There was once a French boy who spent his summer holidays in an old cottage in the Morvan region of Burgundy. After a lifetime driving a Paris dustcart, he and his wife bought the cottage and built their dream home on the site. When they downsized in 2005 my husband John and I bought the property: a modern house built along traditional lines, the cottage and an acre of garden and orchard. We let our house in Suffolk and became full time expats.
Word got around. Friends and relations were joyously received, but people we scarcely knew solicited free board and lodging on their way to or from their hols further south.Hospitality rules OK – one might be “entertaining angels unaware” – but I began to consider welcoming invited guests in the main house and putting up uninvited ones in the cottage. It had electric light and a cold-water tap, but no sanitation; however, it had Possibilities…
Enter Jean-Yves, who had laid our patio with beautiful local stone. When he set up his own business, Maçonnerie du Morvan, we hired him. Maçonnerie is masonry; a maçon is a mason or builder, whereas Macon produces Burgundy wines. The cedilla on the “c” is crucial because a bowdlerised translation of ma connerie is “my cock-up”, which is why Sean Connery is known as “James Bond” in France. Well, J-Y’s business card lacked that vital cedilla. Potential clients of “My Cock-up in the Morvan” seemed intrigued rather than deterred, however.
Then we bought a mechanical digger. Maçonnerie du Morvan needed one, but could not afford to buy. We had a brainwave. “We’ll buy a digger and you can reimburse us with your labour while we pay for materials. Make sure you square it with le fisc” (like HMRC but friendlier). For two memorable years we owned a digger, nicknamed (inevitably) Rosy, stabled at J-Y’s place and for hire with J-Y as driver.
We commandeered half the adjoining woodshed to create a bedroom with a French window (echoes of Gerard Hoffnung’s “There is a French widow in every room, affording delightful prospects”), and J-Y hacked tons of stone from the 2ft-thick dividing wall to create a doorway.
Progress was slow because on fine days J-Y was busy on the outdoor work that was his bread and butter. At 7am on a rainy day, however, the phone would ring. “May we work in the cottage today?” He and his sidekick always shared our lunch and acquired a taste for cottage pie, toad in the hole and curry.
By February 2012 J-Y had paid off his digger and his work was almost done. He built two steps up to the French window and put the finishing touches to the electrics. The new lavatory was flushed with pride, the lights were lit and we waved goodbye to J-Y, with a promise to invite him to the grand opening later.
Before advancing age and stiff knees slowed us down, we did DIY. This time we decided to PAM (Pay a Man). I buttonholed a neighbour in the supermarket checkout queue and inquired about a spot of painting and decorating. He declined, but the next person in the queue knew a man who could. You don’t need the web in the Morvan – you just ask around. Bruno made light work of our cottage.
Now I had the fun of furnishing my very own life-size dolls’ house and equipping it down to the last teaspoon. When friends christened our cottage Le Petit Trianon after Marie Antoinette’s playhouse, I had a brainwave. I had no wish to run a commercial gîte. What about encouraging congenial visitors and asking them to donate to our favourite good cause? Combat Stress helps servicemen and women whose wounds are not visible. Read all about them on www.combatstress.org.uk.
Inevitably we named our home-from-home Charity Cottage. I began writing for the Daily Telegraph Expat section in exchange for publicity for our pet project. The editor suggested I enter their 2012 Best of British competition – and we won the Best British Charity award! The trophy and certificate are on display in the cottage. Sadly there has been no 2013 or 2014 Best of British competition, but I live in hope.
We have our own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk. Here is an extract:
Charity Cottage sleeps up to five, with a spacious double bedroom and double and single sofa beds in the living area. There is a shower room and loo, a kitchenette, and crockery, cutlery and glassware for six people. Everything a discerning guest would expect is provided, plus everything they would hope for but would be unlikely to find in a commercial holiday home. There are the obvious things like private parking, a microwave, garden furniture, a hair-dryer, towels and tissues. There are also the twiddly bits like a sewing kit, umbrellas, books, a hot water bottle, a radio, writing materials, tourist information with suggestions for local shops and eateries, coffee, tea and a welcome pack of bread, butter, milk, eggs and mineral water.
How much? Up to you. We ask for donations to Combat Stress. UK taxpayers can take advantage of Gift Aid, which is the nearest thing we know to a present from the taxman. Like Bilbo Baggins, we are fond of visitors and we look forward to meeting you. Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org, telephone +33 386 202550.
The Telegraph publish my effusions and pay me by plugging Charity Cottage. And now Expat Focus has joined the campaign.
We have made some delightful friends through my articles. People from the USA, Canada, Poland, New Zealand and of course the UK have stayed in our cottage and written nice things in the visitors’ book. We have had a few disappointments, however. Too many people booked a stay in Charity Cottage, then let us down. Reluctantly I have decided to ask for a £50 cheque payable to Combat Stress as a non-returnable deposit.
Together with husband John, Rosemary Border Rabson emigrated to the Morvan in rural Burgundy in 2005, where few other Brits have ventured. Rosy's chief preoccupation is Charity Cottage, a holiday cottage which she runs in aid of Combat Stress. The holiday cottage, in their garden at Maré le Bas in the Morvan, has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk which has links to Combat Stress. They are taking bookings for 2014. Every penny goes to Combat Stress www.combatstress.org.uk