I long for a second life away from the M25, Gordon Brown and Tesco

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The Independent Travel
FOR THE rest of this month, villages hidden in the vineyards of south-west France will - as they always do - resound to the creaking groans of long-disused wooden barn-doors being dragged open by estate agents. In each case, an English couple with young children will step squinting into the darkness, marvelling at rough stone walls, precarious wooden joists overhead, cracked flagstones underfoot and colossal cooking ranges in kitchens blackened with centuries of use. The detritus of a farmer's life - riding equipment, cow halters, wine barrels, fruit-drying trays, broken ploughs, empty bottles - will lie about under cobwebs. But the seeds of yet another holiday home will have well and truly germinated.

I am borrowing one of the region's many holiday homes this week, and I, too, am entirely convinced that all I want from life is a restored barn of my own. A local farmer is offering a nearby chunk of land with two decaying structures for sale. Who wouldn't be tempted to prolong, indefinitely, their holiday here? In this secluded hamlet I will not have my space encroached upon by lager louts, by fast cars, by camera-touting tourists. I will spend a lifetime pointing the original stonework, whitewashing the interiors, renovating the beams, restoring the outdoor well, replacing the dovecote, and, just possibly, indulging some of my baroque fantasies (a balustraded marble staircase lined by cherubs, leading up the hill to the swimming pool perhaps? A long driveway lined by horse-chestnut trees? A Versailles-style landscaped garden?).

Yes, buying a second home in the Dordogne offers a chance for the medieval barons inside us to express themselves. This is all part and parcel of the special English relationship with Aquitaine - I am told that John Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who died defending this former piece of England against the French king, is a still-revered local hero. The whole system of appellation controlee, by which Bordeaux wines are classified and marketed, also smacks of English involvement (which may be something to consider when you negotiate the price of your future home).

Talking of price, the asking amount for the two semi-derelict structures I am looking at - with a large piece of land attached - is pounds 25,000 and, if I pay in cash, I might get it for less. Shall I or shan't I? All I can see are endless luscious vineyards, small copses and dusty tracks. All I can hear are crickets and the wind in the trees, plus (very distantly) chickens, donkeys and dogs. The local paysans look like they have been dressed up to perform as extras in a film about traditional French country life; berets and faded blue overalls are mandatory, strings of onion and garlic cannot be far away.

This must be the key to it. Restoring old barns in hidden French villages is not just about second homes (who wants to be condemned to spending every holiday for the rest of their lives in the same place?). No, it's second lives that we're after. It`s playing petanque with the village grandees over a bottle of pastis, it's knowing the mayor's phone number, it's dunking your bread in the local wine, it's perambulating the vineyards and poking at grapes while muttering about great vintages of your youth. What a great insurance policy against the M25, Gordon Brown and Tesco.

Great, that is, as long as the sud-ouest retains its unique capacity to absorb foreign residents without losing its character. But rural life is changing fast in France; the little farms are being swallowed up into larger entities. One day soon, I fear, the last barn will have been converted, and the last paysan will have hung up his onions forever. Then, I will have to look elsewhere for my second life.