During three days of house-viewings (more on this later), where we mostly over-nighted in the surprisingly quiet aire in Châlus next to a popular lorry park, we were contacted by Kate and Dave, registered WorkAway hosts. They were a well-travelled British couple who now run a large gîte complex in the Dordogne, offering high end lettings. We had had no specific intention of undertaking WorkAway projects at this time due to being busy with our house search, but as they had been let down at short notice by other WorkAwayers who unfortunately had to cancel due to a family emergency, they proactively contacted us via the WorkAway website to ask if we could possibly step in and help. We were not too far from where they were, only a couple of hours’ drive, so after discussion we decided that we could.
We finalised arrangements with Kate and the next morning we were off, heading south to find them in the wilds of the Dordogne, near to Bourniquel. We were greeted with grateful smiles and first given a tour of the extensive properties and grounds. We were offered the opportunity to enjoy staying in one of their luxury couples studios, a nice break from Benny, and to enjoy their home cooking in exchange for our help. The site was set on the edge of rolling countryside, overlooking Dordogne meadows with beautiful Limousin cows and their very young calves roaming nearby. It was a very peaceful, tranquil place. We enjoyed exchanging stories with our fellow Brits, learning from their experiences of living in France, before settling into our spacious studio to rest up before the work began.
On this Workaway we would be tasked with mostly gardening and maintenance tasks around the two hectare site. For our first project, we started with the group activity of planting up 160 separate geraniums into many, many pots. On a large sheet of tarpaulin, we mixed batches of the old, exhausted soil with bags of new compost and re-potted the multitude of containers and hanging baskets. Varied mixtures of different coloured geraniums were added to each container for maximum effect then all were repositioned under the covered verandah ready for setting out round the complex. Nicky then redressed and positioned several scarecrows (or more accurately in this context, scaredeers), utilising her innate fashion sense and artistic skills to make them look as scary and as French as possible.
Over the course of the week we learnt more about our amiable hosts. Kate and Dave had both been involved in high end sports, sports training and teaching sports ethics for most of their lives, Kate a gymnast, Dave a Judo champion. They had travelled all over Eastern Europe and beyond with their training camps, and had lived in Zimbabwe, building a centre of excellence and helping setting up the international sports structures there. We enjoyed the wild and colourful stories of their trials and tribulations during their varied working lives. After the constant rains of our first day, the weather backed off and we were lucky enough to enjoy some hot and sunny weather for the next few days. We had a hot run one night in the evening heat, finding a loop of around 6km through the local woodland.
Over the coming days I rescreened two gates with mesh, constructed some makeshift anti-deer fencing to protect young trees and organised and re-covered the woodshed piles. I cut and collected grass as Nicky weeded borders and planted out additional lavender plants. I helped construct a sun shelter on the end of the cottage and stained an area of decking, readying it to receive an outdoor hot-tub. Nicky & I sanded, filled and painted (twice) the external timber window shutters to the exposed façade of the main house. We scraped, cleaned, filled & painted a curved garden wall, before cleaning and repainting the adjacent decking, creating a neat, peaceful corner to watch the sunset. We strung solar lights between the creeping plants on an arched structure defining a well-worn garden path.
But it certainly wasn’t all work. One evening we visited Couze-et-Saint-Front, a local village, to see an old mill and ancient caves, before enjoying apéro in a local, friendly tabac with a wonderful view of the slowly meandering river. We briefly met the owners as we swapped stories. Another, we had an early evening visit to the nearby beau village of Limeuil, set beautifully above a slow, curved bank of the Dordogne river where the Vezère joins. We sat on a terrace outside and enjoyed waiter service drinks as we watched kids play in the river shallows. The hot day had tempered to a delightfully comfortable temperature and we stretched out and relaxed, chatting and sipping as we soaked up the stunning view. It was exactly moments such as these that prompted our decision to move to France.
One bright morning we were driven to Issigeac Sunday market, one of the largest in the entire Dordogne region. We walked the streets soaking up the quintessential Frenchness of the morning, snails included, even if there were more than a few English accents scattered throughout the busy streets – it is Dordogneshire after all. The white stone of the circular bastide town was thrown into contrast by the colourful stalls stacked high with produce and colour. The buzzing streets were filled with a happy liveliness, with the many wares of local artisans proving to be a very popular draw. We stepped away from the crowds and into narrow backstreets, learning a little of the town’s history and of prominent local characters from informative plaques positioned on select medieval buildings; a wonderful morning’s distraction.
We completed a few outstanding jobs then spent our last afternoon relaxing in one of their two swimming pools, in welcome sunshine. We slid back the pool cover to allow views of the surrounding countryside and bring the outside light pouring in as we splashed around and cooled off. It was a fitting, relaxing way to end our days in such a tranquil spot. A family of hoopoes were nesting in the grounds and we could occasionally hear their distinctive calls, but unfortunately never managed to photograph their colourful crowns, an ornithological challenge given to us by a friend at home.
We packed up the following morning, said our sad goodbyes to Dave & Kate, before heading off back up north to sort out more than a few things about a property we had recently viewed. Before arriving at the Workaway we had had an offer on a house accepted; times they were, as Dylan would say, about to be a-changing. (more to follow)