SAMANTHA BRICK finds out how Trish has brought the mill back to life
WHY NOT? That was Trish Purnell’s reaction when her son, James, suggested they buy a house in France together.
For Trish, from Cambridgeshire, her dream of life in France came six years ago just after her mum died.
She said: “My two sons and I have always been a strong threesome, so when James, my eldest, suggested we buy a place together in France, I thought why not. We’ve always loved France, we thought it would be nice if we did this together.”
Trish, a retired teacher and James, who works in the City, began trawling the internet immediately. They didn’t want to be overwhelmed with a renovation project and, instead, they were looking for somewhere that could be lived in immediately, yet with the possibility of making their own mark on the property.
Mother and son were attracted by the Burgundy region in eastern France. “We wanted a new area of interest, as we’ve travelled pretty much all over France, we knew we needed to be far enough south of the Loire River and south of Dijon to get better weather. We’re lovers of good wine and gastronomy and this area has all of those attributes in abundance.”
Fortunately it didn’t take them long to find the house of their dreams. “When we first saw the photographs, we both said this is it. James phoned me and said I think we should go. As we spoke he booked two flights on the internet.”
In 2006 Trish and James found themselves in front of a watermill on the banks of a tributary of the River Seille.
“We never set out to buy a mill. We actually wanted to be in the vineyards on the other side of the River Saône. We were looking for something smaller; this was more renovated than we wanted and more expensive than we’d anticipated. But we both stood and stared at it and just couldn’t put into words how we felt about it.
“We loved the space when we walked in, the feel of it, the flow of it. It was love at first sight for both of us.”
Even today Trish has discovered very little about the history of the mill: “I assume it would have been used for grinding flour. It has a horizontal wheel; they’re always inside the building, and no one would have lived in such a space while it was a working mill. The miller’s cottage is actually further down the road.”
Trish discovered that the major renovation work had been undertaken by a Swiss engineer. “We have all his plans and drawings, everything is meticulous. He did a good job; it was to Swiss standards!
“For instance, it’s got under-floor heating and all the pipes are well and truly lagged. Part of the mill is suspended over the river, water’s running underneath the house and, touch wood, we’ve never had a problem with frozen pipes, even in this year’s bitingly cold winter.”
The main room in the mill still contains the original wheel and machinery today. It was from this central area that the Swiss owner designed the mill’s living quarters. Trish said: “From the original working space he broke through the area downstairs and upstairs. I measured the wall, it’s 40cm thick, it would’ve been quite a feat.”
The engineer also created an extension over the river too. As a result the mill is a four-bedroom property with two bathrooms.
But the jewel in the crown is the living room, which still contains the original horizontal wheel and its mechanisms. “It’s such a fantastic space,” Trish said. “It’s quite a rough building internally, made of stone because it was originally designed as a working environment. It isn’t posh at all, yet I love it.’
Trish moved into the mill and, with James, set about creating the home of her dreams.
“We didn’t need to do anything in the way of major works which was very appealing! What it needed was love and bringing to life.
“I love setting up home, it was a challenge for me. We weren’t bringing furniture from another place, we were staring at a blank canvas together in a foreign country.
“James took a sabbatical, he based himself down here and so we spent a lot of time together; sourcing furniture at brocantes, putting up curtain rails, hanging pictures. We both agreed we wanted to retain the rustic rustic feel. It was a really special time for us to bring the mill to life.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Trish found that she was able to use the mechanics of the wheel, which dominate the living room, to her advantage.
“The workings of the wheel are in the floor and can’t be taken up. The Swiss engineer had covered the bottom of the machinery with wood and so I made a central seat around it with lots of cushions.”
Trish didn’t just make cushions for the wheel seat, she made most of the soft furnishings throughout.
“I went around finding fabrics I liked that I thought were sympathetic to the mill. I was determined to bring it to life.’
Life in a mill in the rural region of Burgundy isn’t how Trish, who has also lived on the Côte d’Azur, imagined she’d spend her retirement.
“I spend a lot of time here on my own and I love it. I’m amazed that I can do that, I’m very much a people person, yet I can be here for three weeks on my own just pottering and not see anyone.
“It’s very therapeutic because you can just let go, everything is a world away. “
Even the garden at the mill isn’t a conventional one. “We straddle the road, there are parcels of land here and there, the mill isn’t surrounded by a normal garden. It’s different and I like that.”
The mill is nestled in typical Burgundy countryside; low-lying with soft ground and lots of small rivers which meander into the River Saône.
Trish says the best part of living in a mill is the proximity to water: “In the summer, with the windows open, you’re lulled to sleep by the sound of the river trickling underneath the mill.
“I find I sleep really well. “In the winter, or when there’s heavy rain, it gushes through.
“Even when all the windows are closed it’s thunderous, then the water passes energetically under the sitting room competing with the sound of the television.
“The variations in the amount of water coming through are dictated by the Jura Mountains. With snow melt, or if there’s been heavy rain for several days then 24 hours later we get it.”
Without hesitation, Trish knows exactly where her favourite spot at the mill is: “The balcony out at the back overlooking the river, with water flowing underneath.
“It’s just fantastic in the evening watching the sunset. A glass of wine, food on the table, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be in the world.”