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By Paul Tadman

“Faites attention à ce que vous souhaitez…”
(Be careful what you wish for).

We were greeted by a grey misty dawn, as we arrived at the now familiar port of St. Malo.

We had been back every available weekend, scouring the beautiful Northern French regions of Picardie, Normandie and Bretagne, armed with print outs of potential properties and aiming to view half a dozen at a time. Each time we drew a blank.

Trying to remember which garden, and which kitchen, ensuite etc, belonged to which house frequently made us dizzy, and trying to reach impractical compromises to make each house fit our dream, left us positively frustrated and disappointed.  We were clearly just trying to view too many properties at once. We needed to focus,

This visit, we decided to concentrate our efforts on three properties that we genuinely felt we could call home. Running a business in France would be challenging enough, but we were planning to sell up in the UK and make a permanent move. The house simply had to be right.

Having learned lessons from our previous experiences (and near kidnapping!) we arranged to meet our Immoblier (estate agent) at the first of the three possibilities that weekend. The sun shimmered through the trees, as we drove along a long, leafy, tree-lined avenue, and into a courtyard with the property to one side.

The house was in a village situated on a high ridge. Beneath the ridge was a bay, and what a view: the majesty of Mont St. Michel in all its glory, surrounded by diamond-glistered sea.

A small distraction from the house we were about to view.

Following a brief lull and evidence of frenzied activity in an upstairs room, a lady rushed out to greet us, dressed in a flurry of polka dots, stripes and random multi-layered patterns: something akin to the Biba catalogue circa 1971, complete with mismatching paisley headscarf.  It was certainly a strong look, to say the least, and one that she might almost have carried off in style, had she not tripped base over apex on the gravel driveway.  We helped her to her feet, and she brushed herself down and bustled back towards the house.

The property owner had informed the immoblier she would deal with any viewings, then promptly failed to show up. Not a good start. Our colourful receptionist was actually the cleaner’s sister, drafted in at last minute.

We had been told the property had two gites, and a third house to live in. Perhaps one of the properties had vanished in the night, but we were pretty sure we could only could see two houses!

After much confusion, we were told the owner lived in the gite (singular) which was tiny and full of clutter. A rickety ladder led to an upstairs bedroom, and it was difficult to decipher where the ceiling ended and the wall began, due to a sharp curve in the ancient roof.

The ‘gite’ (which in reality would have been the main house) was full of charming original wooden features as one might hope; staircases, beams, wonky floors and a clear sign of some rather worrying inhabitants. It was riddled with woodworm. Small piles of sawdust filled each corner of the stairwell and every wooden surface from top to bottom was peppered with tell-tale holes.

Our curator for the day was at pains to show the beautiful four poster bed that she had dressed that morning with voluminous white voile curtains. These were probably the same curtains we had seen her taking down from the windows, scrabbling around like a cat before disappearing from view as we arrived. Sadly, the bed wasn’t part of the deal. 

And despite her bravest of efforts, neither were we.

The next morning found us at the far end of Bretagne (Brittany) in the torrential rain. 

The weather hadn’t put us off, as we really liked the sound of this property: A 17th Century house, complete with minstrel’s gallery and three gites that had been converted from large stables.

We met the owner: a charming chap, who wanted to go back to England. 

He led us into the first gite to dry off. We were greeted by warmth and the comforting scent of a large log burner with a wonderful warm glow. The gites were very nicely appointed and he had been busy with bookings that season. This was starting to look a little more like it.

A break in the rain provided an opportunity for us to be shown the well-maintained gardens, which led to the woodland beyond.  Sat to one side was a large caravan which was his office. We walked in and he quickly hid a duvet in a cupboard above the sofa. He said he was to leave the caravan as part of the deal if we wanted it. After a coffee, we walked back across the gardens to view the house as the rain began to fall.

We made it into the house just in time, as the weather took a turn for the worse. We could instantly see that the main house had only been partially renovated. We anticipated doing some renovation ourselves, but this would be a little too much to take on.

Just as the owner closed the heavy front door, rain started gushing into the grand old fireplace. I looked up inside the chimney, and the walls were soaked through. This was not good news. Rain had now started teaming in through one of the old leaded windows and was soaking boxes of his possessions below. 

We helped him move the boxes to a side room, which was full of more removal boxes. It was more than clear that he wasn’t planning on staying much longer.

It turned out he was going through a tough divorce and had had enough. He seemed a nice enough guy, and we felt very sorry for him, but we couldn’t stake our future on that basis.

Our third viewing that weekend took us deep into Southern Normandy.

We were surprised to be greeted by JP, the immaculately dressed estate agent who had shown us around our very first viewing all those months ago. It was a happy reunion. He asked how we were getting on, and we told him we had seen a lot of properties but no luck yet. We had asked him if the first house we viewed had sold, and he gave us that look that speaks a thousand words, followed by just one:


He shrugged his shoulders, in that very Gallic way, as we walked through impressive iron entry gates and along a pathway to the house.

We were greeted by an old Dutchman who was looking to retire.

The house was beautiful: an eighteenth ‘maison de maître’ surrounded by gardens. He was currently renting out converted barns at the rear of the property, which ‘could’ be part of a deal if we chose.

As beautiful as the house was, the complication of shared ownership of adjacent gardens and outbuildings was too complex to unravel. Besides which, it was just too expensive. 

We had concluded that we wanted two or three gites, with a nice house for us to live in, ideally with an acre or two, and set in a village, and a local bar and restaurant would be a bonus. We had much more thinking and searching to do, and it would require more careful planning.

That evening we ordered coffee, after a wonderful seafood meal back in our favourite restaurant in St.Malo. Our friendly waiter had been serving other tables, but had recognised us and brought over two glasses and poured liberally from a bottle of local Calvados.

 “On the house, Monsieur”, he smiled, which was very kind of him.

“Maybe we will see you again, Monsieur?” he asked.

“Peut-être” I replied.

Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part three here