When we arrived, after two days' journey, with two small children, we discovered Madame arranging masses of straggly wild flowers in china urns. She said something but the noise of water made it difficult to hear ourselves speak. The house was macabre: flowers in urns, the black oak dresser, black oak wardrobe, black oak bed all created a funereal air, and the sour smell of cesspit was everywhere.
When darkness fell, we tucked up the children in the main bed, and Dave and I collapsed in the back bedroom. Dave fell instantly asleep while I unwound with a book. It was then the noises started, from the ceiling and the wall behind our bed: a scurrying and a scampering; the sound of plaster cascading; the thud of large, soft bodies playing tag. I shook Dave: "Rats!" I said in horror, "Rats!" "Nothing we can do about it," he muttered and fell instantly back to sleep. I read through the night.
Next day, we called Madame who expressed surprise and disbelief but agreed to clamber into the attic and sprinkle rat poison. As I watched her fat bottom disappear into the ceiling, I had a strong feeling we were being humoured. She was carrying the kind of paper bag you put sweets into.
That evening, we had supper al fresco. As we chatted over tuna salad, fresh bread and wine, I suddenly saw a procession of rats, large as cats, in silhouette, moving along the hedge towards the river. For the children's sake, I pretended to eat while watching with fascinated revulsion.
Once, we returned from a day's outing to find a squad of mice playing on the floor of the sitting room. Dave phoned the holiday rep who disclaimed all responsibility for wildlife but, under persuasion, offered us a gite right back on the coast we had just come from.
So, no escape. For two weeks, we had to live with the rats. "Oh, look," we'd say brightly, gazing down at the weir, "there are the rats." And the children would gaze at half a dozen of them, in mink-coloured coats, sunning themselves serenely on the rocks.
We got to banging the door before entering the house, thumping the walls before we slept, but still the rats were with us. I feared they might bite the children in bed. We locked all food away and I prayed no one would fall into the lake.
We survived by going out each day. After breakfast, while I cleared up and prepared the picnic, Dave would take the children up to the barn to play table tennis. On our sixth day, the table was gone and from the roof hung the carcass of a deer, its blood dripping slowly onto the floor. Fortunately, Dave had entered first so he was able to steer the children away before they saw anything. No doubt the blood would be a special treat for the rats that evening.
On our return, friends would ask: "Have a nice time?" "Ghastly," we would reply and their faces would instantly brighten.
When we mentioned the rat poison, a farmer friend said: "You were fooled. Those rat runs have been there for over 400 years. It was they who tolerated you, not the other way round."