Monday, 7 July 2014

Bye,Bye Saint Tropez. Bonjour Somerset.

Back in March I wrote about my hunt for a bargain in Saint Tropez.

We had found a perfect little doer-upper project : a small vineyard close to the beaches that could be redeveloped into a cute little holiday home complete with a few vines.

We agreed a price with the owner. We drew up plans for a modest expansion and redevelopment of the falling-down house. The notaires started off on their snail-like paper-trail.

Then the French shot themselves in the foot; they banned all development of agricultural property. No consultation. No exceptions. No discussion. Banned.

Now, lets get something clear. The redevelopment of this tiny property was not going to deprive some poor, EU subsidised vigneron of a living. It is so small its wine output couldn't support an alcoholic mouse let alone a local family.

The current owner is 93, doesn't live there, and just wants to raise some cash to bequeath to his daughter.

After some discussion, and a very substantial price cut, we still thought it might be worth a punt. A smaller punt on a very small house. But maybe still cute enough to be a good project.

Then the French took a machine gun to their foot: they said we probably couldn't build a pool or even enclose the property. It had to stay exactly as it was. An awful house on an uneconomic, unloved vineyard.

Like so often in France, the local Mairie and its planning department has a blinkered determination to maintain the status quo. However pointless and regressive that status quo might be.

The haughty arrogance and petty insularity of local bureaucrats would be hugely irritating if it wasn't actually terribly sad. The result of these seemingly irreversible national traits include high unemployment, zero growth and a general sense of malaise across the whole country.

Foiled by French Nimbyism. Not in my back (vine) yard. 

I genuinely love Saint Tropez and its surrounds. After 20 years holidaying and property owning there, it's like home to me. But without a lottery win of Euromillions proportions or the patience of a saint, it no longer seems a feasible place to lay my head.

So it was with renewed interest that I looked at the regular Rightmove alerts for properties coming to market in north east Somerset. This is an area we had identified as one we'd like to try for our first UK country home. The countryside around Frome is fast becoming fashionable, prices are rising and there are new shops, restaurants and hotels popping up all over the place.

Most of the alerts that arrive are for large old farmhouses that I sadly can't afford, or box-like new-builds that remind me of prison camps.

Then two days before we're due to visit some friends in a nearby part of Wiltshire, up pops the first interesting property I've seen in six months.

Amazingly, we have to beg the agents to let us see the house. They are too busy to show it the first Saturday it comes on the market!

Still, I'm glad we persisted against the negative attitude of a hopeless agent and persuaded the owners to show their house without an agent present (God forbid)..

The house turns out to be just what we've been looking for - next door to beautiful Mells, close to Frome and Bruton, and only ten minutes from the famous hipster hangout at Babington. It's big enough. Old enough. A bit eccentric in its layout. And, most importantly, has potential as a doer-upper.

With a bit of bridging while we complete another project, it is even affordable.

What's not to like (well, there's a few things, but general euphoria over-rules such practical stuff) ?

Not exactly the South of France. More West of Frome.

In truth, of course, I'd rather be in the South of France by a beach than in a very quiet English village by a lake. But the reality is that without actually moving to the continent we'd get very little time in a French house. With Somerset, on the other hand, we can be there most weekends.

Also, we've never tried our hand at an English country doer-upper. So it's out with Cote Sud magazine and in with the Cabbages & Roses catalogue.