Monday 8 December 2014

Italian Glass Cool or What?

So I have this barn and the renovation project to turn it into a music studio / chill out space / man
cave, is going well although it has proved to be a lengthy project. The issue which has been occupying many waking moments has been what to do about the pigeon holes. Sometime in antiquity someone cut small holes through the barn walls to create nests for pigeons, there were wooden nesting boxes inside the barn against each hole but they rotted or were eaten by woodworm a long time ago. Maybe people used to eat pigeon eggs in those days or maybe they ate pigeons. Either way, I now have these holes, eight of them, all different shapes and sizes, but all of them too small to describe as windows. They are quite beautiful at night though, throwing pin pricks of light into the courtyard when the light is lit in the barn, so I wanted to keep them but I needed to put glass in there somehow.

Lots of readers came up with suggestions and I tried several methods myself. Problem was that the holes were all different and hardly geometric. Added to that, I had to cope with the fact that the walls are about one metre thick so the holes are actually more like tunnels. The size of hole on the inside often has no relationship with the size of the hole at the other end of the tunnel.

One solution was to fix rectangular sheets of Perspex to the inside wall covering the hole. It didn’t look good. I attempted to make templates and have the glass cut to size, but working out the shape of each hole was too difficult and anyway glass cutters like to cut straight lines and there weren’t any straight lines on any of the templates I made.

A good internet friend suggested coloured glass and for a while I experimented with glass disks cut from old wine bottles bases ( I have plenty of these) but wine bottles tend to be circular and standard sizes and my holes are anything but that.

Another option was to chip away with a cold chisel to make the holes fit the glass, that didn't work either. It was easy enough to take a stone or two out and enlarge the hole but all it gave was a bigger asymmetrical hole – nothing that would take a round or rectangular piece of glass. There was also a problem about fixing the glass in place. Some holes were no bigger than my fist so I couldn't do any work inside the tunnel.

The solution turned out to be a special glass made in Italy. Now I know what you’re thinking – ‘What has this to do with frugality? Sounds like an expensive solution.’

Well, read on. The ‘special Italian glass’ came in the form of food storage containers for fridges. You can buy them in supermarkets and discount stores ranging in price from 3 Euros for the small ones to 6 Euros for a container large enough to fill the largest hole. They are oven proof and have ‘Made in Italy’ stamped on the base. They are easy to plaster into the holes too because they have depth – in effect they are glass bricks. Push one into the hole and plaster around - job done. Special bespoke Italian glass. Neat!

Now this barn faces south – gable ends are east and west. Three holes in the eastern gable end. It is part of a property known locally as a ‘cod house’ built out of money earned by fishermen hunting Cod in Newfoundland. So the barn has a maritime link despite its agricultural intent. In honour of this fact, I intend to paint two of the glass holes in the eastern gable red and green – port and starboard navigation lights, the central hole will be clear glass as a steaming light in accordance with the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea. In effect, once the wood burning stove is installed, fired up, and the lights are turned on, this barn will be steaming in a generally easterly direction and will be appropriately lit to comply with maritime law. Cool or What?


Monday 11 August 2014

Yes - but is it Art?

I love my woodburning stove. In winter it provides a dry heat that permeates the whole house and it gives a cheery glow that raises the spirits when the sky turns a leaden grey – but in summer? Well it just sits there. I could hide it away with a firescreen as the Bretons of old did but – well that doesn’t seem right somehow. So, here is an idea that friends and neighbours have found quite charming (although it does seem to confirm their view that there is a bit of madness in all Englishmen).

Looking at it one day I came to the conclusion that the frame around the glass door is pretty much similar to a picture frame. Only problem was that it contained no picture. Now I can’t paint or draw, Susan does that, so how do I embellish my stove with a work of art. The answer lies in places like the Tate Modern in London. A visit there recently introduced me to the idea of ‘art installations’ – not drawings or paintings but objects placed in a certain way in order to send some kind of message to the viewer. Now the box of the woodburning stove with its glass window is an ideal location for an installation. I suppose a bouquet of dried flowers could have been a possibility but for me as a musician, I wanted to say something about the sublime frustration of music – ‘sublime’ on the rare occasions that you play a piece to your own satisfaction, ‘frustrating’ because a musician is always painfully aware of his shortcomings – there is always something you struggle to get right.

So, here is my woodburning stove art installation. A book of music and a broken violin laid out ready for a match to be put to them! Who knows maybe the idea will catch on.

If you have a woodburner art installation please let me know!


Tuesday 22 July 2014

Barn Conversion

The idea is to take our old barn and convert it for human use. Not sure what we will use it for - parties?
Guest accommodation? A place to make a bit of noise with a few musician friends? Probably all three.

So the barn now has a new upper floor and a staircase to get you there and the old walls have been pointed with lime mortar inside and out – except too much stone can look a bit heavy so the gable walls have been rendered to create a contrast. Next job is to insulate the roof.

There are several options here, the cheapest and most obvious is to put rockwool under the tiles and cover it with dry lining. The downside however is that I will lose sight of the old beams. An alternative would be to put a thin but remarkably efficient layer of insulation above the beams directly under the tiles. The easiest way would be to remove the existing tiles, lay the insulation and then put the tiles back. 

There is a problem however; these tiles are not made of traditional slate. They are a form of asbestos. The authorities tell me they are safe but if they are removed they must be replaced not re-used.

Ah well, in for a penny…


Friday 16 May 2014

Pigeon Holes

Two years ago, working in the Civil Service, the term pigeon holes had a very different meaning for me than it does today. Back then (well it seems so long ago) pigeon holes were places where you left messages or correspondence for colleagues. Today I have the real thing – several in fact. Holes for pigeons cut into the walls of the barn. At some point they would have had wooden boxes attached to the inside to provide nests for pigeons whilst denying them access to the entire interior of the barn. The pigeons would have been a source of food for the people who lived here. Maybe the eggs were a source of food too but I haven’t found anyone who can confirm or deny that.

In renovating the barn the practical thing to do, would be to block up the old holes and point the walls inside and out. The other night though, I inadvertently left the light on in the barn and was amazed at the beauty of these relatively small and random pin-pricks of light that beamed out of the barn walls thanks to these old apertures. So the pigeon holes have to stay.

They need glassing in somehow and the shapes of the apertures are random to say the least. First attempt will be to see if glass bricks sold in DIY shops will do the trick. If that doesn’t work then maybe some Perspex can be cut to size and sealed in with mastic – either way a solution will have to be found because I can’t bring myself to get rid of them. But there again this is a frugal blog, maybe I should get some pigeons and follow the old ways.


Thursday 1 May 2014

The Barn

Many old French houses come with some form of outbuilding. Often the outbuildings are in need of
renovation. This can be quite appealing to purchasers because it seems to offer an opportunity for the new owner to put his stamp on the place. As often as not however, these outbuildings are never renovated partly because the enormity of upgrading the main house has been underestimated, partly because most people simply don't need the additional space and partly because a fully renovated barn doesn't necessarily add value to the eventual selling price. In my case though, I need the barn as a music studio - I tend to make a lot of noise. I also want somewhere where people can stay without feeling that they are tied to me. A place where they can be independent.

This little place where I live is a stone’s throw from the Rance Estuary a beautiful stretch of water navigable all the way from St Malo to Dinan and then, if you drop your mast, you can keep on going south by river and canal all the way to Vannes and the Atlantic. The sister blog to this ‘Simple Sailing Low Cost Cruising’ (Lavillemain blogspot) records my plans to do just that. In the meantime here are some pics of the work in progress on my barn. I hope you notice the incredible roof beams – beautiful!

Now my carpenter tells me that he hasn’t seen anything like them on a barn or house before and he wondered whether they had been built by a sailor or shipbuilder. Funny he should think of that because during my research into the history of this property I came to the same conclusion – via a different route.

Each department in France has its archives and some of the material in some of the archives has been placed on line. In the deepest darkest days of last winter I took time to make an internet search of local archive material (Dept 22). In doing so I discovered two types of document that can be inspected on line.

The first was the official State map (Cadastre) for various dates in the 19th Century for my town and its surroundings. From that I was able to identify my house and confirm that it has existed for a long time. Secondly, I was able to inspect the census returns for each six years from about 1840.

Two interesting things I discovered, First, the population of this little hameau was much greater in years gone by. Second, most of the male population were described as sailors. They would take small boats from here to St Malo and sign up for work on the Terra Neuva’s – great fishing vessels which hunted cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Often they would be gone for six months at a time, returning via Spain and Portugal where the salted Cod was sold to feed the largely Catholic population.

The women meanwhile tended their plots, grew and sold a surplus of vegetables when they could and kept a cow or goat tethered by the roadside. After the voyage men often returned with new skills, woodworking, boat repairing, sail making etc. After a good trip they also came home with money in their pockets – enough to purchase the materials they needed to build or repair a house or barn. Now the skeleton of a roof is nothing more than a simple upturned boat. The skills learned on the boat therefore, were transferred to house-building. That’s how I think I got my barn.


Tuesday 22 April 2014

Be Your Own Project Manager

I don’t know much about building work, renovation or restoration but in a previous life I had some experience of project planning for new schools. You know that the school has to be open on 1st September, so before the students move in, you have to clean and furnish it during August at the latest. That suggests that the builders have to be out of there by the end of July etc, etc – i.e. start with the outcome and the deadline and work back to the present, describing tasks to be completed in a logical order and highlighting milestones to track progress.

so when I bought this house I had some idea that there would need to be a plan of some sorts – a sequence of events that would lead to a logical conclusion at a pre-determined date.

To get it right, you need specialist knowledge of building processes – when do you bring in the plumber, the electrician, the roofer and the plasterer? Get the sequence wrong and they’re falling over each other, or they spend a good deal of time undoing each others’ work.

I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough back then so I employed an architect to manage the process  - BAD mistake!

It seemed to me that there were three phases to this project. The first was to build an extension onto the house that would eventually become the kitchen. Second phase, a new floor in the old house, rip-out old kitchen and install a new one in the extension. Phase three, renovate the barn.

Initially my building manager seemed to agree with my logic but then presented me with a new problem on every occasion that we met. I also had to whip, encourage and cajole his chosen craftsmen all along the way (thought that was his job). As for getting a planned end date out of him – well I never ever achieved that – we just kind of drifted to an exhausted conclusion.

We parted company at the end of phase two and now I am my own building manager and a much happier person. The initial problems arose when all three phases became interlinked – inevitable probably, but the problems which could have been foreseen were not considered until they stared you in a face, excusable for an amateur but not for a professional.

It began with the extension. A stone wall had to be demolished and earth dug out for the footings – the builder hired a mini digger and dug himself into a hole, couldn’t get the digger out and rolled it over in the attempt. As a result he didn’t separate the stones from the soil as agreed. Instead he created a mountain of mixed earth and stones in what had been our garden.

When we finally had a roof on the extension, the manager insisted on ripping out the floor and dry lining of the old house before laying the floor in the extension because he didn’t want to damage the new floor in the extension with the rubble that would have to be removed when the old floor was lifted. Then, for the same reason the old kitchen had to be removed before the new kitchen could be fitted. Then pipes and channels had to be laid across the courtyard to ensure that there would be water and electricity in the barn in preparation for phase three of the project. Somehow the change in location of the kitchen required major plumbing in the upstairs bathroom and we lost all water in the house.

On one occasion the electrician left the premises without earthing the electricity. The builder took three 240Volt shocks in the period of one hour and he hadn’t even touched an electrical fitting. ‘Ah oui, C’est normal – pas grave’ was the electrician’s response to my phone call.

As this was going on electricians, plumbers and builders would disappear to undertake other jobs. Work on my site was interrupted for weeks on end. The workers didn’t talk to each other and the manager of the project didn’t seem to speak to them either. It was now winter, even though the project had begun in June. By November we were without floors and doors on the ground floor, we had a single functioning electrical socket which was upstairs and the only water came from a tap in the garden. Dust was in the air and cooking was done in the bedroom on a single burner gas stove I had taken from the boat. Everything tasted of antique plaster. On one occasion, to speed up the process, I offered to collect the floor tiles from the builders merchant myself, only to discover that the builder used the day saved to give himself a long weekend holiday.

In retrospect, I should have read a few more books and managed the project myself. Now I’m well into the barn conversion and I have encountered no problems. I have sliced the project into several bite-sized chunks and I bring in the professionals I need when I need them – its not rocket science. As with many things, I have learned that communication is the key and so here are seven top tips for success, learned through bitter experience.

  1. Get the sequence of jobs right

  1. Set realistic but firm deadlines

  1. Create a team of builders, electricians etc who are good friends with each other. That way, they look after each other – a plumber might not think twice about letting you down but he will be careful not to upset his good friend the electrician or his brother in law the carpenter.

  1. Let your builders purchase the material, they get a discount and they should pass at least some of it on to you.

  1. Stay on the premises, if you are away for a week, the rate of progress slows down

  1. Keep two steps ahead, so you can book the people you need and give them plenty of notice. Know how many sockets you want and where the light fittings are to go and make sure to pass on the information in good time – don’t wait to be asked

7.   Keep a record of the work and you can’t be overcharged for time

Well it’s worked for me so far and if it goes wrong - well I have only on person to blame. Project managers?  No thank you.


Thursday 10 April 2014

Solar Energy

I thought about solar panels a couple of years ago. I was very tempted to put them on the south facing roof of the barn. I looked up the offers from my local electricity company (EDF), did some calculations and decided against it. My reasoning was simple, it would take fifteen years to recover the investment – that would make me 78 years old Mmmm – not sure I have that long!

I’m still interested in solar power though and I hope the technology will develop faster than I age, so that I can benefit from it. Friends tell me the problem is a political issue rather than a technological one. That’s to say there is little governmental interest (here or elsewhere) in developing technologies that make people more independent and free. A nuclear power station keeps energy resources in the hands of government. What’s more, it has to be protected and defended, thus governments have an excuse for Security Services, Special Forces, and elite police – and if the going gets tough well, government can always assert its authority by denying power to a rebellious population.

So while I sit and wait for technology to liberate me, I have come up with a solar panel of my own. It works, and the cost was nothing at all. I expect to profit from it by June!

My solar panel converts the Sun’s energy to fructose and it delivers it in the form of Strawberries. Essentially it is an old pallet, planked over on the back, filled with earth and positioned to face the sun. The strawberries grow between the slats like rock plants and seem to love it! Best of all it takes up almost no garden space – it’s a vertical crop and, to date I haven’t felt the need for electric fences, concrete walls or armed guards to protect it.


Sunday 30 March 2014

Think Twice about DIY

Something I thought might be worth passing on to anyone newly arrived in France – think twice about DIY!

Often it is no more expensive to have the job done by a professional. How does this work? Well in France there is a hefty tax on goods that you buy. In the UK it’s called VAT – here it is known as TVA – and it adds almost 20% cost to anything you purchase. The French government however, wishes to assist small businesses and so materials bought by a builder, roofer, plumber, electrician etc are taxed at a much lower rate. So, if you have a big job to do, it can be a good idea to employ a professional and save on the cost of materials. Of course you have to pay him for his labours but often the saving on the TVA is sufficient to meet his charges.

Not only that but the professionals also negotiate a discount from their regular suppliers so they can make a double saving – paying little tax on goods that they can obtain much cheaper than you. Some of the discounts they negotiate can be huge and if they want the work they can often be persuaded to pass at least some of that discount on to you. Last year the guy who laid my floor tiles obtained a 30% reduction in their retail price. The saving to me (taking account of the full retail price and the 20% tax I would have been obliged to pay) more than covered the cost of his labour.

In French law, tradespeople are obliged to quote a price for the job and once the price is agreed they may not add extra charges. In producing the quote, they describe the price of materials and their labour charges so it can be quite easy to estimate whether there is any saving or additional cost – and then, if necessary, negotiate a lower price by asking the guy to pass on some of the discount he has probably negotiated with the supplier.


Friday 14 March 2014

Long Distance Gardening

We bought this little house while I was still fully employed, working for the ‘man’ to pay the mortgage and see the children through university. So for a few years it was a ‘maison secondaire’. We came here when we could but often there were long periods between visits.

The garden was probably best described as a portion of a meadow. How to manage a garden from a distance? Is long distance gardening a realistic option? Well, yes it is possible to have a successful and productive garden so long as you don’t mind tall grass. We quickly learned that if you take any given plant or seed, put it in the ground and then ignore it for weeks or even months on end, it probably has a 50/50 chance of survival. The challenge therefore is to increase the odds in its favour even if only by a small margin.

One book, just one, was our best guide and strangely it wasn’t written with long distance gardening in mind. That book (which became our bible) was called ‘The No Work Garden’ by Bob Flowerdew. USA readers can get it here:
When we moved here permanently, house renovation, initially at least, took priority over the garden. But we needed to make the garden productive, we needed to eat. Here’s the best advice I can offer.

The first trick is to allow the garden to do what comes naturally. Our plot, it turns out was very fertile, PH neutral, deep stone-free soil, a sort of grassy meadow hedged by massively overgrown Lonicera. It stood in the heart of the country surrounded by huge oak and walnut trees. It was rural and rustic and that’s the way it would have to stay. The trick is to improve it rather than change it. We brought the hedge under control by taking two metres off its thickness and planted daffodils and cowslips. We also celebrated the random things that the garden decided to do of its own accord. Last year, for example, a yarrow plant appeared in the garden. Many would consider it to be a weed, for us though, it became a flowerbed.

Part of enabling a garden to do what comes naturally is to consider the location and plant whatever you can
find that thrives in your district. If it’s happy in your climate you’ve got a head start. So, our garden was planted with a selection of local apple trees, pear trees, cherry, plum and mulberry. All are thriving and producing fruit.

As for vegetables we have been successful with Globe and Jerusalem artichokes, potatoes, onions, garlic, leaks, beans, peas and, this year, we have an excellent crop of grapes coming from two vine cuttings I stuck in the ground when we first purchased the house.  Whenever possible we planted perennial rather than annual and tried to tie our visits in to cropping or fruiting seasons. So, it’s worked reasonably well. We used to lose some crops due to lack of care or missing the optimum harvesting date by a few weeks but on every visit the garden managed to surprise us.

And then of course there is foraging. The local countryside is full of food - blackberries, sloes,  hazelnuts, walnuts and sweet chestnuts, crab apples, elderberries, wild mushrooms and the occasional giant puffball. The last one we found could have fed three families. Two hundred yards away we have the Rance Estuary – good for salt water fish but also good for Samphire the most delicious green vegetable I know and twenty minutes away, on the coast there is a bay rich in clams and cockles. Our hens in a mobile relocatable run provide eggs, keep the grass down and provide excellent manure and then each season there is a glut of something - last year it was cherries and plums. Neighbours unload their surplus and we turn it into jams, conserves, jellies and sauces. If you want more detail try Bob Flowerdew’s book, you won’t be disappointed.

Life’s pretty good really!


Wednesday 12 February 2014

Susan's Beachcomber Banquet

Lashing wind and rain coinciding with spring tides, winter so far has been mild but very stormy, parts of
Brittany have been flooded but if you’re looking to be frugal the trick is to turn every threat into an opportunity. So for every damaging storm driven high tide, there is an equally profound low. So low that at the right moment areas of coastline, normally well underwater become accessible to the low water fisherman – peche a la pied as the French call it.

At such times, the shoreline becomes a paradise for the lovers of shell fish. I don’t know all the holes where crab and lobster can be found but I’m as good as the next man in digging cockles and clams, all you need is a small rake or a knife and sack to carry home the prizes.

First on the list  Cockles, often you don’t have to dig for these, simply stroll along the low tide shoreline and you’ll see them laying there waiting for you. I love cockles, they’re sweeter than mussels and about four times the price in the local shops. You can use them as you would mussels to make Marinier. Here’s how. Bring them home in a bucket of seawater and leave them in the cold overnight to purge. Clean the shells if you need. Then melt a knob of butter in a saucepan and add finely chopped onions and garlic. When the onions are softened add the cockles and a half glass of white wine or dry cider. Do not add anymore liquid, the cockles will provide than. Cook them for a minute or so, tossing them in the pan to make sure they all feel the heat. They’re cooked when the shells open. Discard any that don’t open. Now toss in a bit of chopped parsley and turn them into a bowl along with the cooking juice.

Clams are slightly harder to harvest, you have to dig for them with a knife – look for the telltale sign in the sand – find two small holes, close together and there should be a clam under there.

Add cooked cockles, clams and garlic to spaghetti and you have a dish that wouldn't be cheap in a harbour side restaurant.

But best of all by far, is Susan’s Beachcomber’s Banquet – you can make it with any (or all) of the shellfish you find – mussels, cockles, oysters, clams and razor fish – even limpets (or Chinese hats as the French call them). It’s a meal fit for a king or queen.

The cost – your time, the price of a bit of bread, and the value of a few items you have in the larder anyway.

Here’s how to do it.


Basically  its an exercise in  cooking, stuffing, grilling and then eating straight from the dish whilst piping hot.  In Brittany -  we’d call it a Fruits de Mer Farcie, and you’d pay a lot for it in a restaurant.

Serves four – preparation time 20 mins - cooking time 10 mins

It doesn’t matter how many you gather, even half a dozen little molluscs are worthwhile.  Use the quantities given as a guide only.

3lb of shellfish - oysters, mussels, cockles & clams
4 garlic cloves crushed
100g butter
1 tbsp chopped parsley
salt & pepper
2 oz fresh breadcrumbs (optional)


  1. Clean beards off the mussels, place shellfish in a bucket of salty water for 20    mins., to rid them of sand
  2. Prepare stuffing, by making up a garlic & parsley butter. 
  3. Put the shellfish into a pan of water over a high heat. Shake the pan around until shellfish have opened. Discard any unopened ones.  Keep half the shells for serving. 
  4. Place a piece of meat into each shell and top up with the stuffing mixture, add salt & pepper and breadcrumbs if wished.
  5. Arrange on a tray and grill until the stuffing is golden brown and bubbling.
  6. Serve immediately with crusty chunks of bread for mopping up juices- enjoy.

Alternatively, try a stuffing of finely chopped fried bacon, mushrooms, breadcrumbs and parsley. 


Monday 27 January 2014

The Other Three Women in my Life

Let me introduce you to the other three women in my life – Elizabeth, Florence and Matilda. I didn’t name
them Susan did. Why those names? I have no idea. As you can see they are three hens a Rhode Island Red, a Marram and a Light Sussex. We bought them in early November as ‘point of lay’ chickens. Point of Lay indicates that they will soon start to lay eggs. In this context, the word ‘soon’ can be a very subjective term – ‘soon’ to me and you may be different to the ‘soon’ used by the farmer who sold us the hens.

To date only one hen, has laid anything –, The Marram. I guess we have had about a dozen eggs in total.

The theory of hen keeping seems sound, logical and frugal – they strut around eating grubs, kitchen peelings and the odd bit of grit. They live in a mobile chicken house (a chicken tractor to our American friends) and they keep the grass short. In return for their care, they donate eggs and very rich manure.

So far so good – now here is the rub. Rural France, foxes and the need to make a careful choice of housing for the ladies. We settled for a Eglu manufactured in the UK by a company called Omlete. Guarenteed fox proof – good for up to four medium sized hens. We decided on three to ensure they had plenty of room. The Eglu comes with a run and you can buy an even larger run to if you want to give them even more space. We opted for the larger run – and an awning to provide some shelter in wet weather – and a sort for quilted overcoat to keep them warm at night.

These girls are living in 5 star luxury. Not only is the Eglu very practical – it has also won design awards. The
only hen coop actually exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Design Museum in London.

All this comes at a price of course but its OK I have done the arithmetic – if the three hens lay as they should (and as yet they have not) I should recover my money (in the value of the eggs) by April – no not this April – no, April 2017.

In the meantime I refer to the eggs as ‘Faberge’ – (just to make my point)!


Monday 20 January 2014

I Never Set Out to be Frugal

I never set out to be frugal. That is, I can’t recall a ‘road to Damascus’ moment when I suddenly thought YES frugality is the way for me! Rather, it was an attitude of mind developed out of necessity, which grew into a sort of self-gratification, and became imbued with philosophical and political overtones.

The starting point, I suppose, was when I became interested in sailing. There were two issues here firstly a boat has to be looked at as an expensive luxury and secondly, given the vagaries of tides and weather, it’s a pastime that demands plenty of free time. Would it be possible therefore to get a boat and get out of the rat race early so I had time to go sailing? Is there a relationship between time and money and if so, how does the equation work? Can more of one lead to a dearth of the other? Where is the ‘happy’ balance?

The answer seemed to be that a life adjustment would be possible and probably beneficial but there was a simple matter of a mortgage to be cleared. I was lucky in that my mortgage was tied to UK base rates and it was paid in two instalments each month. One for the capital repayment, the other was the interest. I quickly realised that if I increased the capital payments by even a small amount, the interest charges reduced – and that by transferring the ‘amount' saved on interest, I could further increase my capital pay-offs, thereby further reducing the interest charges, enabling me to increase capital payments ----- ad infinitum. In effect I created a benevolent circle which gave me the leeway to add this small French second home without too much pain.

In the end, both homes were mortgage free before my 60th birthday. So a tiny bit of frugal thinking made a huge difference. I also took great delight in ‘beating the man’, turning the bankers’ and financiers’ strategies on their heads and making sure that nothing I did feathered their nests.

During the process I began to notice other things. Thrift shops provided me with very good ‘designer label’suits for work. I could dress as good as colleagues for less than a tenth of the retail price. The garden, the shoreline and the sea became a source of food, more fun than visiting a supermarket and our love of antiques and ‘old things’ enabled us to decorate our two homes in a ‘shabby chic’ way that many would describe as fashionable. Having drastically reduced expenditure I never once felt poor or miserly – providing I was clever, so long as I avoided the high street and the shopping mall, I could have anything I wanted. If anything, I felt in control and empowered.

Now, here in rural France, my neighbours take a collective approach to frugality. Take the recent New Year Celebrations as an example. One friend had a house with a reasonably large room for entertainment, another provided trestle tables and benches and a third contributed a pretty good sound system. The rest of us (39 in total) were asked to arrive with plates of food and a bottle of Champaign or wine. The first letter of your surname determined whether you had to provide nibbles, a starter, a main course element or a desert. No couple would be expected to spend more than 20 Euros.

How did it go? There were nuts, olives, slices of cooked hams and meats, pate de fois gras for starters, oysters, baked and stuffed potatoes, salads and quiches, followed by a huge selection of cheeses and then choice of several deserts. The wine and Champaign flowed all night and the party ended at 4 am in the morning.

Now how much would I have had to pay for that in a UK restaurant – and would I have enjoyed it any better? Well, in a previous life I have paid huge amounts for a Restaurant New Years Eve special evening – some were fine, others – pretty indifferent – with regard to price, atmosphere, variety and volume of drink however, none compared with this recent French experience.

So, frugality doesn’t mean you need to wear sackcloth and ashes and it isn’t about poverty. With two houses and a boat I really couldn’t claim to be in that position. For me the frugal approach provides a higher standard of living, a better quality of life and it leaves more money in my pocket for things I really need.


Monday 6 January 2014

The Good Life

Leaving the day job, downsizing, frugal living in a new country, exchanging time for money – and actually enjoying it, where to begin? It’s a question we often get asked in one form or another. It’s also a difficult question to answer – what worked for us (so far) might not work for you and in some cases if you take the decision, you may find there is no way back. Few fifty year olds, for example, would find it easy to get back into mainstream work at the same level if the adventure didn’t work out.

Our attempts at frugal living began long before we took the plunge mainly because we had a mortgage to clear. We did the calculations and set about pouring all our resources into getting that money off our backs before we took the plunge. Interestingly enough the sums also suggested that there was no point in waiting to buy the French house – we would still have to find the same money – so although we were living frugally we bought the French house at the first opportunity. Luck played a significant part as well, the value of house prices rose significantly and interest rates were low throughout our ‘saving’ period. When we came to sell and downsize the UK house we obtained much more for it than our initial calculations had suggested.

But here is something else to think about – would you actually enjoy a frugal approach? We joke about being frugal for ‘frivol’. If we’re careful enough with the day to day frugality we can afford the odd ‘frivolous’ weekend in Paris or elsewhere.Anyway, if you are thinking about a similar adventure here is an idea you might find interesting.

There is a book – written I think in the 1960’s, by a guy called John Seymour. The book is called The New Complete Book of Self Sufficiency and it tells you everything you need to know about growing crops, preserving food, rearing animals for food, brewing, butter making, keeping bees, fishing, building sheds and fences, plumbing, care for tools etc – it is a gold mine of information.

So, here is the idea, if you are attracted to the simple practical life, buy the book and try a few of the ideas for fun. If you discover that it isn’t fun, then maybe a simple country life isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you find the ideas exciting and if you actually enjoy some of the tasks – then maybe you could make it work. John and the book by the way were the inspiration behind the BBC TV series ‘The Goode Life’.

You can get the book here: