Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mr Bean's Holiday - we're not emulating his French antics

We're not aiming to emulate Mr Bean in our French holiday - ironically the DVD of his latest movie is released on the same day that we leave for France ....

Amazon are selling the Mr Bean's Holiday DVD for £12.98, or the combined twin pack of Mr Bean's Holiday and The Ultimate Disaster Movie (the first movie) for £18.74.

There's a cool trailer on the Amazon website and is definitely one I'll be buying when I get back.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Emptying the old septic tank and plans for the new one

As I wrote earlier we're due to have a new septic tank installed in our holiday cottage in France.

You might think that the fosse septique (septic tank) is a horribly smelly and disgusting place and definitely not something you ever want to venture near. I also had the same opinion until a couple of years ago we decided to get it cleaned and emptied out (something you're supposed to do every few years depending on usage, mainly to remove the layer of indigestible material that builds up on a crust at the top).

You can pay a fortune (€200 or so) for a company to come and clean it out, or you can do like I did and pay a local farmer. He came round the next day with a massive agricultural tanker connected to his tractor, had a lot of trouble getting it into the drive, and then proceeded to suck the contents of the fosse out in about 1/2 hour.

The most surprising thing for me was that it didn't really smell at all - probably due to all the microbacterial processes that break down the waste.

So one of the first things I need to do when we go over next week is to get the farmer to come and empty it again as we'll need it clean so that the builder can connect the new fosse onto the existing pipework.

The French like to size their fosse's based on the number of bedrooms in the property and allow 1000 litres fosse capacity for each bedroom. Right now our holiday home has 3 bedrooms so that'd be a 3000 litre fosse I need.

Ah but no, we're in the process of converting the second house into a Gite, also with 3 bedrooms, so that's a 6000 litre system I need.

And it could get worse, the really long term plan is to convert the hay loft and stables at the end into a 3rd Gite, so that could mean requiring a 9000 litre system.

At this stage I had visions of a swimming pool size installation and the entire garden disappearing under a mountain of soil and pipework. We spent ages agonising about what size to put in, the fact that the house is only occupied about half the year lead me to think of not putting in such a big system, but then I started being worried about what if we did eventually convert the 3rd house and then came to sell and couldn't because of an inadequately sized fosse.

In the end we settled on a 6000 litre system which is what's being installed next week. Once I'd decided on the fosse size I had to pay €350 to the water company who come and do soil samples around the garden, work out what type of fosse is suitable, and then design it so that it meets all the regulations.

The plan is the official cadastre for our house and shows the roughly L shaped garden, the separate barn and the L shaped house.

I was hoping that we could put both the 6000 litre tank and the settlement bed in the garden to the right of the plans which is slightly downhill and would mean that the final remaining (cleaned) output from the fosse could run into the drainage ditch beside the roadway.

Unfortunately it was not to be. The size of the (sand filled) settlement bed is determined by the size of the tank, so worked out needing to be 35m2. Then there are strict regulations about separation from the house (minimum 5m), neighbouring properties (3m) and boundary walls (3m). There simply wasn't enough room to get the required size fosse into that area of garden.

So we've ended up with the fosse going into that garden area and the settlement bed going behind the barn (just about the number '51' on the plan). This means running 34m pipework all up the back of the house from the tank to the settlement bed, installation of an electric pump (as this part of the garden is about 2m higher than the tank) to pump the waste along and up the pipework, then a whole set of return pipework to get back down to the drainage ditch.

There's also the small matter of where the 40m2 or so of excavated earth is going to go. I'm hoping to spread it over the existing garden, take out some of the slopes and raise the level a bit (raise them a lot probably). Whether this works out remains to be seen.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Moncontour's medieval festival is on tomorrow - 19th August 2007

Every two years the medieval walled town of Moncontour (which is about 30 minutes drive from our holiday Gite) holds a medieval festival, and I've just checked the moncontour medieval festival website and found out that it's on tomorrow.

We go over to France on Monday so will miss it by one day - rats!

Two years ago the festival was in the middle of our holiday and we had a great time watching the jousters, jugglers, magic shows, street entertainers, etc. The whole town is converted into one giant festival, pretty much everyone dresses up, and there's loads to see and do.

Here's some more photos from 2 years ago:

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Flipped off fridges and wonky washing machines

I received a text message from the guests that were staying in our Gite on the weekend to say that the "fridge wasn't working and was there anything I could do to help".

Fearing the worst of frantic guests surrounded by melted ice cream and sour milk I called them back to try to diagnose what the problem was. Our agents (Cherril and Alan) always give the fridge a clean when they're doing the changeover and they hadn't reported the problem so I was a bit surprised that it had stopped working.

Easy fix this one, someone had turned the fridge off on the wall! As the fridge is under the working surface there's a switch on the wall above to make it easier to turn the fridge off when the house is empty. Despite the button being marked 'Fridge On', it'd been overlooked.

Happy guests now.

Unfortunately the fix for the washing machine hasn't been quite so simple.

The changeover beforehand Cherril emailed me afterwards to say that the washing machine didn't seem to be working. It was turned on and the dryer worked properly but the knob on the washing machine just spun round and didn't turn the machine on.

More emails back and forwards to try to diagnose the problem, then Alan went over and had a look and determined that the switch has been broken inside, so the washing machine is probably irreparable.

One of the hazards of renting out the house I guess is having to sort out problems and breakages like this. Washing machines in France still tend to be quite expensive (€300 or more) and are usually top loaders (instead of front loaders you get in the UK) so the previous washing machine was bought in the UK and transported over.

Liz and I talked it over and decided the easiest thing would be to buy another one over here and take it with us when we go over next week, so that's what we're doing.

The car looks as if it'll be pretty full (as per usual), we've the washing machine to take over, a bike rack (for the bikes in the barn), a belfast sink for the kitchen in the second house, plus the usual bits and bobs we accumulate between each visit such as a cover for the swimming pool and some more books and videos.

Oh well, I guess that's why we've got a people carrier!

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Written a very large cheque - new fosse in August

I've just written a very large (40% deposit) cheque for installation of a new fosse septique for our holiday home and have in the process completely cleaned our French bank account out (hence having to transfer some more money from the UK to my French bank account with Moneybookers).

Like most of rural France (in fact pretty much everywhere outside of the major towns and villages) we're not on mains drainage at our Gite and instead have a septic tank system - fosse septique. Despite what you might think it's been pretty trouble free in the four years we've had the house but as we're now starting to convert the second house and need to connect up additional toilets, toilet and showers it's time to get things expanded and replaced.

There are basically 4 parts to our existing fosse:
  1. Connected to the kitchen sink is a bac degreaseur (fat trap) that's basically a concrete chamber amount 2 feet across and 2 feet deep that all liquid from the kitchen sink (and dishwasher) goes into, the fat settles off it, then the liquid drains into a ditch on the other side of the road.

    I once made the mistake of trying to clean the bac out by removing some of fat and disposing of it in the rubbish bin. It was an absolutely horrible job scooping congealed fat out (using the kitchen colander), it stank to high heaven and my arm and the colander ended up being covered in sticky white fat. It took three goes in the dishwasher to get the colander clean (and I wasn't popular as a result!) and two showers for me, and even then my skin still smelt for a day or two afterwards!
    Morale of the story is to leave the fat trap well alone, it seemed to work properly so best not to fiddle!

  2. Next is the main fosse tank. Ours is a concrete chamber sunk underground by the boiler room. It's about 1 metre in diameter across and about a metre deep and is divided roughly two-thirds/one-third with a concrete wall that goes up to the top and has a large hole in it about 40cm down. Both toilets drain into the larger of the two chambers.

    The process is quite simple. Solids (and liquids) from the toilet flush into the larger chamber and then microbes present in the waste break down the organic material (including toilet paper) into a liquid and a residual crust that floats to the top. The liquid waste from the toilets and the bacterial process flow through the dividing hole in the fosse into the second chamber and then out along a drain pipe into the water collection chamber (part #3).

  3. The water collection chamber is simply a 2 foot wide by 2 foot deep concrete chamber that both the liquids from the fosse tank drain into and also the bath, handbasins and shower all drain directly into (i.e. they do not drain into the fosse tank, only into the collection chamber). The collection chamber simply holds liquids prior to them draining away in the soakaway bed (part #4) as when you empty the bath there's a lot of water to get rid of quickly and the soakaway bed may not be able to cope with such a volume arriving all at once.

  4. The soakaway bed is where all the liquids drain away. There's different models, some drain into a ditch at the side of the road, some have a long series of perforated pipes to disperse the liquid over a large area, and some are simply a gravel pit dug in the ground.

    I've never dug enough holes in the driveway of our Gite to work out what ours is but I have a strong suspicion that it's simply a gravel pit which over time has got compacted down not least of which because the soakaway bed is (as far as I can tell) under the driveway where we park the car.

So in a couple of weeks time all this is going to be removed and replaced with a brand new, guaranteed for 10 years, Euro-standard approved fosse.

I'll try to scan in the plans for the new fosse so that I can then show you more properly what's going to be done.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

2008's just around the corner, we've had our first booking

Some people are just more organised than others.

I like to think I'm fairly organised (the reality is I'm organised about some things and not at all about others), but I'm not as organised as the Porter family of Devon who have just tonight booked a 2008 summer holiday in our Brittany Gite, an amazing 363 days before they are due to go!

The booking came through the holiday home listing we have on VillaRentals who rather than charging an up front fee, they charge on a per-booking basis. Over the 20 months or so we've advertised on VillaRentals we've had about 8 bookings via them and looking back at my Blog posts from last year I saw that in fact my first 2007 holiday booking was also made via VillaRentals; only it was slightly later on, on the 24th August 2006 vs. 5th August 2007.

If it keeps on going on like this I'll be getting 2009 bookings before 2007 is out ! [Well actually I can't as I've only published rental prices up to the end of 2008 ....]

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Catching up on customer and holiday home admin

I know, I know, I've been a bit remiss on the blogging front over the last few weeks.

I have a good excuse (honest), that I've been working ridiculously hard trying to get the contract signed for a new project at work. I've had about 6 weeks of late nights and hard work agreeing contract schedules (the 'you do X, we do Y sort of stuff') in excruciating detail, and then when we thought it was almost sorted, we found that we were still away apart on some fundamental issues and so we've spent the last two weeks working solidly in their solicitors offices on agreeing everything. It must have been some of the hardest time at work I've ever had, every day from 8:30 (in central London so that means getting up at 6:15 for me) and finishing at 8pm or 9pm or 10pm, all the way up to 1am one morning - exhausting!

OK the free food (especially the bacon sandwiches) were good along with the endless diet coke, tea and coffee; and the surrounding were very nice in plush solicitors offices, but after nearly two weeks of it I was beginning to go stir crazy.

Anyway, it's all done now. Everything's agreed, the contract's been printed and signed, and now I'm back to normal work - just got to deliver all that we've set out in the contract now!

So the blog's got rather left to one side as has doing some of the admin associated with running our holiday home.

We've started getting a few enquiries over the last couple of weeks, some of them were for very optimistic customers who wanted to know if we had availability for this month (sorry, no), but we've also taken bookings for two separate weeks in October and the Christmas week. One of the October bookings was from a family in Sweden who will be flying over to Paris and then driving down to Brittany and the Christmas booking was for a family who stayed with us soon after we'd first started renting the Gite in May 2005. Nice to talk to them again and hear that they want to come and have a different Christmas in France.

So of course with new bookings I've been getting a bit behind with the admin, writing and sending out the booking confirmations, marking down deposit payments and monies owing, sending out travel directions from the appropriate port or airport to each customers, telling our agents that their holiday dates, etc, etc.

More work for me (unpaid unfortunately) but one I enjoy doing. It's when you get emails from the returning customers who say things like "We did have a wonderful week in your gite, you are very lucky to have such a place in such a beautiful part of the world" it makes it all worthwhile.

In case you're wondering, the picture above is of the inside of the roof of our barn in France. We use the barn to store the bikes and kids toys in !
Here's a larger picture of the inside of the barn roof.