An Englishman’s home is his castle in France. From the tower, he can watch for advancing guests through slit-arrow windows. The garden is enclosed by low stone walls and walnut trees, and inside the house there are medieval fireplaces and stone éviers (sinks). His castle would probably be a National Trust property if it were in this country. But in France, houses with watchtowers are two-a-penny, and the British owner can use stones from a crumbling wall in the garden to build a barbecue without incurring the wrath of a heritage organisation.
We are much more fond of these obtuse-shaped buildings than the French. Only a Brit would go to the trouble of converting a cupboard-sized tower room into a Sleeping Beauty-style bedroom. “They love France’s heritage,” says Trevor Leggett, of Leggett Immobilier. “And often they do a much better job at looking after it.” When a property doesn’t have a tower, the disgruntled English owner has been known to build one from scratch – much to the amusement of French stonemasons.
In the 11th century, however, a tower was vital if you wanted to be taken seriously in regions such as Limousin or the Lot. Les Chemins de Jacques, the routes from northern European countries to the shrine of St Jacques de Compostelle in northern Spain, converge in the southern regions of France and are littered with square watchtowers. They were built on hilltops and designed to provide a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside.
Pilgrims and Les Templiers (the Knights Templar) stayed in them as they crusaded through Europe.
“Nobody was safe for very long in those days,” says Charles Smallwood, from Agence L’Union. “The basic concept was you would be able to see the enemy. The towers were quite easy to defend with two-metre thick walls – how they built them, I don’t know.”
But they were built to last. Castel de Perilhac, in Limousin, with a particularly elegant watchtower, was once the local headquarters of the Knights Templar, and is now on the market for €549,000 (Savills 0207 016 3740). It enjoys uninterrupted views across the local hilltops and features a particularly fine fireplace with stone columns and a mezzanine library. There is a second cottage and wonderful gardens, filled with roses.
Towers remained popular for the next few centuries, gradually becoming more of an architectural feature than a military look-out post. Many lost their roofs in the 18th century, when a tower tax was brought in – rather like England’s window tax. But the tall structures, often attached to the most meagre barn, are still a prominent feature on the French landscape and make excellent, château-style second homes – once you have fixed the roof.
Château de Labistoul, the remains of an 11th-century tower in Tarn, predates the well-known citadel town of Cordessur- Ciel, five miles away. It is a perfect country home-away-from-home with a six-bedroom family house, a second house with four bedrooms, two swimming pools, a stocked lake and stables (€1,600,000, Savills 0207 016 3740).
But towers in France don’t have to cost more than a million. Tour Anne, a fortified medieval tower, 20 minutes from the cathedral town of Albi (home to the Toulouse Lautrec Museum), is a snip at €275,000. It was used to guard the local bridge and has been restored to include a living room, kitchen, two spacious bedrooms and a wine cellar.
If the French weren’t so keen on eating pigeons (and their eggs), they might have stopped building towers when the Wars of Religion ended in the 16th century. But they discovered the walls made excellent nesting sites for pigeons, particularly when the slit windows were enlarged, allowing the fatter birds to fly in and out.
New towers were built with hundreds of boulins (pigeonholes) inside, and when landowners realised pigeon dung made good fertiliser for vines, pigeonniers sprung up all over the countryside. These were not mere farm buildings; they were built in flamboyant square and octagonal architectural styles and given prominent positions on estates, sometimes mounted on pillars or over archways. Pigeon-keeping, until the French Revolution in 1789, was a privilege reserved for the nobility and clergy – and pigeonniers thus a sign of status and power.
“Architecturally, they are often more beautiful than the towers,” says Mr Smallwood. “They add such fascination to each building. They are like little châteaux but have none of the upkeep problems.” Pigeon-keeping was deeply unpopular with anyone who wasn’t nobility and clergy; the pigeons from the great estates fattened themselves up on the peasants’ crops, before being eaten by monks and aristocrats.
Some peasants built secret pigeonniers in their lofts but, on the whole, pigeons were detested. Thankfully, the French didn’t pull down the pigeonniers after the Revolution and the buildings can be converted into interesting holiday accommodation.
The pigeonnier at a stonebuilt property near Cajarc on the River Lot (€426,000 Agence L’Union, 00 33 5 6330 6024) has been transformed into a bedroom/study, looking out across beautiful gardens.
At a property in Tarn et Garonne, the large pigeonnier has been attached to the house, creating more accommodation (€795,000 Agence L’Union, as above). A roof terrace with a bolet (a tiled canopy, popular in south-west France) makes the most of the hilltop location.
Meanwhile, a perfectly formed pigeonnier in the village of Beuregard in the Lot (€155,000, Savills 0207 016 3740) has been converted into a love-nest with circular kitchen and bedroom and two acres of garden.
For someone looking for their own project, a forgotten pigeonnier in woodland on a 250-acre hunting estate in the Dordogne could be transformed into an idyllic holiday house (€900,000, Leggett 08700 11 51 51).
The stately pigeonnier near the town of Duras, in Lot et Garonne, was built on a vineyard to make the unglamorous task of transporting pigeon dung to the vines as easy as possible. However, there is no doubt that it could be converted into an appealing mini-château, with the original boulins as windows (Leggett 08700 11 51 51).
The surrounding vineyards, which produce yearly harvests of Semillion/ Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc grapes and a large ancient farmhouse (also unrenovated) are included in the €339,200 price, providing the perfect French country estate for a wine-drinking Francophile.