What is it that gives a home character? What makes it a place where we feel at ease and want to linger, a space that defines the character of the people who live there?
When I think back to my childhood on a farm in England, I can close my eyes and remember certain things; the ticking of the grandfather clock, a vase of fresh flowers, well-worn rugs on the stone floor, solid furniture and unique ornaments. Woodsmoke in winter and open windows in summer, the scent of the countryside, good and bad. An orphaned lamb in a box by the Aga in the spring, and milk straight from our ‘house cow’ being poured from the heavy metal pail through a muslin cloth into a jug, ready to go into the kitchen. It wasn’t perfect, nor staged in any way, it was just an old farmhouse, that was an integral part of our farm life.
Nowadays it would be considered a real treasure trove. I remember as a kid I used to love poking around in the barns, or upstairs in the attic. I loved finding anything that I might consider to be treasure. There were boxes hidden away that hadn’t been looked at for years, and I would drag down parts of old clocks or interesting bits of broken china just to look at them.
In the summer I was drawn to the garden. We had every type of vegetable and so many berries in the summer. I remember also the nettles around the edges that would sting my legs if I accidentally got too close. Now I understand why everything was so abundant without any pesticides, for this was long before ‘organic’ became popular. The weeds played their very important part and here in France we’ve tried to model our own potager on a mixture of some of our memories.
Going back to those childhood days; in a corner near the old unused pigsties there was a huge abandoned stone trough. I loved the shape of it and I was allowed to make this my own space, where I could plant and play with flowers. I also loved the ancient greenhouse, a Victorian relic that was attached to one side of the back of the house, and its dusty old shelves filled with battered terracotta pots.
I was a tomboy for sure drawn to the outside world, and when I wasn’t riding ponies, I could be found in a scruffy pair of jeans messing around in somewhere I thought had been forgotten, filled with cobwebs and where I might find something interesting.
This smouldering interest didn’t really resurface until I was married and we had our first daughter. There is a small town in north Devon called South Molton. Twenty years ago, it was where my love of antiques was rekindled, when Roddy and I returned to England after several years abroad. There was was an auction every first Wednesday of the month in a large hall tucked away behind the town’s main street. Come rain or shine, we would be there, gently towing a very young Izzi along with us in a pushchair. Carefully we would watch the bidding and the London professionals who’d been there since the crack of dawn, scrutinising the lots from first light. We learnt a lot simply by observing them, and when they withdrew from the bidding it was always because the price had gone too high for them to make a decent resell in their shops.
We’d bought a converted barn, and we were intent on finding period pieces for its large rooms that were both economic to buy, stylish, and a hint back to the houses of our childhoods. Suffice to say we learnt the hard way, making mistakes almost every visit, but often returning back to our home with some real treasures, most of which are still part of our family possessions today. It was fascinating to be there, one moment watching the bidding fly through the roof for something we thought was worth nothing, and then the next waving our hands alone as the experts dropped out and left us to our fate – which was typically a price which we should really not have paid. We learnt who to watch, what items attracted most interest, and which objects of our desire might be ours as they were of little value to anyone else. We learnt too, that not everyone has the same taste, and most importantly to buy what speaks to you, what you genuinely love and not because it is supposedly fashionable.
Izzi befriended everyone, especially the lady who ran the cafe stall with her special homemade cookies! After a few years we became part of the regular gang, and even the experts would give us advice. It was the winter visits I remember most, for the heating was non-existent and we would be huddled inside a coat or two, with gloves on, Izzi perched on a chair with us, wrapped in a snowsuit for the monthly Arctic adventure! I remember the auctioneer’s breath would congeal behind his gavel as he carefully searched out the bids amongst the crowd in front of him.
Over the years “Millers Antique Guide” became my bedtime reading. Then the internet became more prominent and we found it a fabulous source of information. We spent endless hours reading articles on how to spot a fake. Then wherever we went if there was a shop selling brocante we would make a beeline for it and carefully put our newfound knowledge to the test. Studying individual pieces, turning them over and discussing them. This was long before the days when a phone with a decent camera made life easy, and it was before data brought information to our fingertips at all times. We had to remember in our head and then talk about it in the car on the way home. These were very in-depth conversations, for we were both hooked and fascinated!
Ten years later and we were living in France browsing the local vide greniers and brocantes in the summer, trying to remember everything we had learnt so we could apply it to French items. Needless to say the text books came out once more and we learnt about a whole new market and it’s subtle traps for the unwary!
Fast forward another 10 years, and now I have a small antique business of my own. Most of all, I hope I’ve stuck to my roots; I try to only buy what I feel a connection to, pieces that I would like in my own home. I still visit brocantes because I absolutely love them, and thankfully so do the children, and it’s become a real family pastime.
However I now try and source most of my stock privately. Many people have got to know me and now they contact me when they hear of a house sale or something they think I might like. There is a very special elderly lady I’ve come to know in the Médoc. She used to deal in antiques herself back in the day but she is now retired. She walks with a stick, slightly hunched over and she’ll show me her ‘hamlet each time we visit, always explaining how she has spent her entire life in the house in which she was born. She’s well into her 80’s and yet she still has that sparkle in her eye and a hint of mischievousness about her.
Visiting her is a really special treat. She’ll give me a call and suggest I visit. A day will be arranged and I’ll make the two hour trek to her home. Somedays I take the motorway and head down to Bordeaux and around that way and sometimes I’ll rope Roddy into coming with me (even the children on an odd occasion) and we’ll take the ferry across the small stretch of the Gironde Estuary from Royan.
Then we’ll slowly meander down through the stunning countryside of the Medoc until we arrive at her home.
She’ll show me photos of items that friends and locals want to sell. These are people who have contacted her because she has the contacts, and while she’s adamant that she won’t mix with the big dealers, she also is careful about who she calls. Why should she not call all and sundry? She explains every time, saying how no money passes through her hands any longer, for now it’s purely a hobby. She tells me with a wink that it keeps her young, and being part of the elite contact list, I take it as a big compliment.
It’s the same sort of reason why I have my little shop; it’s mostly on-line or via private visit by arrangement, but it fuels my fascination with the French culture, and with the people and with the history of our area. When I buy something I want to know all about it, how it was made, where it came from and how it was used.
Of course I don’t know the background of everything, but that’s where it is important to look and touch, and then – if it feels right – I’ll buy whatever it is and feel good about it.
Our home is far from perfect, it’s a mixture of French and English. I like to change things around; in the winter I’ll add rich velvet cushions in dark tones on the sofas, and in the summer change them out for cooler coloured vintage French linens.
I find I am drawn to old stone both in the garden and indoors, my childhood memories coming to the fore perhaps.
So many people say to me they wished they could come and live in France, and it’s for that reason we created the new website and then the shop, so you can buy a piece of France and call it your own. The website and shop are both exciting additions to this blog, and our little oasis here also includes the guest cottage, of course. Both the blog and the cottage are in their sixth year now which makes me immensely proud.
We want to bring a little taste of Our French Lifestyle to you, wherever you are in the world. I don’t want to idealise life here. It is real, there are the normal day to day problems, and there are bills and taxes to be paid. The children are at local French schools and I like to think we live a normal life; it’s certainly not fantasy land, and I have always tried to keep everything as down to earth as possible. My photos on Instagram are not staged, they’re mostly snapshots of life as it happens on a daily basis. Perhaps this is not the best recipe for loads of followers, but it is important to me to keep this true to who we are.
Anyway, so today there is huge excitement. We’ve been working almost round the clock in confinement, writing (more at the end of the post) and turning a part of our barn into my very own brocante. We have made partition walls, wallpapered and painted. Roddy has made tables and shelves and now finally everything is on display.
Our online shop (previously only on Etsy) is now live as part of our completely redesigned website, www.ourfrenchlifestyle.com
And to celebrate the Grand Occasion, here is a 10% discount coupon that can be used for the next ten days. Just go to our shop HERE and enter OURFRENCHOASIS10 at checkout.
Finally, our first book, the first of three in the pipeline, is due to be launched by the end of the month, fingers crossed – I’ll keep you posted.
So most likely you can’t live in France, but you don’t have to up sticks and move across the world to enjoy a little part of our way of life. You can now have a little piece of France at home and hopefully you can follow along and live the French Lifestyle that we so love. Susan XX