Recently, the Financial Times posed the question: “Is now the right time to escape to the country?” The article contrasted “packed, polluted and pandemic-ridden cities” with the “space, greenery and lower prices” of the countryside. Now that people can leave the city while (ostensibly) maintaining the career and lifestyle they prefer – thanks to the Internet, videoconferencing, and home delivery of everything from food to furnishings – the countryside beckons.
It’s an attractive proposition, but before you call your agent, talk to someone who has actually done it. We were lucky enough in 2019 to visit friends who had restored a rundown house in a rural part of Burgundy, close to Avallon and Vézelay, and we were staggered at the amount of work that had gone into making the house into a comfortable retreat. It is not a prospect for the faint-hearted. The results are, however, delightful and would induce rural-home envy in the most committed of city dwellers.
Patrice and Noëlle bought “La Cure” in 2015. It has that name because the house was once the home of the curé (priest) of the local church. For the previous 30 years, it had been uninhabited; the garden had become a jungle and some parts of the property were used as a squat. But it had good bones; Patrice is an architect who specializes in restoration, and he saw the potential.
He sent us this image from an 1826 plan showing the house and its surroundings.
The red shape with the cross at the top left is the church. The house itself is the red shape to the right of the walled garden, which is indicated by diagonal lines. A lane links the house to the main road. The third, L-shaped structure shown in red consists of a large barn and a series of outbuildings enclosing a courtyard. The blue curved shape is, yes, a moat. In the 12th century, the site was occupied by a fortified manor house dominating a village (in every sense, since the occupant controlled the lives of the villagers).
By the 15th century, the village had been abandoned after the Hundred Years War against the English, and the original manor house had fallen into ruins, but a newer fortified house was built on the site in about 1700, during the reign of Louis XIV. During the Revolution, the place was bought by a priest who had sworn allegiance to the Republic (not all priests did). In 1820, he transferred ownership of the property to the local commune. During two centuries this was the centre of religious life for the neighbourhood and generations of children learned their catechism here.
But by 1985, a shortage of priests led to the closing of the church and the abandonment of La Cure, and the property was sold in 2015. Shortly after Patrice and Noëlle bought it, they sent us some pictures of the garden façade and the kitchen.
They had their work cut out for them – and for a small army of artisans and builders. Patrice drew up a detailed plan. Here is a view the façade of the house that faces the lane. There were no remaining windows on the ground floor on this side, and the plan called for four new ones, as well as two on the top floor.
Over the next year and a half, 39 “compagnons” (we explained this term in a previous blog) representing 21 different trades, drawn from the surrounding area and from Paris, worked on the house. Masons restored fallen walls and created openings for the windows. Carpenters restored wooden floors and panelling, and built furniture. Electricians discreetly installed hundreds of outlets and new wiring. And a team of builders shored up the wooden staircase and created a new dormer and a new skylight in the roof.
That description makes the project sound relatively straightforward. But even something as seemingly simple as new windows are a project in and of themselves, with the fabrication of the windows in a way that fits the historic context, and the creation of custom hardware for opening and closing them. To say nothing of the complex maze of permissions required to alter any historic building in France.
Having followed some of this activity through e-mails, we were very eager to see the place.
In May 2019, Noëlle met us at the station in Avallon and drove us to La Cure. This is the side on the lane – the main entrance to the house is through the garden on the other side. There is also a side entrance into the courtyard, just visible on the right.
We were given a splendid room with a stately fireplace that was apparently the one in which visiting bishops used to stay. There was even a small room to one side designated for the bishop’s attendant. We had views out to the lane on one side and the garden on the other.
We enjoyed many meals in the light-filled dining room – the kitchen is tucked away around the corner. This is the same room shown above, with the fireplace now restored to all its glory.
Patrice gave us a tour of the property. Work was still in progress on one of the garden walls. It was eventually completed by four stone workers over seven months.
The outbuildings off the courtyard (Patrice said it had taken months to clean out the accumulated rubbish) retained a fascinating array of ecclesiastical leftovers, from piles of old catechisms and Sunday School colouring books to the remains of a plaster set of bas-reliefs for the Way of the Cross.
(I noticed the latter were marked “Raffl et Cie,” so I looked up the name later. It was a Parisian maker of religious statues from the mid 19th to the early 20th century.)
The interior of the barn was one of the oldest parts of the property. We gazed up into the rafters, straight into the Middle Ages.
Mind you, Patrice has since sent us photos of even older objects found on the property – a Roman coin and two Neolithic flints, in addition to 17th– century coins.
And fossils. All kinds of fossils.
In tidying up the stone terrace recently, Patrice and Noëlle found a boundary stone marked with four incomprehensible signs. The land continues to yield up small mysteries and clues to its former life.
This year, Patrice and Noëlle are focusing on the garden, clipping hedges, pruning the fruit trees, planting flowers, creating a potager. It’s a lot of hard work, as any rural property owner knows. Remember Rudyard Kipling’s words: “…such gardens are not made / By singing: – “Oh, how beautiful!” and sitting in the shade.”
The house remains cool in hot weather (thick stone walls will do that), but it is also cold in winter. It is quiet – if you don’t count the birds, the insects, and the heifers in the adjoining field (who sometimes stray, as shown here), as well as all kinds of small creatures going about their own business in the hedges and long grass.
We look forward to returning one day. For now, revisiting La Cure in our memories will have to do.
Text by Philippa Campsie with background material supplied by Patrice Roy; photographs by Patrice Roy, Noëlle Roy, Norman Ball, and Philippa Campsie.