Sunday, 20 April 2008


There comes a point, if you're driving south or west from the eastern or northern bits of Ariège, when the feel of the landscape changes almost in the blink of an eye. Vast rolling hills and fields with tracks leading to huge farmhouses perched on top of ridges with fantastically wide, panoramic views of the Pyrénées give way to steep wooded lanes, lush pastureland, rocks, trees and streams, with the sheer proximity of the high peaks taking you by surprise when you round this corner or that.

We had, we thought, a problem. While we loved some of the big ridge-built farmhouses to the north and east, and could probably have spent the rest of our lives gazing at the views, we both felt slightly uncomfortable with the sheer openness of it all. Maybe it's because we'd spent the last eight years living in a house that was in all the guidebooks, in an (admittedly very picturesque) village that was overrun for much of the year both by daytrippers and by the Kensington-on-Sea brigade; maybe because running a restaurant with rooms in your own home means that you and your life are permanently 'on display' to all and sundry. Whatever the reason, we wanted the land around our next home to offer both an openness to the mountains, and a lush, tree-surrounded retreat where we and our guests could feel a million miles away from the rest of the world if we so desired. Moreover, we'd already fallen for the south west corner of Ariège, the Seronnais and the Couserans. The trouble is that down here, big maisons de caractère, with plenty of inside space, surrounded by their own land and a decent distance from a main road, are somewhat thinner on the ground, especially when you've no intention of falling for the renovating-a-ruin game.

We'd only properly viewed a few houses when Bruno, our immobilier in Foix, showed us Grillou. He was clearly besotted with the place and had (unusually) taken so many photos that by the time we arrived at the house the following week we almost felt as though we'd been there before. He seemed firmly to believe that we were going to buy it and, embarrassingly cliché-ridden though it sounds, so did I, before we even got out of his car. And so we did.

Four months later we, and a week later our five containers of books, more books, still more books plus the odd piece of furniture, were installed in our new home. For the first week we simply wandered about, getting lost and wondering where on earth we would start. The previous owner specialised in the conservation and restoration of medieval wood- and wall-painting; some years ago he had converted the former stables and grenier into a huge double level studio (every time we came to the house before he moved out, there was a virgin sitting in the corner ...). As soon as I set eyes on this particular space, I could see its potential to make the most fantastic guest accommodation, but I knew that that would have to wait until we'd lived there a while and could get a feel for what was right. We knew there would be other work, too: the house is big, but due to the fact that it had once been at least two separate houses, plus barn, stables and workshop, it has a slightly odd layout which makes it difficult to access one part from another.

Although the house is (or at least will be) amazing, what makes it particularly special is its environment. We're the last but one house along a chemin rural, surrounded by woodland and completely private yet only 3km from our village. Google Earth puts our altitude at 501 metres, thus we neatly avoid both the mists that can linger in the valleys and the more capricious mountain weather that kicks in at around 800 metres. Both the variety of bird life and the birdsong is amazing; the latter, plus the ubiquitous crickets (les grilloux), an occasional cow bell and - if the breeze is in the right direction, the church bells - are all you can hear. Apart from, that is, the not infrequent laughter of our (only, but fortuitously compatible and convivial) neighbours in the valley below. Although we have a year-round view of the surrounding hills, we were taken wholly by surprise in November when the leaves fell to see a snow-capped Mont Valier and much of the western chain appear as if by magic. Although we've been here eight months now, we still spend an inordinate amount of time sitting gazing at the surroundings, planning things that, to be honest, would probably take two lifetimes to achieve ...

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