently completed a guide book to the Loire Valley for Footprint Travel Guides. We are passionate about mountains and ski and established www.mountainpassions.com on 2007 which covers ski and all aspects of mountain living and tourism.
This blog will consist of what we are doing at home and what we see on our travels, and generally enjoying our lives in France  – hope you enjoy sharing it with us.