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It has been a long time since Pont Noir had any active columns so I thought that it was about time that I wrote a column myself. An introduction now seems inevitable…
We first came to the Creuse in 1996, really liked it and after several more visits to look at an increasingly desperate, bedraggled and utterly derelict selection of properties, we found one that was mostly sound, situated in farming country with rolling hills that had no immediate neighbours. Fabulous I thought; walls all vertical, joined securely to each other, roof on top and no trees growing up through it from the living room. A good start and better than the last one on all points.
We looked at it a second time and started the tortuous process of buying it. Moving swiftly though several more visits, a meter of paperwork, dozens of faxes, letters, legal documents, government forms and an agent that wasn’t really up to the job, six months later we’re all sat in a Notaire’s office about fifty miles from the house to be told two things; we couldn’t buy it without insuring it first and that there was in-fact no running water. This wasn’t what we’d been told before. We rang around, well, the nice notaire bloke rang, what with him having fluent French and knowing what so say, it seemed best, and got insured. All we’d have to do was pop into the insurance office in some obscure bungalow in a village far far away with a cheque and a smile; yes, after the signing would be fine.
Next, we had a robust stand-up in the hall with our borderline incompetent agent pointing out she’d said that mains water was connected every time we asked. She agreed to pay half the cost whatever it was but assured us it wouldn’t be much. We go back in to sign a dozen bits of paper, shake at least as many hands and then drive off in our Land Rover and huge trailer combo. It is this later point that is really why Pont Noir isn’t about Cantal rather than Creuse because I didn’t want to drive that lot back to the UK. If I had then we’d have returned to look around another department and I like Cantal a lot. Hey-ho. Here we still are and as Yoda would say “Lovely it is… uhm yes”.
Things have changed a lot since then. Not just with our house but with Creuse. It’s a lot more open for a start. Shops were closed a lot. Even supermarkets, which weren’t plentiful back then, didn’t open on Sundays and had at least a two hour break every day from noon. Tourism seemed a bit like an afterthought. You’d roll up in the middle of summer to a restaurant or hotel to find it closed for a week– “for our holidays”.
Wow, it was even a different currency back then, and services were still in government hands so it didn’t cost a fortune to get connected. The aforementioned lack of water cost me about 1850FF, my half of the bill to have about 100 meters of pipe laid and a meter installed.
A couple of years after buying I got a job in Clermont-Ferrand and became a Creusois weekender, but I’d also agreed to work remotely for my old firm in London, once a week checking that all was OK. This meant that I needed to get ISDN installed. France Telecom put up about half a mile of telegraph poles. Two teams installed the lot one morning and the sales manager turned up to do the paperwork. I was one of the first people in Creuse to ask for ISDN and so it was a bit of a thing. It seemed so funny having something so high tech in our frankly rather grubby farmhouse. The installation bill? Less than 1500 FF. In case you are wondering, those days have long since gone.
One of the biggest changes since then has been the climate. Not being too hot and having regular proper seasons was a big selling point for Creuse. Winters in those days were cold. Well below freezing plus windchill being the high point of the day and also of the fortnight was the worst. Warming the incoming water pipe with a heat gun to get it flowing. Ponds solid with ice at least 50cm thick. Deep snow. I can’t remember when it was last like that, but I’d happily go back to them if it avoided forty-degree summers.
Somehow, I’ve lived through the literal blood, sweat and tears of the almost never-ending renovations, the triple socks winters, sideways rain, hornet nests a foot wide, mad dogs, evil cats, rampaging cattle, a selection of dopey, drunken and downright daft visitors, neighbours and the odd angry turbot. My French is still terrible, though now I’m told that it’s terrible with a nice Creusois accent as all my vowels sound the same. Ah bon. That’s progress I guess.
I like to get out-and-about whenever the weather allows. It is good to take a break from cutting wood too short, not buying the correct size fitting (again), carrying things that are too heavy, dropping things that are too fragile and generally pounding, cutting and denting myself with a rare assortment of objects that would surely baffle any CSI tech. Walking in the countryside is awesome. Really. Just a few kilometres can erase the pent-up stress of a whole week of being a happy idiot abroad. So I like to walk a lot.
That’s really what this column is going to be about. The places I go and that things that I see. That I’m a hairy barmpot with more welly-boots than brains isn’t very interesting, but the places that I manage to find whilst taking another wrong track sometimes are. Creuse must be full of wonders just a hundred meters from the correct path. Either that or I’m a lucky muppet who should have died falling down an open mineshaft, shot by angry hunters or eaten by wolves. You decide.