Living on the rivers edge – part 2

We had fallen in love with a derelict watermill and a totally overgrown garden area. But, we had looked past the dereliction and seen a property with a wonderful, grand character and amazing grounds set on a river. This, just walking distance to a great small town in a beautiful area of France. Yes, we were smitten but buying it was easy, now came the difficult bit-restoration! It cannot be said that we did not have moments when we asked ourselves, ‘What have we done? But we were not totally without experience. Our first house in England was totally uninhabitable with a garden no sane person would venture into but we managed to do it between us. The second house was better but needed a lot of work. The third, we knocked down and totally rebuilt and the 4th was land for us to build our own home.

A Previous Life

My working life involved a number of very large industrial projects so the size of this one did not faze me, albeit with a slight difference. This time it was our own money, muscle power and sanity at risk. We set about getting the planning permissions in place which was difficult because the house, like all working mills, had long been used as a commercial enterprise and planning was required to turn it into a domestic dwelling. It meant, more costs, more paperwork, more bureaucracy and, frustratingly, time.  The one thing we knew to expect on this project is the totally unexpected.

The buying is easy-it’s what follows later

Buying a property in France is a refreshingly easy process, compared to England that is. Once you have agreed to buy and the seller has agreed to sell the deal is virtually done, apart from the reams of paperwork the French system loves so dearly of course.  As a buyer you do have a short period before the purchase is finalised to pull out for any reason but the seller has to go through with the sale. A full house survey is not often required in France and given the obvious state of the Moulin appeared an expensive and pointless luxury. A friend recommended a local French builder to us and we invited him to look at the house and give his opinion on the works required. On seeing the house he looked as if his Christmases had come all at once!  I was concerned about the roof, particularly the parts where you could see the sky through it. The ‘Macon’ said ‘Non’, it needed some small repairs only. After we had completed the sale he came for another look and told us the roof was too far gone to be repaired. After I reminded ‘Le Macon’ of his previous opinion he gave the Gaelic shrug. It was not the last shrug we were to get. It was a big roof. It was a big cost and not an expected one. Painful lesson number one -never assume what you are being told is correct without double checking!  

In hindsight, we are pleased we put a new roof on but there was so much more to come.

mill wheel mechanism

Don’t try this at home!

We knew that this was going to be a major project before we started but, given the character of the building we wanted to retain as much of the existing internal structure and design as we could. This plan went somewhat ‘off piste’ when, wishing to photograph every stage of our renovation, I walked every inch of what was left of the original upper floor with a video camera strapped to my hand, diligently capturing every feature in glorious Technicolor. This worked well until reaching a certain point, right above the main water wheel gearing mechanism inside the building, the wooden floor gave way and I dropped, unceremoniously, through it. To save myself I extended both arms outward, one hand still firmly gripping my camera. This stopped me falling right through the floor. I was at armpit height with my legs dangling above the vicious looking cogs and chains. There I stayed until I was, again rather unceremoniously, rescued. Further inspection of all of the beams and flooring showed them to be in various stages of rot and all had to be removed.

Don’t worry, be happy!

It was not funny although everybody, except me, laughed. I always try to find a positive side where I can-every cloud has a silver lining and all that. It took me a while but looking back it enabled us to install a brand new upper floor using oak beams and flooring which is just fabulous to see. All we need now is to live to be 300yrs old to get our full value from it. We see it as our contribution to posterity! Expensive, well yes! But looking on the bright side we avoided having to remake and refit the old timbers, which probably would have been costly job in itself. Another bonus was that having seen the internal timbers in situ gave us an indication of how to restore much of the building based on the design of the olden days which, with our non French background, proved invaluable to us. For myself, a few scratches and scrapes, bruised pride and being the butt of lots of ‘Thanks for dropping in jokes’ for quite a while. The camera has a huge dent on it but still works fine. For the Moulin, once cleared completely, we were left with a new roof, 300+year old walls and a blank canvas to work on. A bit of a set back, maybe, but then again, maybe not.

moulin undergoing reno

Learning the lingo

We learnt a new French word used, seemingly, by all French construction tradesmen. The word is ‘Problème’. It was worrying at first as it was usually the first word tradesmen said when looking at a job we wanted done and could not do ourselves. Quickly, we arrived at the firm belief that when a French tradesperson is born the first word they utter is not Mamam but ‘Problème’. We doubt if this affects any part of a Mothers love but possibly could establish their future path in the construction industry. Whether or not this magic word is taught in trade colleges we do not know but, on the part of a client, at this early stage in negotiations a certain, (high), degree of patience will be required. It does not signify that there actually is a problem but clearly the tradesmen like to get it out of the way first in case there could be one. The antidote to this vexing situation is to ask them what the problem is, i.e. ‘Quelle Problème?’  We learnt not to expect a quick reply to this question or, sometimes, one at all. It is just the standard preamble to establishing a price. As we became more experienced lingually, we started to ask for an explanation of what we required, and to get our retaliation in first, ‘C’est probleme pour vous?’  It did not work well. The next reaction usually consisted of a period of quiet reflection and a slow nodding of the head. Anyone considering moving to France and renovating should regard this as an essential insight into French trading culture.

Petit Problème, Problème Grand

This small, but not insignificant, segment of the dealing process was used on numerous occasions but was set a new high when after laying a new floor we then installed under floor heating pipe work and insulation. As the floor area was large we contacted a highly reputable company to install a liquid concrete screed and lay tiling over it, standard process for qualified people. The gentleman in charge completed his measurements and calculations.  Then he hit us with it!

floor undergoing reno

‘Ah Monsieur, we have zee grand problème’. We went immediately into question mode. ‘Monsieur’, He said. In a serious manner. ‘It is your doors and, (French), windows, they are too high! It is necessary to drop them all down a bit.’ Shocked, a little confused and not a little worried about the huge potential cost, I asked why-pourquoi? ‘It is because, Monsieur, after we have tiled your floor you will have to step up and over the, (30mm), threshold of your doors and windows to get in or out.’ It still being morning and my being of relatively sharp mind at that time of my life, I looked, assessed the situation and suggested that he build a small step to each orifice. ‘Ah oui, Monsieur, Bon idée.’  ‘Why did I not think of that?’ The ‘Probleme’ word in action!

The river has its say

Prior to this we had had similar, but more major issues earlier on in the build which presented a big problem to us. Because of the house being on, and in some places, was actually built into the river. A critical element of the planning permission was, to avoid the possibility of flooding, determined that it was necessary to raise the level of the entire ground floor of the building. We were not surprised as, because it had been used as a factory, the existing floor was uneven, broken and generally in very poor condition. We had expected to put in a new floor. But what was not expected was that the authorities had decided that the level of the floor had to be at the same height as the outside river water level at its highest point.  Much higher than we ever anticipated! This meant that the existing ground floor doors and window heights would be too low for anybody, not as vertically challenged as I am, and they would all have to be raised. In addition, it meant that the level of the upper floor needed to be higher as well and as a consequence; the upper floor windows were then too large and had to be reduced in size at the bottom. Luckily, most of the timber windows and doors existed in name only so we had factored in replacements but, with the amendments to the planning, workload costs increased substantially. Any hair left on our heads was pulled out at this stage!

More construction capers next time