One evening over a year ago, I was pacing around the property at sundown to discover where the last rays of evening sunshine fell. It was a piece of overgrown scrub land behind the large chai (barn or technically wine warehouse) that we have dubbed ‘the Haçienda’.
In addition to evening sunshine it also promised a great view over the valley to the town of Condom, and on a very clear day, the Pyrenees. A friend of Keri’s who had a house in France told us to “spend money on the outdoor spaces” as that’s where you’ll spend your time in the summer. We demolished the corrugated roofed wine press that you can see on the right of the picture above, as it was an eyesore and no longer had a purpose. The pool was built behind the Haçienda, so when that was dug out we cleared the weeds and bushes. Approaching the newly cleared area from the other side, it was clear that it also revealed a splendid view of the pigeonnier.
The view of the Pyrenees as expected was also quite dramatic. Though mostly we can’t see them and it’s only one day 30 that they are this clear.
We grassed the area and just before we went out this summer we had a plain concrete patio put in. We ordered some outdoor furniture made from recycled wood from Maisons du Monde and added a couple of plants. When Max from across the road came to look he exclaimed “you’ve got a VIP area” and the name stuck. It’s meant to be tongue in cheek but its does feel like a privilege when you end the day there, glass of rosé in hand.
After a lull in building work, we are about to start on the next major phase. We call the two halves of the house The Carlton and the Martinez and whilst The Carlton is nearly finished, very little has been done to The Martinez.
It is habitable but just. We are planning to build a small shower room downstairs. Currently you have to leave the house (there’s no connecting door yet to The Carlton), and go next door to have a bath or shower. We plan to take some of the garage space and knock a door through from the hallway. It needs building work, drainage putting in, then a floor and that’s before work starts on the actual shower room itself. It will be tiny, just one metre by three, with a recess for the loo.
Since we bought the place in 2016, we have been in a never ending war with weeds. During spring/summer, the courtyard area in front of the house can go from zero to shoulder high greenery is just a few months.
I made a few backbreaking attempts to pull the offending plants out by the roots, but I was short on both skills and the required man hours We eventually found a gardener who could visit every 4-6 weeks. The hours required and the substantial volumes of weedkiller were making this an expensive undertaking.
Earlier this year we approached Tom, who dug the hole for the pool if he could rotivate, lay a weed proof membrane and cover with a new layer of gravel. The effect has been miraculous.
We are well into the growing season and nearly two months after the job was done it’s pristine.
This winter was the first time we’ve been in the Gers and stayed at Magnol. The south of France is cold in winter. It can even snow. There’s no central heating and the thick stone walls of the old house get really cold. The wood burning stove we installed is thankfully pretty big. It’s a focal point of our stays during the colder months and we couldn’t stay there without it. The truth is I’ve become a little obsessed with it.
In the autumn we had two trees felled, one had been struck by lightning and both were dead. The Bûcheron who did the job cut them into logs. Four large logs are now stools around a barrel in the courtyard. I’m gradually burning the rest.
On recent visits, it’s been a morning ritual to throw on jeans, a thick jumper and some boots and forage for some logs of the rights size in the home of warming up the room before Keri gets up. There’s something incredibly satisfying about harvesting the land to create heat. I’m running out of smaller logs but there is still a lot of wood. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve invested in an electric wood splitter by next winter. According to Keri, I’m too clumsy to own a chain saw.
The house is essentially one building split in two with no connecting door.
The right hand side (as you face it) used to be where the ‘Guardian’ and his family lived to keep an eye on about 30,000 litres of Armagnac aging in giant oak barrels on the site.
After the Armagnac had been sold and we bought the property we found it difficult to describe each side, they were variously the left house and the right house of the Guardian’s house and ‘the other side’.
We tried various names but nothing stuck. The hamlet where ‘Magnol’ is located shares a name with the famous upmarket mediterranean resort ‘Cannes’. In the more famous of the two there is a stunning seafront crescent. Along ‘La Croisette’ there are a series of impressive five-star hotels charging eye watering prices. Towards the right end is The Martinez, a stunning art deco monolith. The Penthouse Suite, billed at $37,500 per night, is number 4 on CNN’s World’s 15 most expensive hotel suites.
Further left and closer to the town centre is the Carlton, the hotel featured in Elton John’s 1983 music video for the single, “I’m Still Standing”, and it was a central location for the Alfred Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief starring Grace Kelly and Cary Grant. Both hotels play host to the rich and famous.
For a joke we decided call the two halves of the house we bought in ‘little’ Cannes, the Carlton and the Martinez. Strangely it stuck and now it feels like that’s what they’ve always been called.
I’ve discovered that it’s quite hard to keep a blog post about renovating a property going, especially when your available spare time is going into the project itself. Hence there has been a total absence of any updates here since June.
To make amends, here’s a quick review of where we are up to:
After some jeopardy (see previous posts) the pool was finally finished in time for our August holiday and it’s pretty stunning as you can see from this picture. You get the view across right across the valley. It was surrounded by earth but constant watering meant that some grass appeared during our visit in the summer.
The kitchen was unusable when we arrived. There was no running water and no work surfaces. A few days after our arrival, temporary chipboard worktops went in to tide us over and both the water and the dishwasher came on stream during our August visit. Francophiles will know that things grind to a halt during August so we had several dates confirmed and then cancelled for the installation of the granite worktops.
The granite did finally arrive before we returned to the UK and had to be ‘craned’ in. The light fittings are in and so now is the woodburning stove. We’ve kept the original red fired clay floor tiles, known locally as ‘tomates’ but we’ll need to find a way of sealing them. We also picked up a fabulous table from the local charity shop. The kitchen/dining is now more or less completed and we are delighted with the results that you can see below.
Since the summer visit we were out in September, October and November for short weekend visits and we have progressed with other rooms and staircases. Essentially half of the main house is complete and (until we knock a doorway through) is a self-contained three bedroom, two bathroom cottage with a large dining kitchen, large salon, downstairs loo, and utility room with washer and dryer (thankfully, these arrived at the start of our August trip).
We arrived Thursday afternoon (12th July) after an early flight. After a quick pizza in L’Origan in Condom we drove up to the house. First stop was the pool. Not much new to see, some earth movement around the sides but none of the screening trees. There was however a hose and water going in! The jeopardy is over. We’ll be able to swim in the summer! (Update July 14. There’s no filter or pool dog, but when it was full I got in. Blooming lovely)
Next up was the House. The courtyard is badly overgrown (it is July). There’s still a huge amount to be done before August:
Kitchen to go in (there’s doubt about the worktops)
Bathrooms – have been out of action all year for the floors to be fixed.
The electrics is the big one. There are no switches or sockets in place and we don’t have a date for EDF to put in our junction box. Alain the electrician assures us that we’ll have functioning electricity for the start of August. Let’s hope so. No electrics no holiday.
We made a flying visit a few weeks ago in May and saw the remarkable progress with the pool. It’s due to be complete by mid July and we’ll have some landscaping done by then too. The travertine tile surround is done and the landscaping was due to start the week after our visit. The lining has to go in and the pumps and filters. The very good news is that Monsieur Mouche, the pool man says it will be very low maintenance. Looks like we will get to use the sun loungers by the pool this August. We are still having issues with the electricity supply but fingers crossed that will be resolved in a few weeks. We had intended starting work on a pool house by converting one side of the chai or barn or even The Haçienda as we’ve named it. (the section with the sloping roof that you can see in the left of the picture). We think it might prove a little expensive however.
For the uninitiated The Haçienda was a famous Manchester nightclub, part of Factory Records, oft frequented by Babette and me and occasionally by Keri and Simon. Babette and Simon have the other house in the hammeau de Cannes, they introduced us to the area 20 years ago and we’ve been guests of theirs pretty much every summer since.
A few years ago I bought a limited edition marble replica of the famous Haçienda outdoor sign. Every Factory product record, poster or even club had a reference number. FAC51 was The Haçienda. and there were 51 copies made by a Manchester artist. The plan is to put it in the wall by the entrance of our own Hacienda. It’s a weighty item so I’m not certain we’ll get it on the plane!
It’s been six months since we’ve been to Magnol. That’s partly due to us avoiding the colder months but both water and electricity have been disconnected so staying in the house hasn’t been an option.
To the untrained eye apart from the appearance of a pool under construction (and the huge excavated rocks littering the site) you might think that little has changed in that time but there has been enormous progress particularly in the large kitchen diner. Water and electricity fixes are in place in what will be the dining kitchen, along with the board that will allow the units to the wall. The floor has been dug up and a waste pipe fitted to connect up to the drainage to our fosse septique.
The beams have been treated and look stunning. There’s a lot still to do but most of it we hope can be completed by the summer. The stone needs to be rendered, there’s the fitting of units obviously and painting of the ceiling and plasterboard. We’re putting travertine tiles on the floor of the entrance hall (behind the camera in the pictures), where the floor was lifted to install the pipes. Some orginal recovered tiles will be used to improve the floor that you can see and it needs to be cleaned and sealed. We have identified furniture and light fittings We are also hoping to have a wood burning stove in place before October when it starts to get cold. We don’t want to have another six month gap between visits.
We expected to be out again in another five or six weeks.
Well, let’s hope it will be and it’s looking more likely than it did a few weeks ago. The big digger got through the rock and you can see it the swimming pool taking shape. Whilst there’s a lot of work still to do we are talking about a big hole in the ground filled with water so how hard can it be?
Whilst this big old holes isn’t much to look at right now, there will hopefully be a ‘plage’ (tiles to you and me) surrounding by this summer and it will look something a little more like the picture on the right, by August.