Finally, the last host this summer and I find somewhere truly french. A once grand, but now dilapidated farmhouse, the locals refer to it as a chateau that was purchased some eleven years ago and is slowly being renovated by its new owners Patricia and Daniel with help from their son Gregory and a constant flow of helpXers.
Daniel met me from the station after a day of traveling and waiting around for connections. A four hour journey by car stretched to nearly eight by public transport was more tiring than working or hiking for the same amount of time. I was pleasantly surprised when the final leg of the journey was only minutes long. It makes a nice change to be close to civilisation and I’ll get chance to walk or cycle into the town of Jonzac before too long.
Back in the day, the house was central to a large wine and cognac enterprise, the farm employed more than fifty workers and owned much of the surrounding countryside. Through the generations the land has been divided and bits sold off to satisfy inheritance’ and the remaining buildings, within several hectares of walled land, fell into disuse some thirty years ago when the seven, then inheritors couldn’t decide how to divide it up. It suffered through normal neglect and then the ravages of a huge storm in 1998 that felled seventy or more large trees and caused untold damage to the fragile unmaintained buildings. It has been an uphill struggle since then, but having seen some of the photographs that were taken at the time, a huge amount of progress has been made to the house and grounds. Personally I wouldn’t have any of idea where to start as the whole project is enormous and seemingly unending.
As we toured the grounds, evidence of former splendour could be seen in the craftmanship of the buildings, flat, finished stone was used almost everywhere, none of your rough walling here, Workshops with successions of arched doorways, some purely ornamental, flank the main house, a separate property stands to one side, with an impressive and steeply pitched roof, probably for a farm manager, the pillars supporting barn roofs are smart and with detail at both base and top, a row of pigsties, full height and with doorways to match the workshops, the whole of the back, or is it the front? of the impressive three storey house is a wonderful terrace stepped across its entire width down onto a great expanse of lawn. When they built this place, they didn’t skimp on fine detail, it mush have been something great during its heyday. Unfortunately, that was back then. Since that time many of the roofs have collapsed, followed subsequently by the surrounding walls. Nature has taken hold and those once tiny saplings, bramble seedlings and shoots of ivy have had many years on their own. The remaining great park trees have been joined by an army of invaders, sycamores, acacias, beech, elder and so on, crowding in and devouring the volume of the farm. They tower over much of the property, blocking out the light, slowly taking back the lawns, the buildings and the pathways. They grow where their seeds landed, up out of the ground, from barn floors, through piles of stones, and swathes of undergrowth, their expanding trunks toppling more walls, their leaves falling in autumn to decay, rot and feed yet more growth, it is an unending cycle. The undergrowth covers up pathways, disguises small buildings and envelops everything in its way. Left unchecked, the whole property would disappear under woodland in no time at all.
Plenty has been done to improve the interior of the house, to maintain decent access and some of the immediate garden areas but much of the rest is “for another life”. I expect that it is the only way to keep some sort of sanity when faced with such a property, deal with what you can and almost forget the rest. Some of the buildings are utilised for stables and kennels for horses, dogs, a goat and a donkey, others for storage and keeping machinery protected from the elements. The rest is handy building material for ongoing projects and for any repairs that need tending to. Daniel tries to keep everything under control but it is far too much for one person to do, he also runs the house, tends the animals, does a great job of feeding the helpXers amnd making sure that they are happy. A full time professional gardener would need more than help and there are enough unnecessary trees here to keep a keen arborist (tree person) happy for months.