In the summer of 2000, while on a camping holiday in France, we impulse-bought a dilapidated farm building thinking we could turn it into the holiday house of our dreams. I’ve always wanted to use that experience in fiction and my new novel Lies Behind the Ruin opens with the Willshire family making a similar rash decision to purchase a French ruin.
There the similarity ends. The Willshires’ story is one of darkness, loss and danger and you can read about it in Lies Behind the Ruin (available for pre-order now from this website or from Amazon). Our experience, on the other hand, was reckless but we eventually triumphed over the setbacks. Here’s an article I wrote about the experience, first published in French Property News in 2005.
“That’s not a house, it’s a cowshed,” exclaimed my ten-year-old son, Alex, appalled by this latest evidence of his parents’ irresponsible behaviour.
It was the summer of the year 2000 – let’s call it day one. We were on a family holiday in a rural part of France where the children had to make their own entertainment. We wanted them to spend some time unplugged from television, gaming and the computer – there was no internet or social media to worry about back then. Occasionally we browsed the windows of the local estate agents and dreamed of owning a place in France but prices were on the rise. And then we spotted a wreck of an old farm building that might just be cheap enough …
It was basically a patchwork of crumbling stone, held together with mud, under a corrugated asbestos roof. The property was surrounded by a forest of stinging nettles, the most attractive feature was a vast overgrown field, populated by molehills, but with a view of the chateau in the distance.
The estate agent, who had been trying to sell this tumbledown outbuilding for over five years, showed signs of impatience until he realised this crazy British couple might be genuinely interested in taking it off his hands.
Later, at his office, our two sulky children bore witness as, without legal advice or any thought of consequences, we signed a compromis de vente committing us to proceed with the purchase. Note to readers: don’t try this at home – or abroad! The agent then frogmarched us to the nearest cash machine and stood over us while we inserted every bank and credit card in our possession to come up with the ten per cent deposit in cash. As I said, it was very cheap.
Back in England we bought an ancient caravan to use as our holiday living quarters while the renovations were carried out. Easter 2001 (day 242) we towed the caravan to France where the ground was so waterlogged we couldn’t get onto our field. A passing electrician stopped to help. He introduced us to an architect, who drew up the plans and masterminded our planning application. But the architect couldn’t find anyone to project manage the building phase. Our project was too small, too cheap and too risky.
We grew accustomed to spending holidays with four of us crammed into a space half the size of our kitchen back home. In summer we roasted, in autumn we froze. We didn’t dare to risk a winter visit. Our main holiday activities were cutting grass and strimming weeds. Instead of a field of dreams, our little house on the prairie had turned into a little prairie on the house.
Finally in October 2002 – day 760 – a friend put together a package of tradesmen who were prepared to carry out the renovation work for us. Even then it wasn’t plain sailing so in January 2003 (day 830), my husband put his small business in the UK on hold and moved to France to supervise the project.
By Easter 2003 (day 910) a phoenix had risen from the ashes. The original building was largely demolished and reconstructed but from the outside, at least, it was recognisably a house. Not the stone cottage we’d expected but a modern bungalow. The inside was still a shell that we worked on over several years.
The most remarkable change was not the house itself but the children. From the start of the project my son’s deepest fear had been that we were planning a permanent move and about to uproot him from his school and his mates. That Easter he remarked, “You know Mum, if you really wanted to move to France, I wouldn’t mind that much.”
But for us that was not the point. France was my refuge, unsullied by the stresses and strains of a hectic corporate career. A place where the sun (mostly) always shone, petty squabbles evaporated and our family co-existed in harmony.
So how does it turn out for the Willshire family in Lies Behind the Ruin? Will their impulse buy of a dilapidated property solve their deep problems, or will their plans for a new life evolve into something darker? If you’re intrigued, you can pre-order a copy from my shop on this website or from Amazon https://amzn.to/2FBdFu3 It will be delivered close to publication day 25th April 2019.
The Modern Slavery Helpline run by the charity Unseen UK is at risk of closing if new funding can't be raised. I'm re-sharing a blog I wrote recently for Unseen that explains why I support their work. If you want to help the appeal, the link to their website is below.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of The Rule Breaker's Guide to Step Up and Stand Out by saxophonist, poet, speaker and performer, Georgia Varjas. Here is my review.
This article first appeared as a guest post as part of my blog tour for Lies Behind the Ruin. I'm grateful to Books, Life and Everything for hosting me and have included the link to the website.