It doesn't seem five minutes since Emma Lee-Potter and I were having our bottoms done together, so to speak. Well, that is what we called it at the time, when we found ourselves in the same BA queue for jabs before travelling for our respective newspapers to cover a visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales to the Middle East. In fact, it was more than 20 years ago and Emma has brought up two children, become a published author and failed to age by a single second. Later than some, she also fell for the lure of France as a place to buy a bolthole. If you want an answer to her concluding question, watch out for the Salut! Forum sequel(s)......
The rot set in when I talked to a couple who’d sold up in rain-soaked Cumbria and moved lock, stock and barrel to a rambling house halfway up a French hillside.
Next I became transfixed by Matthew Parris’s A Castle in Spain, the story of his spur of the moment decision to buy a ruined castle in the wilds of Catalonia (he called it “one of those foolish challenges that grip us in middle life”.)
Then I was enthralled by C’est La Folie, Michael Wright’s uplifting tale of how he bade farewell to his safe south London existence and moved to a farm in the Dordogne with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company.
Within months – and without giving the matter nearly enough thought – I’d thrown caution to the wind and done exactly the same thing. Well, without the aeroplane or the cat, anyway.
I’d vaguely asked a friend who’s lived in the south of France for 35 years to look out for a holiday bolthole and out of the blue she sent me an e-mail about a farmhouse for sale near the pretty town of Dieulefit. “Beautiful place,” she said. “Great potential. South-facing, with its back up against a wooded hillside with ancient oaks. Very old farm with heaps of charm. It has a very good feel to it.”
Much to my horror, and before I’d even set eyes on the place, my husband rashly put an offer in on my behalf. The offer was much lower than the asking price so I naively assumed it would be rejected out of hand by the 80-year-old owner and her four grown-up children. Only it wasn’t.
By the time I pitched up two weeks later to see it, accompanied by my two teenage children, the estate agent and the notaire, the vendors were excitedly making plans to move into a new house with all mod cons in a nearby town.
I took one look at the house and wanted to scarper. I’d envisaged buying a two-up two-down with a sunny, no-maintenance terrace and here I was, halfway to buying a tumbledown six-bedroom wreck with half a roof, a terrible damp problem and a bathroom inhabited by a plague of rats. The garden was littered with cars and old scrap and the whole place needed, as the estate agent so delicately put it, “bringing back to life”. The notaire, immaculate in a pinstripe suit and snazzy black polo neck, was visibly shocked. He wrinkled his nose at the damp and scuttled back to his car at the first opportunity.
But despite all this, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to shatter the owners’ plans by saying “sorry, it’s all a horrendous mistake. I’m not touching this dump with a bargepole.”
The following day I pitched up to the lawyer’s office in the sleepy village of Puy St Martin and signed the compromis de vente.
What on earth had I done?