The Renovation Project

It all started back in 2011 when some friends who had moved to the Charente-Maritime e-mailed us the details of a former paper mill which looked promising. After much thought, we decided that if we were to view the property we should also look at a few others at the same time. So we visited The France Show at Earl’s Court and set up some appointments with the estate agents there.

We flew out to France and spent a weekend viewing the properties, but it was the paper mill which we fell in love with. We loved the character and history of the building, it had been used for drying paper which had been made at a factory nearby which is no longer in existence. It is a long building, which had workers cottages on the ground floor and a big, open void upstairs where the sheets of paper had been hung to dry. There was also approximately 5 acres of land which initially was completely overgrown, and included a river with a weir and woodlands. Although it needed a lot of work, we could see the potential of it. 

Again we mulled over the decision and in the end decided that we should go for it, rather than always wondering “what if”. So we put in an offer and it was accepted, much to our delight and apprehension all at the same time. The sale went through in April 2011 and we decided to give it a year, visiting in just the school holidays, to make it habitable and to finally decide if we wanted to take the plunge. Initially we just cleaned up the 3 best rooms in the middle section of the building which had been vacant for approximately 4 years. At this stage it was just a quick fix, there wasn’t much point spending too much time or effort, as at a later date it would all be completely ripped out. The far end of the building was in a much worse state, having not been inhabited for many years, and would be our initial focus to renovate into 2 gites. This would need to take priority to generate some income for us, so that we could then renovate our part of the building. The other end of the building had been used as a garage and storage, and was an ideal place for Gary to locate his workshop and tools so that he had somewhere to work from whilst the renovation was taking place.

 

Feeling completely at home and loving the peace and quiet, we handed in our notice at work and put our house in the UK on the market and moved out in July 2012. The plan was to give our 2 daughters (aged 8 and 5 at the time) the Summer to settle in and prepare for starting at the local French school in September. One of the first things we did was tidy up the barn and buy 9 chickens to start us off, ducks for the pond arrived later. The rest of 2012 was spent continuing to settle in, finalising and submitting the plans for the project, and preparing for the renovation of the gites to start in January 2013. Our target completion date was to be open in time for the 2014 Summer season. 

For the first few months of the project when the major structural work was taking place, Gary worked with a friend Richard (who had e-mailed us the details of the property in the first place). Initially, as everything internally was in such a poor state, it was completely ripped out, leaving an empty shell on which to start. The water and waste pipes and insulation were placed and then the concrete floor was laid. This created a flat surface on which to work, before the supporting wooden beams were inserted to support the new floor above. The rotten wooden slats (which allowed the air to circulate through the building to dry the paper) were removed and the leaning white stone columns supporting the roof were carefully removed and temporarily replaced by accros so that they could be reinstated at a later date, but just for show as they will no longer be supporting the roof. A new concrete ring beam was installed to support the new roof and blockwork and lintels were laid leaving gaps for the windows. The white stone columns were then put back and the new wall separating the 2 gites was put up. 

Right from the beginning of the project we had always been keen to retain the character of the building as much as possible. This meant that we wanted to keep the columns and wooden slats, even though in some respects this would not be practical. And at every stage of the project, we were always clear that we wanted to appeal to a wide range of people, maximising our market rather than specialising. So we opted for 2 spacious gites sleeping 6, rather than 3 smaller gites. We installed baths and a downstairs toilet against advice, as we know that some people prefer a bath, and also we hoped to get guests all year round and maybe even some long-term lets over the winter season. This way we could accommodate couples, groups of friends or families.

The roof was a major part of the project and took a big chunk of the budget, but it was necessary and worth it to keep the whole building, including our accommodation, dry. The novelty of listening to water dripping into the buckets above when it rained had long worn off. This was a particularly difficult part of the project as not only was it precarious working up on the roof, but at times the weather was really hot reaching 40 degrees on some days, requiring early starts before it got too hot in the afternoon. There were also a few storms, and on one occasion we were watching tv in our living room listening to the heavy rain and the wind picking up, when all of a sudden the wind must have caught the tarpaulin and water just came gushing in through the ceiling and onto us below. We could either laugh or cry, so we just laughed!

The next stages were the fitting of the zinc gutters and installing the new windows. Another major chunk of the budget was for the two fosse septiques, one for each gite. We decided against the sand/reedbed option with a pump, and went for a biorock filter as this would mean that the water would be purified and then piped straight into the river. The tanks were enormous and two massive pits had to be dug in the ground to house them, and all the pipework was like spaghetti junction.

It was after this that Gary took on the remainder of the project by himself. He completed the exterior of the building by adding the wood cladding to the upper part of the building. So whilst Jo was painting all the planks of wood, he was then cutting and fitting them. He then worked on the side access to the gites, building a retaining wall and the driveway and carpark. The stonework then needed a lot of attention which involved chipping out the old render and replacing it, still exposing the stones for a finish called ‘pierre apparent’. He then made the oak front doors for the 2 gites. This was a real labour of love, using the skills taught to him by his uncle Arthur, and the results are amazing.   

He then started on the interior, using a railing system and then plasterboarding the ceilings and then the interior walls, adding acoustic insulation (something we thought guests might appreciate!). We had many late night site meetings planning which ways the doors would open and where the lights, switches and power sockets would go. It was then full steam ahead with the first fix electrics and plumbing. We then had a plasterer in to do the ceilings and walls upstairs, as although Gary can do most things, plastering is not one of them. There was then a lot of painting to do …

The gites then started to look a bit more homely, with the laminate floors upstairs being installed and then constructing lots of flatpack furniture and the beds. The downstairs floors were then tiled and then the kitchens were planned, bought and fitted. There was then more plumbing and electrics to do.

The 2 staircases were ordered from the UK and delivered by a freight company. Poor Gary had to do lots of cutting to make them fit as the company made a mistake and they were slightly too big. It was the only solution as we couldn’t really send them back! It was a real challenge and he managed to keep calm throughout and now they both look great! There was then a lot of cleaning to be done and then the addition of some furniture, crockery and a few homely touches to finish off.

The final bits to do were the patios, the dividing fence and the railings for each gite, the car park and then to make the shutters – all 24 of them! Everything was then on track for the official opening by the Mayor on the 28 June 2014.

 

THE OPEN DAY

The weather forecast had been changing all week between sunshine and showers and so we were somewhat apprehensive as we were expecting around 60 people. However, the sun came out in the morning and it stayed pleasant and warm which was a great relief.

It was a pretty frantic morning setting up the tables, putting out the glasses and preparing the food, so (almost) little time to get nervous. There was plenty of fruity rum punch, champagne, kir royales and pineau de charentes (a local aperitif). Before we knew it it was 11.00 and people started arriving, we were overwhelmed with flowers and gifts from our lovely friends and neighbours.

The Mayor of Saint Severin arrived and although he speaks some English he asked a good friend of ours, Sandrine, to translate his speech for him as there were a mix of French and English guests. He gave a wonderful speech, saying what a good job Gary had done of the renovation work and how it had been done sympathetically and in keeping with the original building. He mentioned our lovely neighbour, Madame Ossard, who had managed to attend despite suffering ill-health, and how the paper mill had been in her family for many generations before we bought it. He proceeded to talk about how good it was for the economy that English people were setting up businesses in the area.

Jo then said a few words in French – she thanked everyone for coming to mark the memorable day with us. She said how we had loved the house the very time that we saw it, and how we felt at home here, and that we particularly thank our neighbours for making us so welcome. She said that the project had taken 18 months of hard work, and that we thanked all the friends and family who had helped us along the way. She said that we are very happy that it is at long last finished and that we are now looking forward to the arrival of our first guests and hope that they enjoy the region as much as we do. Everyone said that she did a good job and the French guests particularly appreciated that she had done it. If only they knew how petrified she was!

The Mayor then cut the ribbon and the gites were officially opened. He rolled up the ribbon and cut it top and bottom so that he had lots of small pieces, which he then asked our daughters to distribute amongst the guests. This is apparently a French tradition, which everyone thought was a lovely touch. The gates for the patios were then opened and Gary and Jo showed the Mayor around the gites. He was very positive and said they they were light and airy and a comfortable place for tourists to stay. Afterwards, all the guests had a good look around as well. Everyone said how lovely the gites are which was great to hear after all the hard work.

There were articles on the opening ceremony in the local newspaper “Charente Libre” and the village newsletter. There has also recently been an article on our story in “French Entrée” magazine (Jan/Feb 2016).

Now that the gites are up and running, the next stage of our renovation is our accommodation…