Bouncing up the track in my old car, I concentrate so as not to take a wrong turn. Past the fields of plumy grasses, whistling to their own tune and along the avenue of impervious wild flowers flanking the road. There is a gentle climb up to the house at the top of the hill. I park and push open the tall iron gates, closed to keep the dogs from exploring unchartered territory. Enjoying the scent of orange blossom and the crunch of gravel underfoot walking towards the house I am distracted every which way. There are huge terracotta pots full of extravagant colour lining the summer kitchen, pots of tumbling geraniums and begonias hanging from the trees, echoing the colours of striped deckchairs positioned invitingly in their shade. Bursts of carnelian and crimson catch my eye and I feel the need to stand still and soak it all in – summer has most certainly arrived at this petit paradis.
This is the residence of wonderful friends, who are a constant source of inspiration in so many ways. The kind of people that makes you feel you can do anything, if you don’t think about it too hard, and just get on and do it. This is how I think they must have approached the rebuild of their (now) magical abode. Not only have they renovated a series of old farm dwellings to create an elegant and welcoming home but they have also built a wooden cabin that plays peek-a-boo in amongst the green oaks and a stunning tree-house on the northern slope of the hill. There is an outdoor kitchen to eat alfresco, a potager offering up kale and kohlrabi and a raft of hammocks for communal lounging.
My friend is an excellent cook and so when I asked her how they came to be here I was not in the least surprised who inspired their move.
My husband and I used to live in the center of London. One day I remember reading a book about Madhaur Jaffrey buying a hill station so that her whole family could get out of Delhi when it got so very hot. I just loved that idea. The idea of getting a place where the whole family could visit and relax and play and cook together. That was our original intent. Then we decided to go to Uzès for the month of August in 1991.
At that time I knew Dame Elizabeth Frink who told me to please look up her best friend and wonderful potter, Sonia Cauvin, when we got there. So we did. Sonia quickly showed us around the neighboring area where she lived which was much wilder and less built up. We fell in love with the Cévennes on the spot and decided to buy our very own hill station. Of course, we didn't want to buy a property that needed any work. HAHAHAHA! After seeing over 30 places, we picked out an old stone rag-tag farm with 3 ancient buildings. It was located on the top of a little hill overlooking the foothills of the mountains...we were in love. With the old stone. With the view. And with the romance of bringing this dilapidated place back to life.
And so they set to work. The house needed a full renovation
It was a RUIN....Only one of the buildings had a working roof...the Maison de Maître, the house where the patron or owner of the property lived. So that is what we decided to renovate first. EVERYTHING had to be removed and redone. The ground floor kitchen had a large fireplace which we needed to re-build in the original style. The room next door was originally a large space with a fabulous vaulted ceiling where the animals lived. We decided to take the old plaster off the walls entirely and expose the beauty of the natural stone. We then jointed it with cement tinted white with limestone.
Next, after 10 years, it was time to completely re-do the very large roof on the space where live now. Only then could we begin to decorate. We decided to take out the third floor which was where the little silkworm cocoons were cultivated. And warmed with little fires. Once the room was empty, we plastered the walls, re-did all the windows which have the most beautifully odd shapes including a Coeur-de bouef...or little circle window at the top. So we were left with a huge volume of wonderful space. We decided to keep all the colours neutral ..mostly grey ...so as to display the collection of antique American quilts which I have.
The large room downstairs was originally a tractor shed. We added glass walls at the end to let the light in and built wonderfully rounded shelves going almost up to the very high roof to be able to display a lot of pottery; both ancient and contemporary. This room is now our main living space with a long sleek modern kitchen.
The house is a testament to their creative and sensitive approach when rebuilding these ancient dwellings, not an easy task. An approach they evidently applied when building their outdoor dwellings; the tree-house and cabin which blend so perfectly with their surroundings and are entirely enchanting..
My partner had a hankering to create these spaces. He had never done anything at all like this. Had never trained with wood. Had no knowledge of architecture. But he consulted with a master wood person and artist friend who advised him to build the treehouse the way a bird would make its nest. Piece by piece. And to never ever put a nail in a tree. So he did it...and what he began to see in his head each day transformed into a truly majestic and wonderful tree house. Complete with 2 bedrooms, 2 terraces, a bathroom with a hot water shower and beautiful views everywhere...PLUS there are trees growing live inside of it. A joy.
Walking up the gangplank to the front door of the tree-house, is like boarding a marvelous, magical ship that is about to set sail and take you on a voyage across the plains that stretch as far as the eye can see..
As well as renovating and building, they have over the years, cultivated the gardens. There are terraces leading down to the potager,that feel fabulously French with lavender walkways, cypress and olive trees. The garden at the back of the house has coiffured olive trees, shaking their pom pots and cheering me on, adorned with pots of glamorous petunias, and a meandering water feature all set off by colourful parasols.
During this last year when we all spent a lot of time at home, they decided to create a new flower garden - ‘Candyland’ - the perfect name. The flowers are planted on mounds of lasagna beds, made from a technique of layering different natural compostable materials to produce nutrient rich soil, topped with a mulch that any self-respecting flower would flower it’s hardest for. When I am given a little tour, I am not sure whether to dance la Cucaracha or to waltz between them. They are filled with vibrant colour, broken up by homemade wooden pedestals topped with pots of sugared candy flowers, proffered up by the colour gods. If a rabbit ran in front of me and stopped to ask me the time I wouldn’t be at all surprised!
Like the fiesta of colours in the garden, the living spaces are infused with colour. The cabin is an alchemy of pastel blues and clear pink, the sugar is tempered with a playful patterned vintage Ikea fabric, the perfect foil for the sweetness. The tree house has little colour pops, and striped cushions giving a bisou to the stately green oak tree. The house has layers of strong colour against a background of a warm velvety grey which is the perfect complement to the vivid brights. This is the unifying link between the garden, and interior spaces - the feeling of playfulness and energy that the colour palette gives up. A mix of strong colours and pastels. True colours, of blue, yellow, red, with fuchsia and fondant pink, purple and orange and always some white for contrast. Bright and confident, less nuance but never garish. It’s a skill to meld colours in this way, and not one you can be taught, it is instinctual from someone who is living a life collecting colour memories along the way.
Summer living in the cabin
By the time my little camera and I get home late afternoon we are have used up all our batteries. I sit out on the terrace, ready to put my feet up, which I do! But my brain is full of snippets of conversation, colour combinations and flowers pairings. I start to wonder where I could find a spot for a striped deckchair or two. It’s no good, I feel the need to put pen to paper, no rest for the wicked, I search for my notebook and set to work.