You will be pleased to hear that I am writing this with a glass of 'Coteaux de Chalosse' rose by my side. The Chalosse is to our south, a land which rolls more than here, lanes cutting through high hedges of maize at this time of year, with glimpses of the Pyrenees in the distance. Further south again, the undulations increase and become the softly crumpled foothills of the Pays Basque, another beautiful and fascinating region. I will never forget peering from my plane window five years ago as we came in to land at Biarritz. Seeing the soft green curves dotted with attractive looking houses and blue pools, the high mountains standing proud and strong, the sea glittering to the west, I had one simple thought: 'This is where I want to live'. The memories of my four hot, sunny, intensely happy days in this vibrant 'grande ville' by the sea will stay with me forever.
While I was there, I travelled a little further north into the pine-clad flatlands to visit my friend from my days working in the Alps. She'd spent the last 20 years dividing her time between here and there and I'd hardly seen her since. But sometimes life has a way of coming full circle and the next thing I knew, later that same year, this house of ours, in which I sit now writing this, simply presented itself to us one smokey autumn afternoon. Nothing in life is ever as you plan it. All this happened at a hugely difficult time for me with everything in chaos, not least my emotions. Right then, I didn't even know what my future was and I was trying desperately to make sense of everything that had happened to me in recent years, months, weeks...yet when I saw this house, just as when I first saw our house in the High Peak, it just felt right. Some things it just doesn't do to question.
We had no formal appointment to view it - we had happened by chance on a photo in an estate agent's window and, having asked directions, came to have a gentle little look. We found it easily enough, down the end of a lane dotted with other properties before opening out into scrub and forest: a 'Hansel and Gretel' house, quite lovely, sitting at the bottom of a gently sloping woodland garden. An oldish man was wandering across the grass, rake in hand. We wondered if he was the gardener. We tentatively entered the property and explained our presence. He was German, speaking French rather than English, and we soon discovered he was actually the owner. Very sadly, at 80 years old, he was divorcing and needed to sell the house as part of the settlement. He had bought it in the mid Seventies, an almost derelict farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in the heart of the Landes, over an hour inland from here - a hamlet named Guiraboye on the map. His wife had wanted to be closer to the sea so they moved this perfect example of a traditional Landaise farmhouse (albeit in a state of near ruination), wooden pillar by wooden pillar, all painstakingly numbered like a giant meccano set.
And what a labour of love it was! This man was an artist by trade, but such a pure aesthete that he never sold a single one of his paintings - he chose to give them away only to people he knew valued them and made a meagre income instead by teaching his artistic skills. It is the incredible story of how this remarkable man moved this house and meticulously rebuilt it, practically single-handedly, according to all the ancient local traditions and craftsmanship, which make it so very special to us. He created small foundations (which are not normal round here - houses were traditionally built directly onto the sand and hence have many inherent problems with termites) and raised it on stone plinths about 8 inches or so higher than it originally was to create a little more headroom inside. He even bought another dilapidated property of the same era so that he had a stock of appropriate raw materials (particularly terracotta tiles) to replace any that got damaged in the process of removal and re-build. Grand Designs, eat your heart out!
What we have now inherited is a building that oozes character, warmth, charm, history and, most importantly, love. He really, really did love this place and it was breaking his heart to leave, but he had no choice. There were people who came to look it, apparently, before us, who, clearly didn't 'get it'. They picked at this, they picked at that. But for me it was utterly perfect. Ancient wood beams, rough white walls, terracotta floors. And then there were the quirky artistic touches - the vents in the chimney to allow hot air into the upper floor; the intricate system of pipework which creates the underfloor heating (not yet tested out for fear of leaks!); the 'pissoir' in the downstairs loo; the other little loo in the utility area set at an angle, the cistern all integral with the white plaster walls; the loo design and tap designs in the bathrooms the Philip Starck's of their generation; the tiles in the kitchen all hand-laid by his wife. I could go on and on (particularly about the loos!), but it wouldn't make sense unless you saw it. Indeed, it was clearly not everyone's cup of tea (just like our house in the High Peak too - many had dismissed it before we came along), but it was mine. He loved it, we loved it and he wanted to sell it only to people who loved it. I hope we are doing him proud.
PS: sorry - cannot get photos uploaded at the moment, will add at a later date when back in the world of higher technology!