The Key to Good Memories


The letterbox to our french house is, like most french letterboxes, fixed to the gate or railings facing over the road. On a sunny day, fetching the letters is a pleasant amble across the garden, tiny key in hand, to open it up and retrieve the contents whilst on rainy days the letters sit there the majority of the day until a brave soul risks the raindrops to go and collect them.

Our postman is a miserable man, at odds with the world, and despite many a cheery bonjour and a little bit of chitchat on our part, he remains resolutely a man of grunts – jabbing his finger on his computerized tablet where we should sign for parcels if one arrives as if he’s convinced we are foreigners without a word of french between us, and only miming exaggeratedly will do. Every time I take his stylus to sign, I say, in perfectly reasonable french, ” oh, would you like me to sign just here”, and every time a grunt, a few more jabs of the finger, and the next time, a repetition of the entire process.

I’m thankful though that despite this depressing state of affairs, not all our mail is boring and cheerless. Sometimes newsy letters and postcards come our way which give us the motivation to pick up the key to go and empty it.

A couple of weeks ago a quite extraordinary letter arrived in our letterbox. In the typical french cursive script, an elderly lady had put pen to paper to tell us how she’d discovered quite by chance that some English people had to come to live in this house, and how she wondered if she could pass by and pay a visit during the month of September on the occasion of her sister’s birthday. With the letter she included a photo of our front steps and it was evident that as a young girl she’d had a close connection with the house.Without hesitation we replied that they could come together the following Thursday.

And so it was that at precisely 3 o’clock in the afternoon the doorbell rang, and outside on the pavement stood three elderly ladies holding a bouquet of roses and three jars of homemade jam in a little wicker basket.

It was a lovely sunny day so we sat at the garden table whilst the younger of the three sisters told us how they, and their elder brother had been born and grew up with their parents in the house that they rented until the owner had decided he wanted to move back in himself.The owner in their day was none other than the elderly gentleman from whom we’d bought the house four years ago. The sisters had fifteen years of happy memories to share, and a handful of photographs of them taken over the years in various places in the house and garden. Their father had even stood on the balcony of the house watching the allied planes flying over Rouen in the Second World War and seen the terrible bombardments with his own eyes whilst the rest of the family took refuge in the shelter with their neighbours at the end of the garden.

We gave the three sisters a tour of the house, and at frequent moments they exclaimed in equal measure at how nothing had changed, or how doors or walls had moved position, and shared little anecdotes as they passed from room to room.

Inevitably, as we returned to the garden table for a cup of tea, we hatched up a plan to retake all the photos again, same sister, same location, same pose, and by the end of the afternoon we were in fits of giggles manipulating arms and legs round waists and shoulders, sitting, standing, reclining, and even with the correct tilt of the heads!

At last the final photo of the youngest sister leaning out of her old bedroom window on the top floor,

-“you know the way”, said “husband a la maison”, and she catapulted herself up the two flights of stairs with all the spriteliness of her fifteen year-old self.

Eventually with a sigh the sisters prepared to leave, and as they did so, the youngest sister explained how, at the age of fifteen, so disappointed to be leaving the house she’d grown up in so happily, she had, in a fit of passion decided to take a small part of the house with her as a momento. Running to the washroom in the cellar she’d pinched the enormous metal key from the lock and hidden it in her pocket.

She gave a wistful smile and drew the very same key out of her bag and ceremoniously handed it back to us, happy that four more children were growing up and enjoying the house just as they had,

..and that the spirit of the house was just as before.

Seventy-two years after it was last turned in the lock, the key is back home, bringing with it a wealth of incredible memories.

A week in the life…


This morning I was expecting to be up and early for a new experience- giving a bike tour of the city of Rouen. On Saturday afternoon I perfected the route, out on my own in glorious sunshine, wheeling my way along the river quay, past the many boats moored there, before climbing slowly up to the prefecture and passing the church of Joan of Arc nearby.enjoying the flower sellers in the street,and the Gros Horloge,and taking a pit stop in the cool of the abbey of St Ouen, an often missed, but gem of a monument, which easily competes with the cathedral for it’s light and perfect symmetry.But at 6 this morning a great crack of thunder and the rain came pouring down. I was prepared for the eventual soaking but by 9 the clients had cancelled and I now find myself with a free day!

I was thinking what an lovely week this has been for variety, which is perhaps what makes this job as good as it is.

When I’m not in Rouen, my “office” can be found generally with a wonderful view!

On Thursday this was my office at “Giverny”, the famous home and garden of Claude Monet.Then on Friday I met a boat at Les Andelys to walk up to Château Gaillard, Richard the Lionheart’s fortress at the top of the cliff. It was tough sitting waiting for the boat to come in!Later that afternoon we took a closer inspection of a tributary of the river.

and I have Jay and Betty to thank for immortalizing it for posterity!

On Saturday I was up again at the crack of dawn to head of to the Château of La Roche Guyon, a castle that spans the centuries from its early dwelling in the year 260 with troglodyte caves dug deep into the cliffs to its 18th century extensions. We just had enough time to climb to the 12 century donjon (keep) some 350 steps above the river and to take in the view.Even if I did have considerable difficulty getting some of the clients to come down again!

On Sunday another walking tour of Rouen before heading out yesterday to the Château Vascoeuil for an evening of cocktails and music in this historic building and art centre, home to over sixty sculptures in its gardens, including several of Dali.Tomorrow I shall head off to see my favorite dogs, Bêtise and Huge, two border collies who mind the ecological lawn mowers, the flock of 100 sheep at the award-winning cider farm, Duclos Fougeray.It’s all go! But never let it be said that I don’t like heading to the office because I really don’t mind the view!

Which view would you chose to have from your office?

Sunny days and stormy evenings in Normandy


Two massive cracks of thunder and suddenly the rain has started pelting down. I’m lucky to have just got in in time from gathering flowers for the vase on the table in the hall.

This time of year is particularly lovely in France and my peonies have chosen to flower plant by plant, one after another, the length of the month of May. And now the Lupins and the fragrant roses are also putting on a blousy show, but their scent is nevertheless having a hard time outdoing the Mock Orange.Beds that we’re uncultivated last year and were planted with flowers bought from a flower stall near my sister’s hospice at the time of each of my frequent visits are now growing strongly and producing their first blooms. I particularly love the white peony which has given four beautiful flowers in its first year.I have taken refuge in the conservatory which is a hive of activity, though not of the floral kind just yet. Husband ‘a la Maison’ is busy restoring all our windows and the conservatory is the ideal location to work from. One day soon we want to restore the conservatory itself, but it’s a large and daunting job.You can see the pane of glass carefully set aside and the frame being scraped back to its original wood. The deep reveals of our windows mean that the windows have been protected from the worst of the elements for over a hundred years and there’s not a trace of rot. So far the balcony french windows are all completed and this is this year’s second set of ordinary windows. Only two more sets to go after this and all the windows will have been restored and repainted.

I’m taking refuge from the rain and thanking it for doing the evening watering for us. The thunder is a constant rumble with frequent flashes of lightening. It must be nearly overhead. When it stops I will have to go out again and shake the Peonies heads as the rain has filled the blooms since I came inside and they’re drooping so low with the weight of the water that their heads are nearly touching the ground.But on dry days our new outdoor tap is doing a great job keeping everything watered.If it wasn’t raining I would be lounging in a hammock enjoying the garden, but the conservatory is the next best place and at least when the storm passes over we may have a cooler, less sticky night.Have a great week!

Brocante Finds and Wisteria.


A perfect day off involves a morning wandering through an old french market followed by a lazy lunch and afternoon in the garden. The month of May is perfect for indulging because there are so many state holidays that the french people have become experts at avoiding going to work where at all possible. This week the national holiday, which unlike in the UK where it always falls on a Monday, relies on its date, and has fallen not only on Tuesday, Victoire (victory day) the 8th of May, but also on Thursday, the 10th of May which is Ascension.

The idea of having a weekend and then returning to work for Monday only to have a national holiday on Tuesday is so ridiculous to any Frenchman, that a nationally recognized “pont”, or “bridge” is put into action. Monday becomes a bridge from Sunday to Tuesday and effectively no one works that day either. Since Thursday is also a national holiday, Friday becomes a bridge to the following weekend and no one works that day either. But of course we can’t stop there, because Wednesday also becomes a bridge from Tuesday to Thursday. Pretty impossible to work that day too, and before you know it there’s a 9 day holiday in the middle of May!

As the month of May comes round, everyone visibly relaxes. The first of May, the fête de travail, is also a national holiday as is the 20th and 21st of May for Pentecost. A fabulous month for everyone, made better still under sunny blue skies.

A few months ago at the far end of our local Sunday market we came across a stall holder packing up for his long anticipated lunch, and jumbled in amongst the bric à brac of his antique stall was an old tap, a decorative brass collar and the old over arch of a grand wrought iron gate. Perhaps the over arch was from an old Château, or an old manoir. We shall never know, but for a scant amount of money we heaved it onto our shoulders and carted it with the old tap and collar off to the car. They sat in a rather forlorn state over winter and this spring the tap was attached to the old brass decorative collar and mounted onto a piece of shaped stone against the conservatory wall. The old over arch was scraped clean and repainted and then modified in width to sit over our rather more diminutive gate.Two summers ago we had bought a small wisteria plant to grow up the side of the house where ivy used to grow. Last summer we knew that if we didn’t find a framework for it to grow over quickly, it would become very difficult to manage. While the stems of the Wisteria were still in hibernation we pushed them through the gate overarch and waited to see how it would look.It’s been wonderful coming in and out of the garden this month and breathing in the scent as we pass. Having an outside garden tap at last has made short work of the watering! Next year we may have to cut back yet more of the ivy as the wisteria vigorously winds it’s way the length of the garden railings. I can only anticipate how heavenly the scent will be next year, and hope there will be even more days off and “ponts” to look forward in which to enjoy it!Have a wonderful “end of week”!

Flour Sack Bed.


There was a time when sack cloth was a sign of penitence. But there’s nothing remotely punitive as far as I’m concerned about my latest makeover, quite the opposite in fact, and now I look forward to the end of the day when I can enjoy the comfort of it.

Sadly, a while ago, an American friend sold up and headed back to the USA and in consequence was trying to find homes for some of her larger pieces of furniture. I was only to happy to take her bed off her hands.

The old upholstery on her Louis XVI bed had a few large watermarks and we both agreed that it needed recovering, and I promised myself that I would do it when I could. It’s taken a while but finally during this years downtime from the tourist season I seized my chance.

Here it is in its original state, with its dark wood and faintly floral yellow cloth.And below with a the inner face of the foot of the bed half done and an ( unfinished) quick coat of Little Green Company “Slaked Lime Dark”.

I was really fortunate that the structure and basic padding underneath was in very good condition and only the top upholstery needed changing.

Choosing a hardwearing fabric was quite a problem because my black and linen toile curtains were difficult to coordinate with, but I love old grain sacks, so you can imagine how happy I was when I fell upon this old french black and natural flour-sack cloth, (even if “Husband Chez Nous” says it looks as if the bed has been run over by a tractor). Grain sack has too loose a weave, but flour sack is altogether softer and closer weft, which also means it isn’t scratchy when leaning against it. And that’s important considering how much I like to read in bed.

The greatest difficulty has been the thickness of the cloth, especially when it gathers up on the inward curves of the frame. But all things considered I’m pleased with the result.I was lucky to find a very good colour match for the edge detail to hide the tacks. I spent a while trying to find the french word for this kind of edging “ribbon”. “Double cord”, pronounced “doo- bluh cord”, who’d have thought!

Pleasant dreams everyone!

Narnia awaits in Normandy.


I woke up this morning to a thick blanket of snow. It rarely snows in Normandy, so this morning I eagerly dragged my snow boots out from their hiding place and went to explore our quarter, enjoying the crunching sounds underfoot, and the silence of the deserted streets.

Narnia’s lamppost was standing in the middle of someone’s garden behind large iron gates, unfairly out of reach of anyone desperately searching the wardrobe and their way home!

So I set off again to enjoy my neighborhood from its new perspective.

The church of St Andre beckoned from the end of the allée of soft snow.

It was clinging on, even on the nobbles of the freshly pollarded trees. These strikingly architectural forms are so resolutely french and I love their shapes both in the height summer as in the coldest of winters.

When winter beckons we call our local wood merchant for our annual delivery of logs. Three stères of wood will get us through the average winter with the fire burning merrily most days. I like the fact that the french have their own particular measurement for a cubic meter of wood, and that it comes readily chopped to the right dimensions after the wood merchant has come to the fireplace to measure the hearth. Often he tells me which trees he’s lopped, and precisely where my stères have come from. One year the pollarded trees of the main boulevard in the city, another, from a sustainable forest several kilometers away.

Our local architecture is so quintessentially french.

A bus had tried to make it through, and broken down, leaving only a narrow space for a passing truck. They were making heavy weather of the manœuvre so I left them to it!

There was nothing moving at the square by the church.

And I hurried on, now and then pulling out my camera.

Despite being close to the centre of the city, our quarter has a country feel with narrow lanes and steep slopes. Here and there are some lovely houses tucked away behind their imposing gates.

And the odd bijou one as well!

But looking forward to a warm fire and a cup of hot chocolate I turned for home taking a few last pictures on the way.

Have a lovely day!

And even the kitchen sink!


I’ve decided, quite excitingly ( for me anyway) to give my blog a face-lift, and so next time I post you may find a few changes to the layout and header, but for today I’m going to tell you about the much needed face- lift for our very neglected kitchen!

Anyone that’s rented in France will know that the ‘oh so’ well known english expression, “taking everything but the kitchen sink” is not a figurative expression here when it comes to house moving, but a very big reality. It’s very common to arrive at a new rental or purchase property to find that in the kitchen there is only one item- quite literally a sink, often without even a cabinet below it.

Annonce1-photo4 (2)It was almost the case when we first moved into our house. The elderly Monsieur from whom we’d bought it had gaily lived his life using the top of his mini fridge as his work top, with a small wooden table in the centre of the room. The sink, on a very dilapidated cabinet in the corner was built for a very diminutive person, and washing up bent double to achieve the right height was not a pleasant experience. For three years we nevertheless continued with his tradition.WP_20150103_006I made a very half hearted attempt to paint the cupboard.WP_20160115_002It wasn’t strictly necessary to struggle on, but ‘husband a l’étranger ‘, as he was at the time , and I had come to an impasse over what would be the replacement sink. Husband ‘a l’étranger’ was very fond of the old battered ceramic sink, complete with chips, yellowing and scratches, and I was all for a modern but similar replacement. Gradually he begun to comment about the presence of some interminable flies which seem to appear from nowhere just after he had cleared the last lot through the door. For my part, I was anxious about the damp under the sink which turned out dishwasher salt into a nasty clump, and let’s not even mention the wet patch in the cellar which had convinced me that we had an major underground drain leak.

At the same time as we bought our island unit to give us a decent worktop, I bought a matching base unit for a future sink. I also searched around for quite some time, looking for a new ceramic sink. It took a lot of finding as I wanted 2 bowls, and Husband ‘a l’étranger ‘ wanted an integral draining board. It had to be as near to a metre long to fit into the space I calculated would be available after the base cupboard was modified. Eventually, at great cost I found one.When it arrived on the truck it took 2 strong men to lift it, and it was put in the corner of the dining room…where it stayed for nearly for two years! Husband ‘a l’étranger ‘ cocked a snook at the lovely new white ceramic sink declaring that my idea of converting the base unit cupboard, which was designed for a single Belfast sink, into a double Belfast sink was nigh on impossible. He went to Emmaus and bought a competing sink for 15 € in a style circa 1970, which would involve, yes you guessed it, modifying the base unit as his was a “sit- on”, rather than a “sit-in” style.

The stand off lasted longer than I bear to think about, but approximately two years! Half the trouble was that ripping out a kitchen sink completely handicaps the functioning of a kitchen and there wasn’t quite enough impetus to make it happen. At some point into the second year I disappeared into the garage, and only came back inside once the base unit had been completely painted, – except for the area which needed to be modified and cut away.

Husband ‘a l’étranger went into the garage and balanced his sit-on sink on top of the base unit, and gradually the whole turned into a new dumping ground for various bike helmets, tools and ‘odds and sods’!

And so the stand-off continued.

And then, in November, the mighty ‘hand of god’ intervened with his ‘acte de dieu’ and our dishwasher spontaneously went up in flames at five o’clock in the morning. And there’s nothing like being forced to wash up for a family of six at a very low sink to focus the mind.

The following Sunday, Husband ‘a l’étranger’ rose from his seat in the sitting room and disappeared into the garage and suddenly the sound of a saw could be heard. Within a couple of hours the offending piece of base unit was removed and a double sink size space was created in its place.

The following day the cupboard and sink from the kitchen saw their last.And from that moment we haven’t looked back!A support was made for the new heavy sink:You can see how we cut away the right-hand drawer to increase the space for the sink.The biggest detail issue was how to close of the space between the sides of the sink and the base unit, which we did with a thin piece of timber panel, slightly recessed and painted the same colour.We closed of the left hand end of the freestanding base unit with the wall with another piece of recessed painted panel, placed the new dishwasher in its position with a temporary door and laid on the oak worktop.

The next issue was how to deal with the small spaces either side of the cooker.

Matching the feet of the freestanding unit we made a faux left-hand panel and a fixed right hand panel. The centre part of the left hand side panel opens with a narrow pull-out bottle drawer.On-line I had discovered a company who made paneled dishwasher doors in a shaker-style. Their excellent design with identical feet to our kitchen units would have been ideal but unfortunately theirs was designed for a higher worktop and an XXL dishwasher. Neither of which we had.

Husband ‘a l’étranger’ thought I was more than a little mad (and rather demanding) when I suggested copying the design and making it ourselves.The idea was to make the dishwasher door resemble a free-standing unit, and therefore a door within a frame. However the door and frame are actually just a door!Here it is with the leg part of the frame cut off, fixed to the dishwasher and with painting just underway.And here it is fully painted with the legs in place. If you look carefully you can see the horizontal cut across the legs which is where the dishwasher door opens at its hinges. Without the cut the dishwasher would never open!

The full width of the dishwasher door runs from washing machine on the right to sink unit on the left, but yet it looks like a freestanding unit in itself. I think you’ll agree it’s a great design, (and build), neither of which I can take credit for.

….and the flies, well they had made their nice home in the old overflow pipe of the old sink, and the old waste pipe had been silently dripping for years into the sink cupboard and down to the cellar below. Now both issues are something of the past.

There’s something about creating and building for oneself, I get a little bit of pleasure each time I have to open the dishwasher and load it up…

….and that’s got to be a first!