October - A sense of Home

I’m on the road home from Montpellier, listening to the hypnotic tones of Valerie June, accelerator foot flat in my old car, feeling relaxed, happy to be out of town. The road is wide and smooth,  I finally pick up momentum cruising down the hill, hug the curve and then voilà, there it is,  the  first sight of the Cévennes, rising up, a frontier; dark, rugged and spectacular.  Sunbeams light the hilltops, making them glow like luminescent green pearls, ominous rain clouds gather above, the contrast of light and dark is breath taking. A momentary surge of dopamine makes me weightless, I exhale, life feels good, a previously unnoticed knot loosens.

Living in Kenya I had the same feeling driving out of Nairobi, dropping down from the escarpment there was that point when suddenly the Rift Valley came into view; a magic carpet of intricate light and shapes, imprints of hills and lakes blending seamlessly, woven nature patterns. To experience these connections to a landscape is something I don’t take for granted, for me there are very few places that evoke that feeling.  When we first visited the Cévennes with the idea of making it our home, I immediately knew that was one of those places. Having left Kenya some years earlier, I had lost that connection to nature and I longed to live where I could see the horizon and breathe in big skies.



It is one thing making the decision to up sticks and leave, which we did quickly, but another to put it into practice.  It was more than a year before we were finally on the road, the car packed to the brim, dogs and babies on board. It was three months later trying to escape the heat of our small rental, down by the river, that we got the fortuitous call from the immobilier telling us there was a house we should see. At the time we had viewed enough houses to feel reluctant to leave the cool river haven and return to the sweltering hot car. As we drove out of the little town and took the narrow road up the hills, I had a sinking feeling – there were too many twists and turns and then the dirt track to the house was steep and long. It all felt very impractical.

Exploring the house it was evident it needed complete renovation; there were no stairs, no heating, the windows and shutters were broken or rotten. One end had crumbled and was open to the elements. It was dark and cold but there were still some original features; little stone niches and huge chestnut beams and best of all there were the most wonderful views. We walked around the front of the house to get a better look. A huge canvas of sky and hills, of space, of beauty and silence. We held our breath. Old fig trees and crumbling overgrown terraces, a cascade of sweet chestnut leading the way down the valley. It was more than we had dreamed of.



The Hallway                                                    The kitchen                            The living room

   Access upstairs was via a ladder                                                                The bedroom

The View

For the next 18 months we experienced all the frustrations and excitement that seems a prerequisite of renovating any house, I’ve seen enough Grand Designs! Factor in the remote location, our long steep drive and the capricious Cévenol weather, it quickly began to feel like an never-ending list of obstacles to overcome -  there were disappearing builders,  a minimal electrical supply and all  that juggling the budget against an ever growing wish list was a fine balancing act. But we worked with a talented architect, Christophe, a friend of the family who had a passion for Cévenol houses. Planning permission was granted astonishingly quickly, I am sure the  mairie was happy for a new family to be joining the 180 people living in the commune and to take care of and rebuild this locally known building.



First job - clearing the rooms             Building the elevated terrace      Reinforcing the ceiling 

Our main aim when renovating was to try and bridge the gap between the house and its surrounding, allowing us to live both in and out. We wanted it to be more than just a refuge from the weather. We agreed it was important to preserve the front aspect of the house, so when viewed from across the valley it essentially looked the same as it had done for hundreds of years. New raised wooden terraces were constructed. New windows and doors were carved into the sides and at the back of the house. A huge portion of a wall made from breeze block was replaced with glass, flooding the space with light adorned with trees and stars.



The back of the house - before, after from the outside and from the inside 

Small pocket-sized rooms were opened up creating flow through the house. I set about designing interiors that would feel kind to the house and would  suit us as a family. I obsessed over every small detail from light switches to door handles.  It was imperative to define the exact colour of render that I imagined in my imaginary rooms, boxes within boxes. Sculpting spaces and feeling my way into them. I chose colour palettes that would reflect the landscape - greens and aquas, indigo blues, silver and soft greys and a stunning dark chestnut brown for the central wall. Of course living in a chestnut forest I didn’t have to look far for inspiration, but having also lived in the Masai Mara it was reminiscent of Masai manyattas made of sun-baked cow dung. It was reassuring and deeply personal.  


The West side of the house - before, during and after

Twelve years on and getting back out into the world again after lockdown I find I am ready to rejig, upcycle some of our pieces, try out new colours and definitely bring more pattern and florals into the house. My aesthetic has naturally evolved from when we started out - then it was full of mind pictures from Kenya and time spend abroad. Today more than ever I find I am inspired by the landscape found just outside my front door - the colour of ferns as they change from  virulent green to burnt copper, the point when chestnut husks burst to reveal their glossy seed. Nature is dynamic, ever changing, just as you feel you are beginning to know her she reveals another side. I hope this is reflected in our home too. It’s such a privilege to re-build and design your home, to plant and nurture a garden, filling it with flowers that delight every day. Home is a place where I can feel emotionally connected to nature and this wonderful house and region allows me to do that, inside and out.