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The Story of a French Farmhouse

I have been reunited with my house in the Lot-et-Garonne after four months away. My in-laws, a wonderfully funny, warm and welcoming French couple who live not far away in the Dordogne, have been keeping an eye on the house, scooping up dead mice, watering plants and accidentally catching a kamikaze pheasant as it hurtled to its death against our wall. My nearest neighbour has sent me regular photographic updates of emerging spring flowers and by the beginning of March I was eager to come home, sorry to miss the arrival of most of my tulips.

While opening the house up, for I am lucky enough to live in a house which requires ‘opening up’, I was reminded of one of the most exquisite passages of prose ever written: an interlude towards the middle of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse from which I include an extract below. In this passage Woolf describes time passing in the semi-abandoned house and how it takes on a life of its own; the events which happen to the humans in the novel elsewhere are recorded only in brackets.

The house I live in was once a farmhouse, built in the eighteenth century and added to in the next. It is, in places, composed of wattle and daub and if you scrape too hard it crumbles. Exposed wooden beams hold the house together (colombage is the French word, literally meaning ‘half-timbering’), and thin layers of bricks have, over the years, filled in gaps. There is a giant bread oven, so large that we have been able to turn it into a tiny maison des autres. Once upon a time, locals came here for their bread and for their water; there is a deep well in the garden near the bread oven. This year the well is almost empty, thanks to lack of rain in the south west this winter, so I am not sure if my newly dug vegetable garden will survive the intense heat of the summer.

The last farmer to live here disappeared into it. I don’t know much of his story but his family lived here and he was the last of the line. I still find parts of his life in the garden: single socks, light bulbs, broken cups, empty tins of tuna, a huge rusting plough, keys. Each time I come across an object which is preventing me literally digging any deeper into the ground, I hope I am about to find a rusting box which must be forced open and which contains letters, a locket full of golden hair and a dried flower. I am starting to think that there is a novel lurking in the garden along with all the other bits and pieces I am retrieving.

In 1997, the house was rescued by a visionary Dutch woman who had already lived in France for some years by then. Slowly she nursed the house back to health, restoring rooms to their original shape and making a few practical adjustments. By the time we bought it from Ines, almost exactly two years ago, the changes we made were almost entirely aesthetic with the exception of a loft conversion; the transformation of the bread oven already prepared to be developed into a gite; and a tidying of the giant grange, full of hay for Ines’ sheep who munched their way through the endless grass.

Ines told me, when we bought the house, that it was a happy one and to say I am happy here is an understatement. Slowly I am developing parts of the garden, keeping each project as small as possible so as not to feel overwhelmed. This morning I deconstructed a tree which we had chopped down last week: enough elm to burn for a good month next winter in the open fire in the kitchen. I am a Londoner so I am surprised to have discovered that I have such an affinity with the rural world. I have watched falcons nesting and red starts trying to nest (there is one pair who keep trying to break into the house and build their nest in the attic); young deer and hares playing in the garden; all manner of small mice-type animals trying to dodge us when we open doors into rooms at the back of the house. Bats have set up their home behind the shutters which we don’t usually close; there is at least one owl living in our garden, as his or her pellets of animal skin and bone regularly appear on the ground; and I regularly see jays, woodpeckers and buzzards exploring our world.

I consider myself enormously lucky to have found this house, to have been welcomed into the various communities here and in the village of my beaux-parents, encountering a fading rural life characterised by small farms and small businesses. M. Julien who lives at the top of the hill runs his small dairy farm with his son; his wife and his mother died within a year and he works longer than the daylight provides, despite being well past the age of retirement. Often at night we hear the gentle tick of the tractor in the field opposite. He has a sad face and a shrug that seems to come from a sentimental French film, but it is real and his life his difficult. All the locals here inevitably have their stories and as my French improves I am beginning to pick up the nuances of their tales. And in the meantime I have my imagination to fill in the gaps.

Sophie Breese, 28 April 2015

From To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room that wholly resisted them but only hangings that flapped, wood that creaked, the bare legs of tables, saucepans and china already furred, tarnished, cracked. What people had shed and left — a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes — those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling; and went out again. Now, day after day, light turned, like a flower reflected in water, its sharp image on the wall opposite. Only the shadows of the trees, flourishing in the wind, made obeisance on the wall, and for a moment darkened the pool in which light reflected itself; or birds, flying, made a soft spot flutter slowly across the bedroom floor.

So loveliness reigned and stillness, and together made the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted; solitary like a pool at evening, far distant, seen from a train window, vanishing so quickly that the pool, pale in the evening, is scarcely robbed of its solitude, though once seen. Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions —“Will you fade? Will you perish?”— scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain.

Nothing it seemed could break that image, corrupt that innocence, or disturb the swaying mantle of silence which, week after week, in the empty room, wove into itself the falling cries of birds, ships hooting, the drone and hum of the fields, a dog’s bark, a man’s shout, and folded them round the house in silence. Once only a board sprang on the landing; once in the middle of the night with a roar, with a rupture, as after centuries of quiescence, a rock rends itself from the mountain and hurtles crashing into the valley, one fold of the shawl loosened and swung to and fro. Then again peace descended; and the shadow wavered; light bent to its own image in adoration on the bedroom wall; and Mrs. McNab, tearing the veil of silence with hands that had stood in the wash-tub, grinding it with boots that had crunched the shingle, came as directed to open all windows, and dust the bedrooms.

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