Once upon a time in Holland Park

1970In the course of dealing with potential customers for La Vieille Grange, people often ask me, ’How did you come to own a house in that part of France?’ The answer usually runs along the lines of ‘Oh, I was on holiday, on my way back to the UK from Spain and chanced to stop nearby and liked the area.’

The real answer involves London dinner parties, animated conversations in pubs and heady notions of owning property ‘on the Continent’, an absurdly extravagant ambition for anyone newly arrived in the capital from the provinces, with a degree and not much more.

But the road to Mercadiol really started from Holland Park at the house of Frank Keating, a sports journalist who worked on the Guardian in the late 1960s with a friend of mine, Carol Dix. This was the time of stripped pine furniture, Carnaby St, Biba and Oz Magazine but it was also the time when many young Britons started travelling overseas. After one French-inspired meal, the talk around the table turned to France and to the area that to my ears sounded both exotic and accessible, the area known as ‘the Dordogne’. English people were visiting, spending time there for the food, wine and sunshine – and buying houses because they were so cheap, at least compared with London prices.

Within weeks Carol, her boyfriend Peter and I, had vowed to explore the notion of ‘a house in France’ and do some research. At the dinner party the name of friend who had actually taken the plunge and bought a house in the area was passed to us – a lady who for part of each year worked on the beauty counter at Selfridges – or was it Harrods? – and for the rest of the year retreated to enjoy the delights of rural France. This magical mix of long holidays and occasional forays to the big smoke sounded too good to be true and I resolved to find out if this dream lifestyle was really possible.

– Derek