Pity poor Sting. Half a mile from his 17th century manor house in Wiltshire a small wooden fishing hut has been erected without planning permission. The singer is not so much dancing on the moon as hopping mad. He doesn’t want his Sunday lunch ruined by the sound of worms being impaled on hooks, and has told the local council that the hut should be demolished.
Not that he is often in Wiltshire. As a tax exile, he spends a lot of time in his pile in Tuscany. But he should never think about adding a place in France to his portfolio. For here in France people can put up huts as and when it suits them, and can fill the grounds with something even more irritating than fishermen and flies: barking dogs.
Before I go on I must discourage those of you who write me emails complaining that I only say negative things about my adopted country. I love it here. Moving here six years ago was the best thing we ever did. Not a day goes by when I don’t (at least mentally) thank my husband for coming up with the idea to up sticks and move.
The day we first saw our house was one of the happiest of my life. As we drove northwards out of the village the friend who was with us and who has lived in the region for 12 years said: “Assuming there’s nothing horrendous around the corner, this could be very, very interesting.”
Around the corner was a piece of paradise; a farmhouse on a hill in the middle of a deserted valley. There was not another house in sight. The views up to the mountains of the High Languedoc were magnificent. The olive trees shimmered in the afternoon sun. After a year of house hunting we had finally found what we were looking for.
Then a few months ago some people from the Aveyron bought a piece of land next door to us. We had been offered the land by its owner. It is about an acre and he used it as a garden. He said he wanted £60,000 for it. We took the view that for that amount of money we could buy a garden in Chelsea, so declined his generous offer.
On this piece of land is a hut, rather less attractive than the one Sting is complaining about, but I had never given it much thought. The land is classified non-constructible so no one could move in there and spoil our peace. Or so I thought.
The first thing that alerts us to our new neighbours’ presence was the fact that they filled up our bin with rubbish. One of the things they had thrown away was a box for a kettle.
“Why would they want a kettle when they don’t have any electricity?” my husband asks. There’s no fooling him.
The next thing we hear is a generator. Then we see satellite dishes and solar panels going up. One day a man from a fosse septique company stops to ask us if we know where the plot is. Suddenly there are two more huts; Sting would be apoplectic by now. These people are clearly planning to move in. And what’s even worse they are planning to move in with two barking dogs. My husband is furious and wants to report them, saying that the French have a noble tradition of denouncing their neighbours. I suggest the best way to deal with the situation is to make friends with them. So we go over with a bowl of cherries from the garden and introduce ourselves.
We can’t hear ourselves think over the din of the dogs.
“I like the tranquillity here,” says our new neighbour.
We ask him what he does for a living. Surely if he has a job he won’t be able to spend too much time here?
“I’ve taken early retirement,” he says. “I got throat cancer from smoking. My wife and I will be coming down most weeks.”
He is true to his word, spending most of the summer in his shed, rather like Stig of the Dump. Every time we stick our heads out of our front door the dogs bark. My husband decides we need to take action. To be honest we really wouldn’t have minded the huts, the satellite dishes or even someone leading a gipsy-style existence next door but the dogs have pushed us over the edge. One of the reasons we bought our house is that it is in the middle of nowhere. If we’d wanted to live close to barking dogs we would have considered any number of other options, such as a village house which is a lot easier, and cheaper, to come by.
“Take him a packet of cigarettes,” is one helpful friend’s advice. “Shoot the dogs,” suggests another. We find both of these solutions slightly harsh. Instead we send a message through the man that sold him the land saying it’s difficult for us to work or sleep with noise of the dogs and could he keep them under control. This has no effect whatsoever.
Finally we visit the mayor. He admits that the original hut is illegal, but as it’s been there for a while there’s nothing they can do. And as for the dogs, well they’re just doing their job. What is it about French people that they seem to be immune to the sound of incessantly barking dogs?
“So they can just do what they like?” asks my husband.
“Ils sont chez eux,” says the mayor. Case closed as far as he is concerned.
We go to an English lawyer for help. “Land classed as non-constructible in France can be misleading as certain building will still permitted,” says Dawn Alderson, solicitor with Russell Cooke Associates. “But what actually passes will depend very much on the individual mayor.”
As the law is clearly not going to help us we decide there’s only one thing for it: make friends with the dogs. We explain to our neighbour that the dogs irritate us. He is surprisingly nice about it and suggests we take Snoopy and Unis for a walk so they get to know us. Now every time they see us they don’t bark, but wag their tails in anticipation. I suggest Sting adopts a similar approach with the fishermen.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Smullö that will be published in spring 2020.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019