French Traditional Long House (Longère): History, Family Feuds, French Inheritance, Neighbours, Community
Having a house in France provides so many advantages; the peaceful countryside, friendly neighbours, the local lifestyle, the wine, the cheeses....mmmm; sorry, where was I?!
Apart from enjoying the moment, I like to look at the history of any area I live in so I thought I'd share the story of our longère with you; how it came into being and a few of its trials and tribulations along the way.
Just over 200 years ago a Longère was born in a sleepy village in the centre of France, close to Le Cher river (which eventually becomes the Loire at Tours). However, it didn’t yet look like a longère; it started as a small house within a sawmill and carpentry workshop.
For those of you who have not come across the term, a 'longère' (pronounced 'lonjair') is an old stone-built single storey house, with a loft above its total length, usually built with the back wall against the cold winds, often, as in our case, window-less. It has a south-facing frontage. They are usually at a right angle to the road or lane so that any garden is nearly always a good size.
The sawmill was a thriving local industry; it had outbuildings and a house and latterly a workshop. After a good while it closed and the site was left to the house which was extended sideways, up from the road.
It grew by having two large rooms added, each climbing the slope away from the road, all with thick stone walls between. There was one wet-room and one outside privy! The workshop remained, separate from the main building.
A Tale of Two Brothers
In the late 1800s the house was owned by a family with two sons, one of whom was called Camille (pronounced ‘Cameey’). They grew up, Camille became a painter and decorator, married and had children. The parents died and the house was left to him and his brother. The brother inhabited the lower, original house, with small outbuildings opposite, and Camille and his family lived in the larger, upper house; their dwellings were attached but separated by a two-foot thick stone wall. There was a large outbuilding at the top of the main garden (a 2-storey structure!) and between outbuilding and house was a covered space, like a barn. Tucked round the corner in the garden behind the large workshop was still the outside privy (it’s now the wood store!).
Camille enclosed his half of the barn to make a garage, next to his house, and incorporated an indoor toilet. The other half was left open, large oak beams supporting the roof. The house now looked like one big long dwelling - the longère!
The lower garden was divided between the two, as was the upper orchard/field, half the width each. The whole field is a little smaller than a football pitch.
Then - the brothers fell out, over the inheritance it seems.
As is so often the case, the brothers argued over their legacy. French law dictates that when parents die, the property must be divided, half to the remaining spouse, the other half between the children. When both parents are dead, then the whole lot is divided equally between the children. None can sell without the agreement of all the rest.
So, back to the brothers. The brother who lived by the road didn’t want to stay, wouldn’t sell his part of the house to Camille for a reasonable figure, so sold it to someone else. From that day to this, that separate house has been owned by various people. The longère that had been built up over decades into a happy family home, was falling apart.
How do we know all this? A Brief Glimpse from 1960s-present day!
I’m going to travel back in time to when I was 10 (just a few years ago!). I was privileged to be included in family holidays with my cousins who spent a couple of weeks each summer by the sea in Brittany or Normandy, spending hours on the beaches, digging sandcastles, exploring rock-pools; wonderful carefree days! My uncle had a French goddaughter who would also join us now and then. She was the same age as me, neither of us could speak the other’s language but we learnt from each other:
‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’/’What’s that?’ ‘Name of object in each language!’ It’s surprising how much vocabulary you can learn, including a few not so good words!
To cut a very long story short, she and I remained friends (to this day), she married a son of a family who live just round the corner from our longère. His parents became our friends too, told us his mother’s cousin’s house was for sale, we met the son of the owners and.... you know the rest.
The cousin was an old lady whose husband had died; she needed to go into a nursing home, hence the sale. The husband’s name was Camille and, for us, he is the soul of the house.
Therefore, when we bought this house, the brother’s original section by the road was owned by someone else (still is), along with half the barn and half the top field. We have now bought the neighbour’s garage and the other half of the field, so the longère is coming back together once more.
The original boundary is marked out by huge thick stone blocks, two stone pillars and a series of ‘bornes’ or boundary stones at strategic places. It means one side is totally free from fences and walls; the open aspect is wild and wonderful and lets us see for miles, right over to the mast in the centre of France and beyond!
Putting it back together again!
French Property Quirks
When a property is divided like this, there is often a communal access. Here the owner of the lower house had the right to go in front of the top house to access the garage and his half of the field. Despite the fact that the need no longer existed we still had to pay for the ‘communauté’ to be annulled, to make it completely ours! This involved a sizeable amount of euros, all for the pompous surveyor who ‘sorted out’ what we already knew and obviously was not keen on ‘les anglais’ even though we observed all the etiquette and protocol required. Never mind - he’s one of only a handful of French people we know who’ve been less than friendly and we’ve been travelling around this country for over 20 years.
It goes to show that buying properties abroad can be complicated and you’ve got to be aware of the law and the pitfalls; if you don’t speak the language it’s vital to have someone who does, to act for you.
Artisans & Smallholdings
My partner, we’ll call him Art, is a jack of all trades (and master of a few!). We’ve learnt that Camille was a real artisan; he made small concrete bricks for the garage wall, blocks for the chicken run, huge slabs for interior shelves and more concrete partitions in the chicken run for roosting and for the rabbits he kept at the time. In Camille’s workshop were all sorts of cupboards and tools, asbestos pipes from the oven used to cook the bricks and a ceiling propped up with a large beam! Art found a roller in the shed; it’s used to make a pattern on the concrete path to render it textured for safer walking. Camille and Art would have got on like a house on fire!
Camille reared pigs, providing many a pig-roast for parties and celebrations. He also farmed snails - the famous ‘escargots’ which you either love or hate. They were large with spiraled brown and cream shells. The process to make them good for eating is not very palatable, nor is the fact that one is supposed to chuck them live into boiling water - something I’ve never done and would never do! There are some descendants still in the garden; we treat them with respect.
Many French countrymen were allowed a licence to distill, purely for their own consumption of course! A similar licence still exists for champagne in the area around Epernay. Camille had apple, plum and pear trees and he had his licence. The plums are small, sweet ‘Mirabelles’ and slightly larger ‘Sainte Catherines’. The pears are hard and not good for eating. At the back of one of the sheds is a concrete trough where the fruit would be put to ferment and of course there was always a drop left over for the neighbours, occasionally for a small fee!
We gather that there must have been cherries in Camille’s day too, as we’ve been told stories about family New Year celebrations when everyone had mattresses and blankets on the floor of the living room and before they went to sleep Camille would come round with the ‘cherry brandy’ and ladle a spoonful in each person’s mouth, even the children’s!
We still collect the plums, as well as the apples from two old, mutually supportive trees. The pears are fewer and fewer but remain hard and are not even very good for cooking now. We’re not allowed to distill but the supply of tarts and compôtes and crumbles (click to link with recipe) is endless; in fact my crumbles have been complimented and I’ve even been asked several times for the recipe - not bad for an English dish in the land of haute cuisine!
More 'entrusted inheritance'
The only parts of the sawmill left to the eye are a large gable wall by the road which shelters the neighbour’s garden and the wall which runs along the back of the lower garden. When Art had to do emergency sewer work (the garage flooded and no-one has a clue to the history of where any pipes go!), having dug several excavations in the garden, he unearthed the foundations of stone walls which we assume belonged to the sawmill. The pipework is ancient to say the least and rodding it is now easy, but we had to go through a weekend with an alternative chemical loo, with visitors, one of whom was my French friend celebrating a significant birthday!
We have bats in the lofts; they’re a delight to watch at twilight when we’re eating under the tree. We cleared out some old chairs found in one loft; chairs which were sturdy and characterful and went well with our English oak 10-foot table around which we’ve had many merry meals.
My friend’s mother-in-law who lived round the corner was a revered seamstress near Paris and she also made a few francs in the village. Also in the loft, we found a paper bag with her name on it, advertising her sewing business; she was cock-a-hoop when we gave it to her! I’m glad we did because it wasn’t long before she died and she told us quite a few stories of her earlier days, some charming, some harrowing. She and her husband were married for nearly 60 years.
Camille did something which provided us with the best thing about this house - he planted the Lime tree - my French friend’s husband helped him plant it when he was ten so we know the tree is now (2012) just over 52 years old.
He enclosed an area with low walls (concrete of course), for the purpose of a herb garden. I’ve not managed to grow much apart from a strong sage bush and some parsley and coriander; it’s hard to manage them when we’re absent for so long.
Friends & Neighbours
We were privileged, also, to meet other neighbours who were an integral part of the village for years. Opposite us lived a man with the surname of Aupetit. He was a worker at the local paper factory and rebuilt his house over the years, changing a single storey building into a substantial two-storey house with garage, workshop and lots of painted tiling on the exterior of the house and on the drive. He too was an artisan and of course knew Camille; I bet they exchanged tools often and I can see them sitting in the garden, supping their aperitifs after work. He gave advice to Art a few times and offered to lend his tools if needed; he was always polite and friendly to us. We met his wife a couple of times and they were clearly a perfect match; sadly she died two years later and then he passed away another two years after that, I believe of a broken heart. He introduced us to the aperitif Guignolet Kirsch, a lovely alcoholic cherry drink, warming on a winter’s day.
Apparently, at the weekends Camille used to take the family’s young adults down to the local bar (‘tabac’) at 12 on the dot, allow one aperitif each, chat to his mates, then come home for lunch.
We have a super couple living next door to us; they have helped and supported us since we moved in, as well as becoming good friends who’ve shared many meals and celebrations with us. The husband is second adjutant at the mairie (the town hall); they organise picnics every summer, one for the each section of the village. Our picnic takes place round the ‘lavoir’ and is a great sharing (as well as gourmet!) experience and we practise the art of 'boules'.
We have given some of our neighbours nicknames, purely through affection (with a little hint of mischief!). Mr Aupetit who was opposite us, we referred to as ‘Hoppity’, merely an anglicisation of his name, meaning 'to the small'. Then there is the couple from Lyons who are extremely hospitable and often have their grandchildren with them; we call them (yes, you’ve guessed it) the Lions!
Then comes our immediate neighbour, the local baker. His name is Philippe. There is a joke which goes:
‘What do you call a Frenchman wearing sandals?’ Answer: ‘Philippe Pheloppe’ - so, he’s called ‘Flip-Flop’ (what the English call thongs or jandals or click-clacks or whatever else they might be around the world).
Our neighbour over the wall right at the top of the garden is a stonemason and headstone maker. He owns the most wonderful ‘bourgeois’ house with an old flour mill at the back. We were honoured to be shown round inside too and his marble work and renovations are beautiful, completely in style with the period. He has a smallholding with chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits, goats, horses and peacocks! The peacocks hoot and shout at each other - ‘Léon, Léon!’ - they provide wonderful displays and their black silhouettes roost in the dry, old trees. Our friend provides us with delicious fresh eggs from time to time and even chicken for the run, for my granddaughter to feed and look after during the holidays.
Caretakers by Permission
Much of the village has houses like ours. There are some modern and some old in different styles. Some belong to Parisians, for weekend and holiday homes, but most are inhabited by villagers whose work relies significantly on the local paper factory. Others commute to the nearby town or further north to the city of Bourges.
We’re only part of the village because they allow us to be. They’re kind enough to accept us into their community and we value that greatly. We try to keep the character of the building and haven’t over-modernised. We accept invitations whenever possible and reciprocate with pride; it gives us a chance to show that the English can cook! We love our life in France as well as our lovely friends and I’m still finding out much about the local area and history.
There are many traditional celebrations here too - but that’s another hub!
© 2012 Ann Carr