The more Francophobic of my friends often ask me what’s my fascination for the old French farmhouse style? I’ve an affection for them that outpaces the inevitable rose tinted glasses of holiday memories so I guess it would be a good thing to give an explanation. Up there with the soft warmth of Scandinavian timber buildings and the sharp definition of Art Deco, Charente style farmhouses are one of my favourite buildings, here’s a few reasons why.
They’re constructed almost like war fortifications. Several of my friends and colleagues now have taken on old farmhouse projects in the Charente and Provence areas of France and transformed what looked like a basket case into a beautiful new home. With walls several feet thick, they’ve outlived several owner’s lifetimes and even when left to nature for decades, they still seem to spring back to life.
They’re plentiful. Many date back several centuries, to a time when smallholding farmers really only had the land required to feed themselves, their livestock plus some surplus for trade. So stand on a hillside on the Charente and you’ll see almost a dozen old farmhouses all within shouting distance. As commercial agriculture gained more of a foothold after World War Two, farm businesses became bigger and these buildings fell into disrepair. Add in some unusual French property and family hereditary laws, coupled with a younger generation more interested in living in cities and you have many buildings falling into disrepair.
Add in modern technology and they can be remarkably efficient. I’ve seen Charente houses with ground source heat pumps added, solar on the roof for electricity and water, plus some good quality period glazing and you have a building that acts as a heat storage centre. Those huge walls soaking hop the heat of a Charente or Provence summer, keeping the inside cool at midday, before releasing that heat in the evenings as the sun drops away, giving warm walls that have stored up the day’s heat.
And finally, they signify sunshine to me. Apart from experiencing truly monumental thunderstorms on occasion, the Provence and Charente areas of France always seem to bless us with wall to wall blue skies and blazing sunshine. So I can sit in the British winter greyness with my rose tinted glasses on and look forward to feeling the heat, drinking the excellent value wine and enjoying yet another barbecue.