The Back Story
Rewind to August 2008 – my Dad turned 70 and finally made the decision to give up work and follow his and Ann’s (my lovely step-mum) dream of moving to France. Their house in Frinton went up for rent, they disposed of pretty much all of their belongings and made plans to set off Dans Le Continent in his dated old Volvo.
After some months of exploring their favourite region of France – The Dordogne – they fell in love with Villefranche-du-Perigord and decided that this was “the place”. They rented out a holiday let – La Borie Grande in the outskirts of Villefranche-du-Perigord – whilst they searched for a suitable plot of land to build a house.
To cut a long story short – a fair few months of searching and also a change of rental property to “David” in Lavaur (just outside Villefranche-du-Perigord) (very ironic as Dad’s name is David) they found their dream plot of land through new found friends Bernard and Carole.
Martin and I visited them out in France a few times – and we could see why they loved Villefranche du Perigord so much – it really is the most magical of villages – it’s actually a 12th and 13th Century Bastide Town – so there any many original buildings which resemble mini castles with their turrets and gothic arches. It’s stunning!! Even so, we did find it a bit “sleepy” for us, so we firmly “parked” any ideas that popped in to our heads about ourselves making the move over there.
As well as our visits out to them in France, Dad and Ann also popped back to the UK frequently and stayed with us. On one of these occasions they showed us the outline plans they had for the plot of land that had found, both so excited about their plans – but especially Dad. He wanted to spend hours on the Internet looking for small wooden self-build houses as that was what they had planned for the plot. It all sounded really idyllic and we planned to visit them out in France again that coming summer so we could see for ourselves.
When we visited them, we stayed with them at “David” – camping in our Landrover’s roof tent whilst the kids stayed in the house with them, and they took us out and about to all the surrounding towns and markets, and also a few times to show us the land. When we first saw the land, I have to be perfectly honest and say that I thought they were completely bonkers!!! Perhaps it was the way they drove us in through back roads, or maybe it was the slow speed of Ann’s driving (she was renowned for crawling along nervously like a snail bless her) but we left there with the perception it was miles away from anywhere. We were concerned that they would get old and immobile and be living in the middle of the sticks and starve to death in the Winter. But we said nothing as their excitement and passion for their project was so clear and apparent – why spoil that? – I never saw my Dad so happy about anything in his life as when he talked about “the land”.
Dad and Ann had cleared the top part of the land really well when we saw it, and we could envisage their plans for where the house would go. But the lower part of the plot was still like a jungle, and me with my terrible fear of creepy crawlies, found it really difficult making the steep climb downhill through bushes towards the old ruined buildings. Dad’s enthusiasm for these two buildings however was equal to my horror at them. I did politely go down for a quick viewing of the large one, but once I saw huge cobwebs on the lintels I declined a quick peep inside and hastily made my way back up.
We did leave France thinking that what they were doing was all very lovely, but a bit crazy to say the least!!
So, over the next few years they worked really hard on clearing the land, chopping down a few small trees, but for various reasons they needed to make frequent trips back to the UK – not least due to Dad’s reluctance to get his old Volvo re-registered under a French plate which meant he had to get his insurance renewed every 90 days. It was slow progress….it seemed that they were over there for a few months chopping it all down, and then back in the UK for a few months and it would all grow back so they would start from scratch. They had not sold their house in the UK so did not yet have the funds to start the building work, but they did have outline plans and the water and electricity in situ ready to go. And they had also built a really lovely life over there with lots of new friends and seemed to be having a fantastic time.
Until disaster struck!! And as Dr Sods bloody infallible law would have it, on one of the trips home Dad went for the investigation of a long term persistent cough – and got the worst type of unimaginable news – he had Stage 4 Lung Cancer!! The treatment plan was to see how he responded to chemotherapy – with little hope of cure but at best to prolong his life. But the realistic prognosis was “without treatment 2 months – with treatment 12 months”.
Ann made the call to tell me that, and as usual she remained upbeat and positive but I could tell that she was really devastated. We visited them that weekend and all I can say is that from that point forward I witnessed my Dad die inside. He knew it was “Game Over” for him, and I think all he really focussed on was having some chemo so he could get back out there to get the house built so Ann would have somewhere lovely to live once he was gone. Realistically we all knew that this would not be likely.
So, his treatment in the UK commenced. Their Frinton house was sold to release the capital to buy a mobile home in Margate so Ann would have somewhere close by to James, Nicola, and Henry (their son, daughter in law and grandchild).
Then in April 2013 double whammy hit us hard straight in the balls!! Ann went for a long overdue check-up for some “woman’s health issues” and came away with the devastating news that she had Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. I don’t think any of us could believe this!! Life is just so cruel.
Ann’s illness was very short lived, she didn’t respond well to chemotherapy and her treatment was palliative pretty much straight away. Dad died even more inside but you could tell he was holding on to hope that she would get better, and in some sort of denial in that he didn’t want to see her in hospital.
Nothing will ever imprint on my heart as much as the conversation I had with my Dad when I needed to persuade him to go and see her in the hospital that day as if he didn’t he wouldn’t see her again. As it finally sunk in, I saw the life literally drain out of him.
Ann died a few days later.
Dad gave his last breath on this earth, two months later – in August 2013
Their dreams for “this little piece of land” gone forever
Fast Forward to July 2017
None of us had been able to face visiting the land after they died. It all seemed too sad. It also seemed a bit worrying that nothing had been done about disposing of the land and we thought maybe there could be some bills to pay, maybe fines for not sorting things out.
Time passed and then in the spring of 2017 Martin and I made some plans to take Marsha the motorhome to the Alps, then on to the Pyrenees for our summer trip. We looked at the return route and it seemed conceivable that we could hang by Villefranche du Perigord and check out how things were. James was happy for us to do this.
So, after a fantastic few weeks in Chamonix then Northern Spain we headed back up. As we got closer to Villefranche du Perigord I started to feel more and more sentimental, thinking more and more about Dad and Ann, and their plans, and what a shame it was that they had never realised those dreams. The final leg of the journey was familiar and brought back loads of memories. When we pulled up at the car park by the lake it all came back to me, and strangely it really felt like I was coming home. This place that I had only been to a handful of times really felt special to me. We had arrived quite late in the day and were hungry so spent the evening walking the dogs, preparing and eating dinner and simply gazing up at the trees in what we thought was the right direction of where the land was.
In the morning we were up bright and early, keen to walk up to see if our memory would serve us well enough to find our way up the tracks to the land. The road seemed familiar but having never walked up it (Ann had driven us on the few times we visited) we were not sure. We had spoken to Bernard the previous day and he said to go up to a hair pin and turn left. The first left seemed to be not sharp enough and too close to the village to be the right track, so we went much further up the road, it all felt familiar, but not quite right. Then we spotted a half-finished house and for a horrible moment I thought that someone else had simply taken over the land. My heart sank and I felt suddenly very possessive of what had been before simply a recce to check things out – now it was a real mission to find it.
We went back down the track, and frustrated thought we had got the completely wrong place, but then decided to go up to the first left hand turn. Wandering up the track we commented on how it felt familiar, but still not sure. Reaching the end of the track and coming across overgrown woodland we thought we had simply reached a dead end. But slowly the realisation dawned – this could be the plot of land – albeit heavily over grown. It was the most overwhelming feeling – our hearts sank – this was a complete jungle – and we were not even sure we were in the right place. Standing, scanning the brambles in front of us, not quite sure what to do, I suddenly spotted a little bit of red through the trees, and on closer inspection realised it was a Propertie Privee sign. Memories flooded back and I remembered seeing photos of my dad standing next to this sign – nailed in to the huge oak tree. It was so emotional, suddenly realising that here we were – stood on the far edge of Dad and Ann’s beloved plot of land, feeling the echoes of their dream, but so, so sad that this little piece of land had not been loved and cherished for over 3 years and had been left for nature to take it back.
I can’t speak for Martin but I know that I made the decision in my heart there and then in that moment that I would do whatever it takes to get this little piece of land back to its former glory. Although my head was telling me otherwise at the time.
So, at that point in time we weren’t sure exactly what to do, or how to do it, but we knew we couldn’t just do nothing anymore. Speaking to James later that day he gave us his blessing and agreement to find out what needed to be done to get the land ownership sorted out so that something could be done to sort it out.
And that is the moment in time when “this little piece of land” ceased to be David and Ann’s tragically unrealised dream, and became Martin and Sharon’s new, different but equally magical dream of our own.
©Sharon Rees-Williams – wordpress.com/thislittlepieceof.land, 2018
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