Pull up a sandbag, or lots of them please…..

Our first full year of running holiday lets had gone well. We had a couple that lived near by that were our managers and dealt with everything pretty well. Unfortunately they decided that the finances just wouldn’t add up and had accepted a full-time job in Toulouse, so could no longer be our managers.

So we were on the look-out for new managers. The word was out and thankfully we soon got a recommendation for another couple that were also near-by.  This all sounded great as it would actually be 2 couples, meaning 4 people to share the load. And as you can imagine there is a lot of hard work involved in keeping this all in pristine condition. So new contract drawn up and things were ticking along nicely towards the opening up for the new season………. Until a few days before we had to return to the UK, the bombshell fell on us that 2 of them wanted to pull out.  After long talks and much stress, we were left with just the 2 who were happy to take it on board. Thankfully Jane and David have been our rock of strength, and we have never looked back. When you read about the things they have had to deal with, you can understand how much gratitude we owe them both.

Did I say Pull Up a Sandbag? Well the irony is just that. FLOODS… Yes we have had a few.

We were aware that the river next to us had very occasionally burst its banks resulting in the gardens being flooded, we are on a low risk flood plain, as you would expect being next to a river, albeit a very quiet stream normally… How can this cause so much painSo we were not that surprised when we found out the river had risen after a very long period of intensive rain. We are talking about 4 to 5 inches a day for 5 days solid…. A lot of rain. What really didn’t help us was the fact that there is a huge lake at the top of the valley that is used for water sports and is the main water supply for the region. The management of this lake was poor to say the least… They decided that with all this rainfall, they needed to open the ‘barrage’  (flood gates) so with a river already at full capacity, they added millions and millions of tonnes of extra water to it…. No wonder we got flooded….

It’s OK though because they have the decency to call the village Marie to let him know they have opened the flood gates… So we had about 10 minutes notice. What they don’t tell you is when they will close the gates so you know the water will not rise any further…

Thankfully just the gardens were under water this time. However we had last autumn planted over 2000 spring bulbs and over 200 lavender bushes to make the gardens beautiful during the spring months. We lost the lot. Well not quite, think we still have 2 alliums that managed to survive.

Over the next few years this became a regular thing. Every Winter usually in early Feb or March we got flooded. In fact over the next 3 years we were flooded a total of 9 times. All but one was down to the ‘barrage’ being opened during the heaviest periods of rain… But there is good news.

After a really bad one where we were hit by some really bad weather, hurricane force winds, lightning strikes, torrential rainfall, and the lake being emptied, which not only tore down trees, knocked down walls, smashed roof tiles, we did actually have major flooding, it was bad enough to flood both houses and the swimming pool resembled a mud pit.  Thankfully Jane and David were there for us all the time. Their devastation was clear to see too, they had worked so hard on everything to make it perfect for the coming season, and it was all washed away in a matter of a few hours. This time we managed to get a ‘Catastophe de Nature’ declared and so the insurance came into its own.  Although did not cover most of the garden damage, but did allow us to re line the pool.

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Well that was the final one from the river management aspect. They have now done lots of work over the full length of the river to improve flow rates and to stop areas of back-up. And most importantly they now control the lake, so that the level is kept well below the flood alert before any major weather systems come in…

We have also since invested in 200 filled sand bags ready to go,  and flood gates for every entry point to all 3 houses. Over £2000 well spent? Well we don’t know as we have never had another incident to test them thankfully…. and to be honest nor do we.. We are happy to know they are there if we need them.

BUT

We have had one other major flood…. This time from inside. We had long term winter residents and during a really cold snap just as they were away for the day, the main water pipe that runs through the loft on the dividing wall of the 2 main houses burst. It was not noticed for a very long time and by the time the guests returned the houses were saturated, so much so that they were not habitable. Ceilings had collapsed, plaster had come away from the walls tiles lifted, the electrics were shot.  It was apparent that this was real major damage and was not just a case of a big clean up. Again, who were there in the thick of it for us?… Jane and David. We went over as soon as we could to assess where we would go from this disaster. The insurance assessors where quick to react, and soon had builders coming round with de-humidifiers going on full blast for several months before the rebuilding could start.

5 months later, we were back in business and welcoming our first guests for the season.  But we had had enough. We could not take it any more. The stress of all this had got too much, along with Janine being made redundant while recovering from major surgery, resulted in us having a major re-think. We could not longer afford to keep things going, and the rental income was nowhere near being enough to cover costs.

We still loved it here, but the love was now being tainted with too many tears, and financial worries. We decided that upon completion of the repairs we would sell up. So the Chateau went up for sale. After 7 years of our 5 year plan we decided, we had to give up our dreams.

So where did it go next?

Find out in the next chapter.

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So there we were, the new owners, so many ideas of what we can do and what we want to do. Now to start turning those ideas into reality.

First thing and most important was to get it known to the world that we are now in business, so after agreeing a name and buying the Domain names, and with help from some friends the website was born. www.french-escapes.com (and .co.uk) became a reality. But how do we get it out into the big wide world of search engines. Easy answer was to get advertising in place with the big hitters of holiday renting. Taking on board something we learnt on a ‘Gite Management’ course we did last year, we decided to hit the road with Chez Nous. They are the biggest (at the time) and have proved to be the most successful in getting bookings. We had a few others that we soon dropped as they did not perform at all.

We had drawn up business plans for what we thought was every possible scenario. It’s amazing that at the time we had a “worst case” plan done on the Euro exchange rate falling to an unprecedented 1.40.  We were working around the 1.55 rate at the time.

So with what appeared to be a reasonable first year for bookings we decided that our 5 year plan was on the cards. This plan was to be living in La Grange running the other 2 houses as guest homes, possibly all year round. We worked out that we would be able to clear the vast majority of the mortgage within those 5 years with the selling of our UK home adding to the pot. That we would be able to secure enough summer rentals to see us survive the year. Then if we had a really good year we could then start making the improvements and renovations that are still needed.

Without going into details, as it is a full story on its own, lets just say that the best laid plans and all that….  Well the 5 year plan never got off the drawing board really.  The following years proved to be as equally rewarding as they were devastating…

Remote management is stressful believe us.

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So it was on a VERY cold December 15th morning in 2005, we arrived blurry eyed from the over night drive, the car still packed to the roof, at the office of the Notaire. Our friendly agent was there to meet us and act as our interpreter as we still didn’t speak enough fluent French although we were trying our best as quickly as possible.

After many “Sacre blue’s” and the word “merde” being banded about far too often for our liking, apparently down to a description of the properties being wrong. Then what seemed like a thousand signatures by everyone in the room, some 4 hours later… we were the proud new owners of Le Chateau de la Rivière.

Now time to get down there and open it all up, fire up the antique boiler and get it all ready for 11 family members coming over for Xmas.  The previous owners had left in September to return to Malaysia, so they had been shut up for the last 3 months.

As promised and pre arranged by the previous owners, their plumber came along to show us how the old boiler worked. Now I realise this sounds a bit excessive, a boiler is just a boiler, turn it on and fire it up.!! Well that was effectively what the plumber did.  The old beast flared into life and hot water was soon coming out the taps. Nothing in the radiators, just the taps… Is now a good time to say that with this boiler came a hand drawn diagram (labelled in a mix of French and German) which went some-way to explain what the 38 taps and 24 valves did, or supposed to do.

What this doesn't show is the pipework behind this. A work of art.!!

When it was fired up you could see the Euros flying out of the roof!!!!

To say the houses were rather chilly inside would be a slight under-statement, the Olive Oil in the kitchen was a frozen solid lump.

It was apparent that while the boiler was up and running, none of the radiators had been turned on in the boiler room.  So after lots of trail and error and in day 2, we finally managed to get some heat coming through most of the radiators. Pretty sure at some point we were actually pumping hot water out to the swimming pool which was very frozen at the time….

We soon realised we needed some sort of immediate heating, so our first real challenge was upon us. Lets buys a Calor Gas fire, how difficult is that going to be?

We know you have to register things like this to enable you to exchange the gas bottles, but what we didn’t expect was the fact the fire does not come with any connections. And indeed we did not even know what type of gas we had to use…  So we had the fire, but no bottle. We finally worked out with a mixture of bumbled French questions and drawings, and looking at other examples, a connection kit and the bottle to match… Yipee we had some heat that we could see and feel… Although by now with the boiler on 24/7 the inside was finally starting to thaw out a bit…

Just in time for the family gathering to start arriving, at least we could put them all up in a little bit of warmth..

The next problem to over come was how to cook Xmas lunch when only having a small gas bottled oven and a couple of electric grills? Lots of intuition and working across 2 kitchens and Xmas was accomplished very well. Think they all had a great time. !!

It was only as the family started drifting back home and we were left with a few days on our own before the next group arrived, that we sat down and suddenly realised the magnitude of what we have just taken on. We soon realised that Winter lets are not really practical unless they cover the whole Winter period, as heating these houses will not be cheap over the 3 months or so they will need it. But we had no doubts what-so-ever that we had done the right thing, and now had to work on our 5 year plan.

Next: the 5 year plan…..

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In the beginning.

We had been thinking about buying somewhere abroad for holidays and possible business potential. Originally we were looking at the Med coast in Spain around Malaga, but a mixture of not seeing anything we liked that fit the bill and the ‘dodgy’ English ownership laws that existed then, we decided to concentrate on the South of France instead.

In the summer of 2005, after years of research and internet searches, we finally had a short list of properties we wanted to look at in the South of France.

We had 2 weeks to find our dream, our area was wide, we didn’t know actually how wide it was until we noticed the huge amount of driving we were doing, the best part of 3000km over the 2 weeks. We wanted the Languedoc region, but it was just out of our price range, so settled on searching within the Midi Pyrenees, especially the Lot, Aveyron, Tarn and Tarn & Garonne departments. We stayed in a typically ‘French style Gite’ which was our favourite from our research,

It was very basic and needed much improvements.

The views were just amazing

as this would give us a real insight into what running gites is all about. While we loved the area, the complex was built on the hillside overlooking the beautiful Tarn river.

The stunning Tarn river flows through the valley

But it was immense and needed so much work doing to it (in excess of £500 grand on top of the £600 grand selling price….). It was not really an option for us.

We looked at every possible type of property you could imagine. Fully running Gites businesses, converted farm holdings, derelict tumbling down hillside houses, some we liked some were a definite ‘stay clear of that money pit’

But after exhausting our fairly extensive list we were beginning to think we would not find the dream. As a last gasp we called our friendly agent to see if he had anything else on his books that we might like.

After a trip out to the country, and I mean the country, as he lived in a beautiful barn conversion in the middle of nowhere, we looked through his books and came up with another 3 to look at. So off we tottled to the first one.

Our eyes sparkled a bit, when we saw ‘Le Chateau‘, we were shown around by the current owners, a lovely German couple who had it as a family retreat as it was central to their global family. It gave us some food for thought.
We went to see the next one which to be honest was only fit for knocking down, well the bits that hadn’t already fallen down that is.

A project some might say.

Again the far ends of the spectrum of choice…. We couldn’t stop thinking of the potential of ‘Le Chateau’, even while walking around the last one we had made our minds up. We had officially found our dream.

We had 3 days left of our time in France, and had now found the property, all we had to do now was open a bank account, get a mortgage approved and make an offer. Simple..!!!!
Well you know what we did it. We went for another viewing and this time spent a few good hours chatting with the owners, enjoying the wine and revelling in the beauty of Le Chateau de la Rivière.
We put in an offer that was accepted despite being under the asking price. All we had to do now was wait for the machine that is the French house buying process to roll into action…

We agreed to book another few days in August to come over and stay with the lovely Heiko and Ingrid, where we would discuss the finer details of what furniture they wanted to sell, and what the best dates for the Act de Vente would be. It also gave us a chance to have a good look around the area and confirm our thoughts that it is as beautiful as we remembered.

more to follow

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Hello everyone,

We are about to start our own Blog pages for our French Holiday Homes. Better known as  Le Château de la Rivière. or the website is French-Escapes.com.

We will be keeping you up to date with all things French Escapes are doing and will also be telling you all about us and our story of how our adventure is going.

Please feel free to comment or post your own stories to our blog, we are always happy to hear from all our past guests, and hope it will help all our future guests choose to holiday with us.

Best wishes to you all

Janine and Tony.

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