Ani Moriarty remembers the day she tried (and failed) to buy a medieval chapel
Traces of a once-bustling life from centuries ago are easy to miss, except for the ruins left behind. And those can leave much to the imagination. But in the southwesterly reaches of Normandy, right on the Brittany border, you can still see what remains of Château de Charuel, built as a stronghold for William the Conqueror in the 11th century. That château itself is no more.
I stumbled upon its ruins while exploring the backroads around the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel with my friend, Jacques. He stopped on a single-lane stone bridge and said: “Do you see that?”
I looked across a wetland full of marsh and ducks, and beyond that a small communal fishing lake neatly hedged. Beyond, stood a derelict cylindrical stone building with a conical slate roof, which had collapsed in on itself.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s beautiful. What is it?”
“It’s what’s left of a château of William the Conqueror. It’s for sale for €4,000.”
ANTIQUITY FOR THE TAKING
I may as well have been splashed with a cold bucket of water. Doing the maths between the end of Jacques’s sentence and the beginning of mine had me attempting to reconcile a 1,000-year gap, a length of time almost incomprehensible in my small-minded American world where everything was new. He was speaking of antiquity – right there, for the taking.
“Yes, it’s for sale. Has been for quite some time.”
“Can we go look?”
We were on the outskirts of a tiny, humble village called Sacey, with the 11th-century Église Saint-Martin perched high over it.
Off we went, turning down a side road behind an old mill. We took a sharp left over a wooden bridge and voilà, there it was: a lone, empty, half-round stack of stones; mortar completely gone, birds squawking on the ruins.
I got out quietly and walked the perimeter. Fish lake on the east side; tiny windows on high; an old, wooden, arched double door facing west, with a skeleton keyhole.
Peeking in, I glimpsed the back walls of an altar of sky blue. It was a chapel – a hand-hewn chestnut pew was still in place, fallen beams propped up against it, and a massive wrought-iron chandelier was hanging askew from en haut.
From there to the keyhole? Fifteen metres of rubble, broken chairs, crosses, candlestick holders – apparatus of rituals long abandoned, silenced and covered with dust. On the altar side, the tabernacle had been removed from the table, but a crooked, framed oil painting of the Virgin Mary remained.
I could not fathom how anyone could let this go. But there it was – nearly gone. I felt faced with an abrupt choice: walk away, or find a way to buy it – not only to save it from ruin, but to call it home.
I had come to France on a two-month sabbatical at the age of 49. All I thought life was about was changing and I wanted – no, needed – to completely unplug to gain fresh perspective.
I got online, rented a gîte for the duration, arrived, pulled out a chair at the front door, and sat watching no-one go by. I read, listened to the birds, the corn, the wheat, and Concorde as it broke the sound barrier heading off the coast of France to New York.
Buying property? Not on any screen of my life – until the chapel appeared. Thus opened my future. When I look back, this was the catalyst, the point of ignition, to make France my home.
“Jacques,” I said, “please, ask the mayor for a rendezvous. I want to buy it.”
Here I was in a foreign land. I spoke no French, had not a penny to my name and I was ready to drop for something completely out of my reality and world, just like that.
Jacques inquired. Sadly for me, it had been quietly purchased by the commune three weeks prior (and has since been beautifully restored).
But I got my happy ending. A 250-year-old stone house – in the same village as the gîte I’d been staying in – serendipitously fell into my lap just over a year later. A mere 2km walk from my now home, the chapel is a frequent destination.
All is as it should be…
From France Today magazine