The home of Vin en Vacances is an old winery that was abandoned many decades ago until we rescued it in 2017. It was slowly crumbling but still stood proud amidst the decay and over the past few years we have had the pleasure of breathing new life into it.
During the preceding 60 years the roof had fallen in and the ceiling had rotted as had the old barrels and foudre where the wines used to be made and matured. The building stands prominently by the swift and normally shallow waters of the Clamoux river in the pretty village of Villeneuve-Minervois close to Carcassonne. In the days of bulk wine production, it played it’s part in churning out the cheap deep red wines that Languedoc was once famous for. But when we found it nature had taken over. Misshapen fig trees smothered the courtyard and the old press was rusting away in a dark corner. The stable where the plough horses had munched their hay after a long day in the vines was a forlorn looking place with rotting harness and old cartwheels leaning discarded against the walls. It was a tangle of forgotten jumble but for us it was a coup de foudre, love at first sight. We bought it without venturing upstairs as there was no longer a staircase and besides the floor was too dangerous to set foot on. But looking up through a gaping hole we could see an old carriage minus its wheels dangling on rusty chains from the rafters. It harked back to an era of prosperity. A time when Languedoc fulfilled a role of bulk wines for the masses. The carriage had been winched up when the moat-like river that swirls around the walls broke its banks and the horses and people fled. Perhaps they intended to come back when the waters receded but maybe the aftermath of the flood was too difficult to face or too expensive to fix. So until we came along this place remained empty for six decades.
If we hadn’t bought the old building it was in danger of being pulled down before it fell and was an ugly eyesore standing in a prominent position by the river in this lovely village. We engaged a local builder and his wife John and Julie, who began the process of drawing up plans and emptying the place of the rotting mess that was scattered around. The hayloft above the old stable was piled high with bales of hay and straw and was home to mice and rats and clearing it was Johns first horrible job. It was incredible to find that due to the dry conditions the bales hadn’t rotted so they were donated to the local donkey sanctuary.
The first structural job was to make the building safe by installing a concrete block and beam ceiling that would also act as a strengthening band to pull the building together. From the start our intention was to preserve as much of the original building as possible but it soon became obvious this was not going to be easy as much of the wooden parts had rotted. Sadly this meant we would lose the old beams that supported the wooden ceiling, but all was not lost. We heard about an English carpenter living close by and asked him if he would be able to cut the beams into wood we could use. Gary sliced off the rotten wood and cut the beams into blocks and they have been used in various parts of the building. The most charming use for them is the treads on our floating staircase.
Once the roof was on and the concrete floors poured, we could start to design the inside layout. Downstairs was the simplest and the wall that divided the stable from the main area was re-built using re-enforced concrete as it would support the floating staircase. We chose to leave the rest of the ground floor open plan and installed two large entrance doors made of metal that pour light into the room from two sides. At the kitchen end of the room is a concrete cuve (wine tank). We had a doorway cut into it and this is now our wine cellar. To give the room symmetry we had a similar shaped room built on the opposite side of the kitchen and this area is where the tanks for the underfloor and pool heating are kept plus a small loo and utility room.
Designing the upstairs was more difficult. We had one enormous space to carve up into rooms and we wanted each of the four bedrooms to have en-suite bathrooms. The hayloft easily became a bedroom and bathroom and the wider part of the building lent itself to two large bedrooms with bathrooms although one of them would be a very odd shape. However this layout left a rather small area for the 4th bedroom and we felt it would seem rather measly in comparison to the others. Then inspiration struck. The building is very tall in the centre so we decided to build a mezzanine floor above this small bedroom. It spans two thirds of the room plus two corridors giving us a big space. Then Julie who helped us with the design had a brilliant idea. By pinching some of the space from the downstairs part of this bedroom and giving it to the odd shaped bedroom we would use that extra space to site its en-suite bathroom. This made the lower part of the mezzanine bedroom even smaller but above it the large space is big enough for the bedroom and an en-suite bathroom. This genius idea has given us a small apartment with a small sitting room downstairs and sleeping and showering quarters above.
One day, long before the roof was on and the place was still a ruin, I came across an old wrought iron bath rusting way in a salvage yard in Narbonne. It was far too early to be buying such things but I couldn’t resist it so it came home with me. I loved the rusty look and could not envisage a grand, beautifully restored and lavishly painted posh bath in our old winery. So we preserved the rust and this lovely old bath takes pride of place in our bathroom. Buying this old bath started a trend and I began to search for other old things that I could renovate and now our house is home to old tables, chairs, cupboards and chests that have all had new life breathed into them.
The old winery was once a series of 3 buildings. We pulled down 2 of them to create some outside space and room for a swimming pool. My son Tom and his friend Arthur came over from England and helped with the demolition and all the stone was used to raise a terrace and build some homemade gabions to raise the river wall.
Standing in the courtyard of the old winery was another old cuve where fermenting juice would have bubbled and hissed many times over the years wine was made here. It must be quite an old structure because it is built of stone rather than concrete and its beautifully made. I instantly knew I wanted it to be the office. It makes absolute sense as its outside the house and therefore offers a quiet place to work and to write. I have already written a book about the wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon and I am 3 years into writing a novel which also involves wine and this region. So we had a large hole made in the walls and inserted lovely metal and glass doors. The walls were plastered and painted but we have left the floor exactly as it was. Now when I walk into my office I imagine myself swimming in the wine that once fermented here.
Once we had decided the use of the cuve we turned our attention to the top of it and realised it would make a superb roof terrace but of course we would need a set of stairs to reach it. This sent our thoughts a stage further and we decided to link the roof terrace to the house with a bridge that reaches across to one of the bedrooms. Fisher my partner built the stairs with the help of a good friend and now we enjoy sitting on the roof terrace looking down the river or into the village or across to the church tower or down into our courtyard.
The old winery or L’Ancienne Cave as we now call it, is the ideal place to run wine tastings, wine walks and food & wine pairing dinners. We are eager to welcome Vin en Vacances clients to taste a specially selected range of wines that showcase the diversity and quality of this exciting wine region. The vineyards are literally a stone’s throw from our front door and I am looking forward to walking through them with clients whilst telling them the fascinating way wine is grown and made then coming back here to taste the range of wine I have carefully selected.
Our dining table is made from a red Cedar that was felled in a village close to ours and our artisan carpenter Gary has turned it into a fabulous table to dine and taste wine around. Its supported by a metal base that Danny the incredibly talented metal worker made for us from some old metal that was hanging from the walls behind the old wine press. We invite you to gather with friends around our table and enjoy a wine tasting or a food & wine pairing dinner hosted by me and cooked by one of the talented cooks or chefs in our area.
Turning this old building into our home and a base for Vin en Vacances has been a labour of love. We were blessed with an amazingly team of talented artisan trades people without whom we could never have achieved our dream.
A big thank you to:
- John & Julie who began the project and were not fazed by the enormity of it. They knew we wanted to be ‘hands on’ and allowed us to learn so much from them. Julie‘s design skills complimented our vision and together we have created a wonderful home.
- Alain Bosc heads up a French construction company who did all the big construction work including the floors, the block and beam ceiling and the roof.
- Gary is a genius who can do absolutely everything. He is a superb carpenter which is his true profession but without him we would not have completed this house with such precision and quality. As well as the carpentry his work included boarding, plastering, flooring, rendering, paving and demolition. His carpentry work makes this house what it is and includes the staircase, the kitchen, our fabulous dining table and benches, the new entrance gates and the coffee table made from the beam that once held up a small roof above the gate. He is a true artisan, and we raise a glasses to him most days..!
- Danny made all the iron work including designing and making the floating stairs working in close harmony with Gary. His vision for the metal work on the roof terrace and the bridge was exactly what we hoped for as is the balcony in the main bedroom. He also made the base for our table using the old metal found by the old wine press. We are not sure what their purpose was, but they have been turned into unique legs for our table.
- Simon and Mikael did the plastering. It’s not common to plaster walls in this part of France. Walls are usually boarded and the joints tapped but we wanted plaster. It was a huge job that involved raising plasterboard walls to create the rooms then plastering them to a high standard. We loved it when other tradesmen, many of them French people would just stand and watch in awe as these boys plied their trade with great expertise.
- Justin our electrician was great to work with. Always on hand to answer questions and did a great job helping bring our lighting ideas to life.
- Alan the plumber is transplanted here from Lancashire and every time he came to the job I felt a little piece of England had just walked through the door. His work is superb and all 4 of the bathrooms are top class. He also helped create an underground water butt to gather rainwater for watering the gardens
- Serge did the béton ciré floors and some bathroom walls. We chose this instead of tiles or floor boards because there is not a straight line in this building and we felt too many lines running off at odd angles would not give us the look we wanted. It took him 3 weeks to complete the work and we love the look of soft limestone that he has achieved.
- Mr Morel a local metal worker made the metal windows. We chose metal as we did not want to over beautify the building but to hark back to its former use.
- Stephen is the engineer who designed and fitted our underfloor heating which is powered by an air-source heat pump that he also fitted. Open plan living is so much more comfortable with this type of heating.
- Malcolm built the pool out of block and render and it has an armoured liner fitted by a local company headed up by Monsieur Goger.
- Mark Donovan is a local builder and landscaper with a team of brilliant workers. Mark was a source of immense help and gave excellent advice and suggestions and he also carried out various jobs including the new roof on the outside cuve and removing some crazy fig trees.
- Swiford, Tim and Will revealed the beautiful stones hidden behind old crumbling render and repointed them and lime rendered the new block walls on the side façade of the building. Their work was swift and accurate and we really enjoyed having them on site with us.
- Valerie from De Balans at home in Abele-Poperinge, Belgium supplied the natural mineral paints made by Pure & Original. She was a great help and I loved visiting her amazing interior emporium.
- Workaways helped us over the years. This is a wonderful organisation which helps people travel in return for hard work. We met some fabulous people and in particular we now count Stuart from Kentucky as a good friend.