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My Old Winepress

by Mike Fairbairn


                                          The Old Winepress today showing garden and pool
I bought the Old Winepress in 1994. It was part of a job lot – 4 village houses back to back in a serious state of disrepair that nobody wanted. It was too good to miss, although the bill for the work would be something astronomical if I didn’t do most of it myself.  I started by smashing out the third house to make space for a garden with a view to putting a pool into what used to be the front yard of The Old Winepress. The house I chose to live in straight away was made (almost) habitable in 10 weeks, so I moved in and started a project which was to last 18 years ! And I haven’t really finished it all yet.
After more or less fixing up “my house” I went on the do the stable block and pool, and some ten years later started on The Old Winepress itself . Why the name? Because this building is very unusual in that it had a smithy on the first floor (yes, I did say the first floor) and an old manual winepress in what is now the kitchen. Next door to the kitchen and part of the actual structure of the house is the original wine “cuve” ( vat) which is built out of stone and rendered on the inside with a mixture of lime and sand. It could probably hold several thousand litres. I’ve often threatened to knock it out to enlarge what is now the dining room, but somehow I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it !
The Old Winepress before renovation showing the third house which was demolished to make a garden

Renovating old houses is a disease I contracted while living in England where I did up my first house, a beaten up old thatched cottage dating back to the mid 18th century. I knew absolutely nothing about building then, but with a little help from my friends and some very friendly professionals I turned it into a peaches and cream, picture postcard residence. The effect on me was immediate. Comparing photos of the condition of the house when I bought it with photos of the finished article gave me an enormous feeling of satisfaction. Unfortunately I had to sell it as I decided to move to France where I ended up renovating two stone houses, one in the south west and one near Uzès before arriving here in Vallabrix in the Gard, which in my opinion is the most beautiful area of France.
I had been a working potter producing salt glazed stoneware when I arrived in France in 1979, but feeding a family on such an erratic salary became too difficult and so, when I arrived in Uzège ( the communité de communes de l’Uzège to be exact) in 1983 I started looking around for another way to earn a living.
My French was very ropey, to say the least, and the problems I had communicating and generally joining in with conversations had become a real problem, particularly from a work point of view. I have always made an effort to become thoroughly integrated into the community, which has even gone as far as becoming Président de la comité des fêtes in my village, in charge of organising all the festivités in the village, including the fête votive at the end of August with the music and dancing in the central square, concours de boules, and of course the Bull Running, a tradition which is still very much alive in the Gard.


                              Bull-running in the streets of Vallabrix during the Fête Votive in August.
It was my children, both born here in France, who finally got sufficiently fed up with listening to their Dad struggling to put a very bad French phrase together in front of their friends, who gave me “La planete des Singes” (The Planet Of The Apes) and suggested I read it and try to understand “EVERYTHING, DAD !”.
Armed with a dictionary, the “Bled” which is the bible of the French language, and an awful lot of very patient help from friends and relations – including my kids of course, I made enough progress to start my second book, then my third etc. I finally went on the take the CAPES, which is the French national teachers’ exam which gave me the right to teach English in a French school on equal terms with other French teachers.
This was the beginning of a big turn around for me. Like most people in the world I had always believed that to learn a foreign language all you had to do was to live in the country where the language was spoken and, Bingo, you woke up one morning with a fluent language running round your head. This is absolutely not the case. Without a basic understanding of the grammar it is virtually impossible for the average adult to speak a foreign language with any degree of coherence. I use the word adult deliberately as I can confirm that children such as my own who are brought up in a bilingual family learn the grammar automatically, as they would do if they spoke only one language.
This is where my interest in languages began to develop. I understood why most people have difficulty learning a language and what people need to give them the where-with-all and the confidence to speak. After all, I had been there, done that and bought the tee shirt! I finally created my own teaching method based on using rock, reggae and funk music to help people remember and pronounce correctly what they hear .You can see a synopsis of the method with a video clip on
And then I met Tina, my partner, who is French and speaks excellent English. We discovered that we shared exactly the same point of view on language teaching – which is based on encouraging communication and paying as little attention as possible to the mistakes. It’s a little like the idea of getting onto an escalator which takes you up to the next floor in a commercial centre. Once you’re on the escalator you can exchange ideas in the chosen language which gives you confidence to speak more, so you understand more and all the while you’re riding up to the next level. Once there you can choose to stop or get on the elevator which takes you up to the next floor, and so on. If , however, you don’t make it as far as the elevator because people put too many barriers in your way by telling you that there’s no point in taking the elevator because you’ll fall off, or it’s dangerous, or whatever, then you’ll never get to feel like you’re getting somewhere! A strange metaphor perhaps, but one which I think is very close to the truth. You start on the ground floor; you learn the basics which then gives you the confidence to take the elevator up to the next floor and so on. Motivation is the name of the game, and communicating in a foreign language is a satisfying and sometimes, an exhilarating experience.

                                              Mike and Tina in front of the main house.
Tina enjoys giving French lessons to Anglo-Saxons as it involves a very real exchange between the two languages – and all of her clients are always really motivated! The classes are held in the spacious living room of the main house, giving a very relaxed atmosphere to the two 90 minute sessions which she gives every morning (max 6 students). The afternoon is given over to practicing the language in real situations, often with specific tasks being given to each student such as buying the ingredients for the evening meal, or with a guided tour depending on the programme.
We had the idea of offering guided tours because so many of our visitors to The Old Winepress were at a loss as to how to plan their time here. This is often due to the fact that there is so much to see and do coupled with a lack of confidence about getting there and back and dealing with everything in French. When we take people to Nimes, for example, to see the famous Coliseum, or the Maison Carré, both amazingly well preserved monuments dating back to Roman Times, we know where to park, how to get there and which restaurants and cafés to stop in to take a coffee or a “pression” and watch the Nîmois and Nîmoise going about their business. We usually manage to get a look at the Pont Du Gard on the way back whilst explaining to our visitors the significance of this exceptional monument, how and why it was built before going on to do a bit of shopping in Uzès. Often we point out restaurants in the area, make the reservations by phone, and then leave our guests to fend for themselves with the menu with the possibility of driving them there and picking them up at the end of the evening. That’s what’s called being dropped in at the deep end !
                                     Riding home at the end of a long day in the Camargue.
Avignon with the Palais des Papes and the history surrounding it, the Camargues with the pink flamingoes, black bulls and white horses; the wine tasting in Tavel, famous for its rosé wine,or the Chateau neuf du pape and of course the Gigondas and, my favourite, the Côte du Rhone are all within easy driving distance. Our visits to Anduze with a ride on the steam train to St Jean du Gard is always very popular, and the drive through the Cevennes mountains to the Pont de Montvers in autumn never ceases to amaze because the massive old chestnut trees present a psychedelic colour show as the sun shines through their multi-coloured leaves.

And of course there’s the sea with its wild beaches in the Camargues, and the rivers ( Gardon and Cèze) where you can swim, or take a canoe (even under the Pont du Gard !) Then there are the fantastic markets in Uzès and Goudargues where they sell just about every kind of fresh food you could imagine as well as oysters in season that you buy by the dozen to eat in a local bar where you can sip a cool white wine and watch the world go by; or just the simple walks in the fields and vineyards around Vallabrix.
For the more energetic there’s rock-climbing, horse riding through the spectacular countryside around the river Gardon, western and European style, with a swim across with the horses just for fun, mountain biking with a possible climb up Mount Ventoux for the really energetic ( 1 hour away), golf courses in Avignon, Nimes and Montpellier, kite surfing on the shallow waters of Les Etaings near Arles, or paragliding at the local club only a 20 minute drive away. 

We can offer art classes in summer with a couple of local artists, as well as pottery courses with out next door neighbour ( ) which can be done on a daily, hourly or weekly basis.
We also offer to find accommodation in the area for students following our French courses. This could be anything from a chateau to a simple bed and breakfast depending on your tastes and needs.

So, what are you waiting for? Come and see us – we’d love to see you at The Old Winepress.

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