26 Apr a brief history of me. chapter twelve. Les Seilhols
After a week in Barcelona where we saw more of my old school friends, drank far too much absinthe and bought a pair of ill-fitting trainers from Decathlon that would leave my ankles in shreds, we left the city in a hungover daze, joined a car share up to France, caught a coach to the town of Saint-Pons-de-Thomières and had an over excited cackle at a sign advertising ‘Fanny Pizza’ en route.
Our host Saira picked us up in her beaten up Jeep, threw us in the back with her daughter Ailsa: ‘She’s handicapée’ Saira mentioned before leaving us in the car alone with Ailsa and a wad of euros on the dashboard while she popped into the hardware store to buy a five litre bidon of table wine.
As we drove towards our destination of Les Seilhols, Saira explained that she was a writer and documentary maker. Her partner Scott ran a small publishing company. They had left London and bought an old French farmhouse with land and needed help creating a workable small holding. My organisational obsession and Jon’s practical skills would come in handy with planning and building they hoped.
We drove along the winding roads and after twenty minutes arrived at the house with a faded blue door, framed by a pink rose bush that I would later learn Saira used as an ingredient in her jam. Adjacent to the farmhouse was an old dairy, converted into a cottage with wooden floors and white washed stone walls. A Canadian and two Americans were staying there while they also helped out on the land. The American guy enjoyed casually telling us that he often slept on the hay bails outside. I think he was having a journey of self discovery in the South of France which involved scorning furniture and personal hygiene.
We would use the bathroom in the dairy but had been assigned the chicken cottage down the hill, an old stone building the size of a shed with a platform for a mattress and a fireplace for cold evenings, We had no running water, no toilet and I was in complete and utter heaven. There was a small walled porch or yard that housed the thick and sprawling trunk of a dead tree which we would eventually turn into the base support for an outdoor dining table. Opposite the cottage sat an old stone ruin covered in ivy and to the left lay a field with the three donkeys Alphonse, Paulette and Josephine.
The and was hilly, steep and wild, overflowing with chestnut trees, brambles and coarse shrubbery. Down the hill from us was a stone bread oven cottage and beyond that, the river. Our days started with porridge and Scott’s homemade bread (his father had been a baker in Dundee, Scotland and Scott a lot to say about the correct way to slice a loaf) at the long wooden table in the main house while we discussed the tasks that lay ahead. We would be allocated jobs, handed a set of tools and sent off into the fields to do our work. Jobs included digging out a conduct for water that they hoped to eventually use to channel water from the river, digging plots and planting seeds, picking cherries for preserving (I was a big fan of this job), clearing out the cave, watching Ailsa while Scott and Saira worked and pulling brambles from the dry earth. We would take turns making lunches and reconvene at the table with wine and food followed by cheeses and last year’s preserved cherries or figs. We would often be joined by the builders working on the house or friends of Scott and Saira who would pass by. If we had completed our quota of hours we were free to explore or relax as we wished. The surroundings were hilly and wild, with a generous choice of swimming spots and gorges. In the evenings we would often help ourselves to food from the kitchen and at the weekends friends of Scott and Saira would often come by or one weekend, a host of twenty of the travelled over form London for a birthday celebration so our job was to create camping spots on the land.
We had initially intended to stay for two weeks, but our hosts on the next goat farm emailed us to say that there had been an infestation of fleas and that they would need to adjourn by a few weeks, so we stayed on. They never got in touch again so we stayed at Les Seilhols and before we knew it two months had passed. We had plans to return to Manchester for the summer as I was co-producing and acting in a fringe theatre play with some friends from drama school, but beyond that we weren’t sure what we would do. Until two things happened: Jon sold the house he had owned with his ex and Scott and Saira sat us down and asked us if we would consider staying on to live there with them to work on the land and start a business with Scott running weekends where we would cater for visitors with food from the land and take them wild swimming, foraging and kayaking. Jon paid off some debts with the money form the house and with what was left over we figured out we could buy two return tickets to India and survive there for three months on a tight budget. And of course, we said yes to Scott and Saira’s offer. We would return to Manchester for two months where I would rehearse and perform in the play, fly to India in September, travel up and down the west coast by train, fly back to London on New Year’s eve, see family for a couple of days and then take the Eurostar to Paris where we would meet Scott, and take the train down to Bordeaux where Saira would collect us in the car.
So that is what we did, and I will tell you more about it in the next chapter…