As they Revel in the Joys of Renovation


It’s not always as much fun as this – clambering about in a roofless wreck dating from the fourteenth century; a stone spiral staircase in the remains of the tower and an unsuspected vaulted cellar below, discovered when the termite specialist from the town hall fell through the floor into its entrance.

‘What bad luck,’ said the neighbour. ‘Fill that in quick before the archaeologists find out about it.’

My husband is a serial house renovator, beginning in the evenings after work  in London as a young man when his haggard looks on arrival at the Stock Exchange in the mornings prompted his then boss to counsel him not to be out on the tiles every night. Stifling the urge to respond that actually he had been under the joists he remained quiet and just smiled mysteriously when colleagues asked him how he managed to pull the birds so successfully.

He continued in France…..but there was an obstacle to progress.

The artisan francais.

In that time and in that place the artisan francais was the bodger supreme and the client did as the bodger told him as he, the bodger, was, after all, the artisan while the client was only the client.

You wanted a damp course installed for the new kitchen? Fat chance.

A. The bodger didn’t know what it was


B. The bodger didn’t intend to find out.

Instead, should you be rash enough to go away for a week the bodger would promptly dry line your kitchen instead thus putting out all your measurements for the units.

What with that and the habit of mixing up a barrow load of cement just before lunch and dumping what remained unused in the shrubbery it was clear that the artisan francais was not the answer to prayer.

Then a friend in the village – a Turk married to a French woman – put us on to a friend of his, another Turk running his own building business.

We had struck gold.

His estimates were reasonable and accurate; he knew what he was doing and he had an eye and a feeling for old buildings.


He and his main men – the mighty Osman and the monosyllabic Ramazan – supplemented by the young men straight from Turkey, undertook the heavyweight stuff; removal of walls, replacement of roofs, replacement of rotten beams with RSJs, laying floors, making arches and doorways….our part was the follow up work; pointing, painting, puttying and grouting. Uncomfortable though they were, given the endless metres of tiling I had to grout the bogging pads certainly saved me from an attack of grouter’s knee – something which sounds as if it should have been celebrated by Rambling Syd Rumpo:

There were arts to learn…an RSJ does not look at ease alongside ancient beams: the answer is to enclose it in a plasterboard case, then mix up a gunge of glue and plaster which is slapped on with a liberal hand, combed to imitate wood grain and anointed while wet with walnut stain.

Sounds naff…looks good and certainly fooled every expert.

To restore limestone mouldings perished by the weather you could buy a powder called ‘Patrimoine’  – but it wouldn’t last unless you first applied Bondex to the site to be restored. And at that period you had to bring your Bondex from England.

Bringing old wrecks back to life was a joy.

Some we lived in, some we rented out, others we sold on straight away, but each was a pleasure.

When you can find this old lady, windows broken, water running down the walls,


and restore her dignity


You feel that all the work was worthwhile.

















36 thoughts on “As they Revel in the Joys of Renovation”

    1. When we started the British invasion had already begun, so the places we could afford to buy and restore were the ones that no one would touch! But they came with such history, so many stories garnered from the neighbours….it was a pleasure to see them coming back to life.
      With the current exodus of the Brits from France I have seen a lot of them on the market – and the photographs take me back to the fun we had when working on them.
      Mark you, I could spit at what some of the later owners have done to them…my dear little first house has been turned into a tart’s boudoir while I would like to get my hands on the vulgarian who installed a downstairs loo – all glass blocks and plastic naffery – in the hallway of an eighteenth century house…

    1. The market has to be right.
      We hit the time when people wanted to rent holiday houses in France so we could replace some of the investment and then sell on when the Capital Gains Tax liability was reduced by lapse of time.
      That last house was absolutely super…as was the site. But when we first saw it, the trees were pushing through the windows…

  1. . . a renovator in foreign parts – that sounds pretty serious. Is there a cure? As for the Turkish ‘ustalar’ (craftsmen) – it’s no wonder we struggle over here to get anyone to turn up on the job! On a serious note, we admire greatly the Turkish work ethic and the ingenuity displayed in overcoming problems. The application of any health and safety common sense though is usually a very late riser!

    1. I thought there was no cure…he has renovated our house in the capital…but things have taken a new turn with the building of our new house up in the cafetal behind our current place.
      He has designed it, our peon and his son have been building it – slowly – and we might even be able to move into it before the start of the rainy season.
      Turkish work ethic is quite something…especially when contrasted to that of the artisan francais!
      Over time these gentlemen invited us to meet their families…we made friends…learned a lot about Turkey…
      H and S? Not a hard hat to be seen…

  2. Restoration to beauty is foreign in these parts where restoration (house flipping) is all about the mighty dollar in the pockets of other than museum workers and artisans. There’s a struggle to label things “historical” for preservation as purchasers just want to tear down and build new modern mass occupancy products. Thanks for this. Have a great weekend.

  3. What a labour of love that was. After many unforgettable years of dealing with French artisans (arrogant) and English ‘builders’ (bodgers), all I can say is, never, never again. If we ever sell, the next house is going to need not so much as a lick of paint. You are a very tough couple. 🙂

    1. My contact with the artisan francais was enough to sour the milk of human kindness…arrogant, incompetent and blind to beauty.
      English builders? Learned their trade on the ferry to France…
      We could not have continued had we not met the Turks…good, honest and hard working.
      You could consider a roulotte for your next move…a horse and ever open doors for a certain dog…

    1. Isn’t it just!
      I’d have liked to put up some of the others….but they belong to other people now,: this one would not be recognisable from the road, though -which was one of the delights of the place.

  4. Serious serial renovating is not for the fainthearted …doggedness, bloody mindedness and a touch of madness pre-requisite. I love the Stock Exchange dude cautioning your spouse on his partying life-style ….

    1. Yes, that amused me too…he’s always had a (generally) undeserved reputation for high living when in fact he is a real homebody.

      We started as we had to turn a penny when Britain fell off the European Money Snake, turning ten francs to the pound to seven francs to the pound…and you are right, insanity is a necessary requirement as is close attention to the tax codes to be able to stand toe to toe with notaires and beat down their refusal to accept exonerations for expenditure.

      All good fun, though.

        1. Yes, I’m sure that you are right…and as it wouldn’t have occurred to his boss to be so mad as to spend his nights renovating a house I suppose ‘out on the tiles’ was the only idea in his repertoire.

    1. Yes….instant cure! We had a distinctly limited budget when we did this as the British invasion was well under way and prices were rising fast!
      Now the prices seem to be dropping like stones so I’m jolly glad we sold when we did.

  5. Ugh

    I love old houses (this is the first house I’ve lived in which is modern). The oldest was a cottage and alehouse dating from 1615; but I’ve never wanted to restore one from scratch. Too much like hard work although you can get decent builders in the UK who will do anything you ask them to do.

    Old houses need to be loved and pampered, they are demanding financially too. Nowadays I like a bit of pampering myself and large windows that fit are not to be sneezed at.

  6. I admire your confidence and can-do attitude when it comes to restoring old buildings. Jenny and I shudder at the thought of such stressful projects. We’ve always moved into homes that are totally habitable from the word go. But from now on I shall look suspiciously at any supposed ancient beams….

    1. No real stress…once you are sure that the thing won’t descend about your ears.
      The aggro comes when dealing with panning and heritage bureaucrats….and making sure you do not use any building firm they might recommend…

  7. Hard work but rewarding, and enjoyable if you’re working with the right people.
    My former boss had a lovely old stone mas just outside Sauve, all renovated, but still a black hole for money. They did a lot of work on it too, but it was constantly in need of attention.
    When they moved, they bought a modern house which was charmless but cheap.

    1. The thing is that they needn’t be a black hole if you plan things properly and don’t cut corners.
      But better to buy a wreck than something someone else has been messing about with.

  8. How lovely to see some photos of your houses. Am I right in thinking the last two pictures are of your last house in France? While not being exactly serial renovators, we have bought and renovated two old farmhouses in the UK during our marriage, as well as the little cottage in Normandy, though we had to get builders in to do the big stuff. Now I’m rather enjoying living in a well-built modern house with traditional features. 🙂

    1. Indeed it is. I did hesitate to show it as it is no longer my property….but that aspect is invisible from the road.
      The header-while it lasts – is my first house in France. Considering what has been done to it since it is unrecognisable…
      I’m fascinated (and horrified at times)to see what others have made of the houses we restored…
      The new house will be a complete departure for us…complete with concrete kitchen! I must put up some photographs.

      1. I thought it was. I remember it from a few photos you posted when you were in the process of selling it. Such a distinctive position high above the river. and a very distinctive house too. Your first one looks old and sweet and very typical of the Loire Valley. What a shame it’s been tarted up. 😦

        1. Yes…a great shame. The current vulgarians have built a huge garage block at the entrance to the property too which destroys the harmony of the site…I suppose it’s lucky that the only thing they have not touched is the beautiful barn,where the village lads used to gather for their last night before going off for military service,having taken up a collection in the days before to fund the food and wine.

  9. My bipeds love old buildings. Yours looks and sounds fascinating!

    As you are aware, we are looking for a new home. My bipeds started off by saying that they wanted something that didn’t need work this time. They loked at a few and said that some decorating would be okay. The last thing I hear them say was “Oooh, that has potential!’ about an old place – we all know what that means – living in chaos for who knows how long! I’ll let you know whether heads or hearts win out eventually.

  10. Loved this post, Helen! We have to agree with you but also say that it is not only the ‘artisan français’ that has attitude and competency problems! We know one or two brits (sadly) who claim competencies and qualifications far beyond their capabilities. They put ‘Artisan Anglais’ in front of their name and neatly hoodwink half the ex pat, non French speaking population. They forte is to prey on second home owners who are never there to witness their appalling work. Your words here sum up the English bodger perfectly! And you are right about learning their skills on the ferry across to France!
    A. The bodger didn’t know what it was


    B. The bodger didn’t intend to find out.
    One overheard proudly saying that he NEVER uses the internet!

    We have been on the receiving end (only once. It will never happen again.) of this sort of experience at the hands of a ‘friend’ who claimed to be a plumbing and heating engineer. We only asked him to do the work because we lacked the time. Boy, do we regret it! He has also gone on to replicate his incompetence and bungling with several of our friends. He is, frankly, out of his depth but won’t admit it.
    I have to say that the few French artisans we have used have been magnificent and we have been really pleased with their work. We did, however, use them because French friends and neighbours recommended them and we saw other work they had done. Like you, a good recommendation is worth its weight in gold, artisan-wise. Whatever nationality they may be!!
    Gorgeous renovation by the way! We have the privilege of seeing some superb renovations here when we visit clients. Love to you all!

  11. I do wish you were here…the new house would be so much better with really good ironwork…

    The Britpack in our area swarmed with examples of the Artisan Anglais, the results of whose work would drive you into the arms of Alcoholics Anonymous, but because of the expat social structure – exclusion if not toeing the line of the ruling Queen Bee who took her cut from the recommendations – they survived to bodge another day.

    The AF we came across did not inspire confidence…my elderly neighbour was present when one of them came to present his devis and I was treated to a glorious scene while she upbraided him for his poor workmanship at her place complete with a comprehensive run down on his character…
    There was the man entrusted with installing a velux…who installed a couple of bits of glass he happened to have about him and was most indignant when called to order..
    The man who installed gas cylinders to conform with the norms…resulting in a tower of flame when the gas hob was turned on…
    The man who thought he was going to run a ‘phone line in those ghastly white plastic tubes through the plaster ceiling of an eighteenth century house…
    The plumber who would not enclose pipes for WHEN there was a leak…

    So thank goodness for the Turks!

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