Entering ‘our’ Breton house for the first time, The Artist and I became contemplative. This had been a major topic of our thoughts and conversations for months and – now we were finally here – we just wanted to take it all in quietly.
Inside, it was just as we’d remembered it. Smoke-blackened beams, dusty cobwebs, greying net curtains strung across grimy windowpanes, mud ground into the floor. But we looked beyond these signs of neglect, imagining how it could be. Luckily, I had previous experience of this – albeit as a child.
When I was eight, my mother and I persuaded my stepfather to buy an old vicarage, in four acres of Welsh countryside. The previous occupant – an eccentric vicar, who’d vacated some twenty years earlier – had kept chickens and goats in the drawing-room; painted thick, brown gloss over the oak-paneling and allowed the ‘servants quarters’ (a separate cottage, tucked against the main building,) to fall into disrepair.
Before we moved in, I ‘helped’ my mother make a few rooms habitable. While she worked her magic, with scrubbing brush and old-fashioned ‘elbow grease’, it was my job to keep her supplied with pans of hot water and cups of black tea, by feeding the Rayburn with firewood I’d collected from an overgrown spinney.
Long before renovating and recycling became a moral obligation, my parents nurtured this decaying Victorian mansion back to life – with paint-stripper and pastel emulsion; the inspired use of fabric and accessories, the placement period furniture, snapped up for a ‘song’ at auction. Outside, too, they gradually tamed the ‘wilderness’ – tilling and planting the walled kitchen garden; mowing the tennis court lawn; pruning apple and pear trees, replacing overgrown shrubberies with rose gardens, rockeries and flowerbeds.
This simple longere, which The Artist and I had bought on a whim, bore little resemblance to the Welsh country house of my childhood – or even it’s stables. But something had compelled me to buy it – the wraith-like wisp of a hazy half-memory, an excitement I couldn’t define. And – though I knew for sure that I hadn’t been here before – it still felt achingly familiar.
The ground floor of ‘la maison’ was divided – not quite in half – by a wooden partition wall. The only door from outside opened directly into the kitchen/living room, with a shallow stone sink; wood burning mini-range and large open fire taking up most of the gable end wall. While the floor in this area was concrete, there were floorboards – laid diagonally – in the other room, the walls and entire ceiling of which were decorated in paisley patterned, vinyl wallpaper. Lengths of this were hanging loose from the beams but – before I got sucked into stripping it off – Martin dragged me outside to explore.
A derelict barn stood opposite our kitchen window. Peering through gaps in the rotting wooden sides, we could see that it housed tools and a horse drawn plough. It was separated from our building by a rutted track leading to a neighbouring dwelling and – naturally enough – we assumed it belonged to that. The house and grounds were immaculate, so this eyesore really stood out and must have obscured their view. We found it strange that they hadn’t done anything with it – converted it into a garage or pulled it down and incorporated the triangle of land into their front garden. Then we consulted the ‘plan locale’ that the Notaire had given us and found out why. L’Hangar’, as it was called, was ours. How bizarre!
We’d first viewed the house in early October, before the leaves had started to fall. I can remember being surprised and delighted by the size and shape of the garden behind it. Bordered by a thick hedge and several tall trees along the bottom, it was flat, square and completely private. And – once we’d cleared the narrow patch of brambles running up one side – totally manageable for absentee owners, like us.
Now, as we rounded the end of the house in mid-February, we were in for a surprise. The dense foliage had died and crumbled away, revealing that the garden didn’t end where we’d thought. We could see that we’d bought the entire corner plot, apart from a small ‘nick’ in one side, where a small, occupied cottage nestled against a fir hedge. What we’d presumed was their back garden actually belonged to us. Stamping a path through the brambles, we discovered a ‘secret’ orchard, containing several fruit trees, another well, a huge pile of unused roof tiles and parts of farm machinery we couldn’t identify.
There was a lot to take in, so many things we’d uncovered, so much work to be done. I longed to roll up my sleeves and make a start but the light was beginning to fade, bringing this brief visit to a close. There was just enough time for one last look round, before heading for Roscoff, to catch the ferry back to (so-called) civilization.