At the beginning, 1989.
Well, to be blunt, we were broke. We had been hit by the UK property crash in 1989 and we lost everything almost overnight. And that is why we moved to France. No other reason.
In the preceding months, before we realized how serious the financial crisis would be, we had bought a little fermette, largely uninhabitable, in the centre of France, as fashion dictated. The intention was to develop, as the British were hungry for cheap property in France and – goodness – it was cheap! Although, before we met, we had both lived abroad a great deal, we were not immune to the British dream-misconception that life would be “different” in France. Like so many of our compatriots we thought it could be an “escape” of some kind … in those days France was considerably cheaper. Surely life would be easier ? Surely it would be different ?
Well, yes, it was different – it was French!
This was the first property we bought, more-or-less, for the price of a garden shed in the UK. I am standing by the door with one of the children. The centre of France was a big mistake, though we were not to know it then. Although property was amazingly cheap, the area was bitterly cold in the winter and stiflingly hot in the summer – a horrid, heavy kind of heat that was not pleasant at all. It was also a very backward part of the country, and seemed stuck in the dark ages. Many of the locals had no indoor plumbing and used an out-house, or even a bucket.
In the UK I had been teaching and Bruce ran a building firm, buying up the last of the run-down old houses in Hastings, splitting them up in to flats and then selling them. It was exceptionally high-risk and hard work, but we were both extremely energetic, positive and determined people.
I taught French & Spanish
I had stopped teaching while expecting our third child, born in 1988. That was the happiest patch of my life, at home with a very good baby, with whom I was utterly besotted. Pippa and William were aged 7 and 9 respectively and they went to a local prep school. We had a lovely house that we had purchased when William was new-born. We bought it as a two-up and two-down derelict cottage, probably the last one in Sussex. We had enlarged and renovated it and we were rightly very proud of it. We had good money, a smart car, holidays abroad. Even my teaching position had been pleasant enough.
We had bought this as a derelict cottage when William was just a few weeks old. By then it was already very difficult to find something in need of work in the south-east of England and we felt lucky to have got our hands on it. It had been a tiny two-up two-down with a small kitchen extension. It was in such a bad state that a health visitor came round to see what sort of conditions I was keeping the children in! We turned it in to a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house. Our blood, sweat and tears were in it.
On the patio in Sussex, England. I loved that house and left my heart there. It took me a long time to recover.
Sometimes when I look back on that energy I can hardly believe it. I used to pop home during my lunch break at school to mow the grass – at first a half acre of derelict shrubbery and scrub and, bit by bit, as I cut the growth back and seeded, mowed and re-seeded, it turned in to lovely green grass, English grass. I don’t know why I mention it here, for I have never been interested in gardening, but I suppose because it was one of the things I missed the most when we were in France. My English garden with London pride growing in the borders.
Me standing in the front garden in Sussex, the azaleas and rhododenrons in bloom, a few days before Jake, our third baby, was born.
My rock garden with Pippa and William crouching at the top and the London Pride in bloom.
I had loads of friends. I have always been a chatty, up-front person. I like girls, I like women. I always had a chum with me when I went shopping or when I took the children out. It is part of the very heart and structure of an English woman’s life, and another thing that I missed dreadfully once we moved to France where it was much harder to make friends, and to find the time to maintain any potential friendships.
We worked as a team.
Unable to meet bills or pay the mortgage on our home in England, we were just one more family amid hundreds and hundreds who lost out badly in 1989, many of whom reformed their lives around Council houses and menial jobs to survive. What made us different was that we believed very strongly in ourselves. We had had a lovely lifestyle and we wanted it back. We were hard-working and willing to take a risk. We got on really well together and worked as a team, always. We had huge energy, and we didn’t mind roughing it when we had to. Bruce could turn his hand to almost anything, he was exceptionally skilled, and I could do the rest. When I look back I realize we were multi-talented, but it didn’t occur to me then. The main things were our enthusiasm, our determination and our energy. We had three little children, but we scooped them up in to whatever situation we were in, and just got on with it.
We decided to let our lovely home, so we put a tenant in and we moved to France. I will always remember the removal man telling me he moved a UK family to France every week. As he made his notes he looked straight at me as added: “and every week I move a family home again”. He was trying to warn me.
The tenant’s rent paid the worst of the mortgage. About four months later he announced that he would like to buy the property and, although we’d by far have preferred to have kept it, we really had no choice but to sell. And then, for no reason, he changed his mind, bought elsewhere, the bank forclosed and we lost the house. I cried for weeks – for years.
Periodically somebody will say to me “how lucky you could speak French!”. Being able to speak French was, of course, a huge advantage compared to most foreigners trying to set up a new life in France. Conversely, however, it was a disadvantage in more ways than one would imagine. Had neither of us been able to speak French we’d have bumbled along together. But as I spoke it well, thanks to childhood years in New Caledonia, everything fell on to my shoulders. Talking to the teachers, helping with homework, opening a bank account, dealing with mortgage applications, insurance policies, the endless red tape provided by the French bureaucratic system, answering the phone, finding an accountant, applying for child allowance – all of a sudden I was no longer a housewife-cum-teacher. It was exhausting. Jake was still getting us up in the night from time to time, the children were confused and lost in school, and we had to find a way of earning money very quickly indeed.
Bruce washing Jake in the kitchen sink – we had no bath, though there was a cold shower.
The other key to our success was the French banking system. It was extraordinarily naive at the time, and in no time at all we were able to buy a bigger and better property called La Haute Perriere with 100% loan from a French bank. They simply wanted to know how much we had earned the previous year, and that had been a lot. They wrote it down on a piece of paper, got us to sign it, and were not interested in the fact that we had lost that income for good.
Now, one has to understand that, although on the one hand it was utterly crazy – crazy! – to buy such a big property, there were reasons behind it. Folly, sure, but good reasons too. Both Bruce and I always had a feeling of “just round the next corner … ” and “in just a month or two …” We had complete confidence that things would work out well. Considering our ambitions, and the state we were in, that confidence sometimes beggared belief. There was no question of things not working out well. A possible failure didn’t enter in to the equation. A big house like La Haute Perriere gave us a level of kudos, not for the local people but to our very selves. It is a bit like looking smart when you go out – you somehow just feel better, even though you are the same person. Our frame of mind, our mindset and our whole personal aura was go for it! Make it happen! get there!
That is what drove us on.
I love this picture because I can just see Jake toddling as fast as his little leggies would carry him, towards the camera. Behind him I am just moving forwards to catch him. The middle floor of this property had been arranged as a 3 bedroom flat, and that is where we lived. There was a top floor which was accessed via a steep staircase at one end of the property; we called this The Tower. There was a new roof but apart from that no work had been done on that floor and it was just a huge long attic that the children played in. There were all sorts of relics up there, the strangest of all being five or six massive oriental rugs, laid out on the floor, one on top of the other. They were doubtless worth a fortune, but there was no way of getting them down the stairs and we puzzled as to how they got up there. It must have been when the roof was removed. The bottom floor was three massive, bare rooms, decorated and boasting 18th Century tiled floors and a huge fireplace at one end. The property had full central heating which was unusual for that part of France in those days – and gosh, was that needed that first bitter bitter winter! This huge house had just the one bathroom and toilet, which was also typical of French homes at that time. There were several acres of fenced garden, a tennis court, and endless outbuildings to include a lovely 17th Century dove cote.
We sold our little fermette in Palluau to some ambitious Brits who were seeking “the easy life”, and we made a good profit. Doing this was clearly the way to make some good money and to move forwards. We had befriended a local notaire who was very keen to sell to les anglais, and thence very keen to see me set up an estate agency. In those days it was more usual to have an office and a shop-front to give us a high street presence, but we didn’t even consider this as it was unwanted overheads. We arranged one of the large and more comofrtable downstairs rooms as an office and, along with my old typewriter, a phone, a filing cabinet and a second-hand photocopier, we set up business. Bruce built two long “desks” that covered two walls, and on these we were able to lay out the photocopies of the properties, address envelopes and so on.
One of the ground floor rooms
We were successful right from the word go. No, not big success, but enough to live on, pay for the house and run the car. Thanks largely to the notaire, the jungle-drums worked like magic and we soon had a big file of properties for sale, mostly run-down fermettes, which was what the Brits were generally after. We ignored the French market – they had estate agents of their own – and concentrated on the UK market, placing ads in The Lady and the Telegraph. There was no internet in those days, so enquiries came in by phone or by fax, sometimes ten enquiries in one day and then none for a month. The property details had to be posted to the UK, and then after a few follow-up calls we’d wait for people to come to France and view. For every 100 potential buyers I got in to my car, and drove them round the countryside showing them any suitable houses, about 3 would actually buy something. I took as large a commission as I could, for those that did buy had to make up, financially, for those who didn’t buy.
The countryside was generally flat. This was the view from the kitchen balcony. Years later William told me that he used to look at the horizon and imagine England over there, beyond the trees. He also told me that for years and years he slept facing England. He and I were both very homesick.
My property sales were dealt with by the same notaire , who benefitted from the transactions, of course. He, in turn, kept one ear to the ground for suitable properties for me. He supplied me with sales papers in English that I should get my clients to sign, and was a good source of support and general information at a time when I was paddling in the dark.
He didn’t trouble to mention to me – and perhaps he genuinely didn’t think of it – that there are very strict laws about conveyancing in France and that, what you could at that time do in all freedom in the UK was illegal in France, and carried a prison sentence.
Part 2 to follow.
Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an aritst. Her books are readily available on Amazon/Kindle, or can be ordered from any leading book store or library. They are also available as e-books on this site