Fiona Freer

Writer, historian and speaker

Back In Time – through our friends’ front door.


Jill and John bought a holiday home in rural Brittany about eleven years ago. I was working with John at the time and I thought it was a great idea – my family had a dream of doing the same one day. Last week our visits to Brittany coincided and Jill invited us to spend the day with them, and see their Breton home.
Their house was originally built around 1930 as a four-roomed cottage. A few steps from the communal bread oven that was used by every household in the hamlet, it has a very large garden as well as several fields and outbuildings.
Jill is interested in social history and has pieced together the story of the family who built the cottage and lived in it until recently. Luckily the house was sold to Jill and John by one of the younger daughters of the family, and she was happy to tell them about her childhood and her life on the farm.
Her parents were used to overcoming hardship. They were married just before the First World War, but her father was gassed while fighting in the trenches and came home with his health wrecked. But he certainly found comfort in his happy marriage – his eldest two children were born during the war, but he went on to father fifteen more once the war had ended. His wife was a small woman, but indomitable and strong. Jill worked out that her life had followed a relentless pattern – she breastfed each baby for about eight months and then became pregnant again. Her youngest child was born in 1939 when she must have been about forty-five. She had spent twenty-five years having one baby after another.
The cottage must have been crowded but it certainly would not have been cold. John had lit the log burner in the morning, and we sat in the cosy living room after lunch while Jill explained that the fire heated the whole house, just as efficiently as central heating. We have found the same thing; every room in our house is toasty warm after the fire has been on for a little while. Not only that – the little barn built on the other side of our chimney also gets warm, so the animals could be kept snug in the winter. The Bretons knew how to build cottages.

Our woodburner

Our woodburner

Nor would the seventeen children have been hungry. The large back garden was used to grow vegetables, the long, low, dusty barns were full of chickens, rabbits and pigs, and there were cows and crops in the fields.
And the mother was a good cook. To increase the family income she turned the living room into a café and bar and served drinks and simple meals. She even catered for wedding receptions, with the guests sitting in their best clothes on long wooden benches in the lane outside.
During the Occupation, German soldiers often visited the bar. Some of the villagers refused to speak to them, but perhaps the soldiers were grateful to sit in such a homely place. The family living room with its roaring log fire and the tasty home-cooked food must have reminded them of the loved ones they had left behind, and their own houses which must have felt so very far away.
There were two bedrooms upstairs, presumably one for the boys and one for the girls, while the parents slept downstairs in the big, square kitchen. Having seventeen children guaranteed a workforce, and the older ones must have been kept busy preparing food, serving the customers and settling the animals for the night. Meanwhile the little ones dropped off to sleep, soothed by the rumble of voices, the clinking of glasses and the smoky fog of Gauloises drifting up the stairs.
All this hard work paid off, and in the 1950s a large extension was added to the cottage. This comprised of two more bedrooms, a large kitchen and living room and a bathroom with a separate toilet – luxury in 1950! Presumably the extra accommodation was for older, married children who stayed at home.
The house certainly has quite an atmosphere. I sat in the cosy living room and closed my eyes, and imagined the German soldiers in their heavy boots savouring delicious food and dreaming of their homeland, the giggling and pattering of feet in the upstairs room and the occasional cry of a toddler, the father wheezing in his chair and the tiny, strong-willed mother stirring huge pots of good smelling stew and tapping the ladle on the side with her work-worn hands. Perhaps she glanced up to smile at her first born son as he loped in from the fields, and felt satisfied with everything she had achieved.
With many thanks to Jill and John for a fascinating day.