The truck in front of me on the old National 23 from Chartres to Le Mans braked hard and swung off down a track. As I sailed by I glimpsed a large building with Antiquités Brocante painted in large letters. “Zut!” I turned around at the next hamlet. A willow swept over the rushing water outside this former industrial water mill. In a more recent life it had accommodated a restaurant (the terrace, ornate white painted lamp posts and fairy lights suggested pleasant summer riverside evenings). Up a wide steel staircase to the very dusty Brocante. It wasn’t the sort of place to induce much verve in me, nevertheless with the blessing of high ceilings and plenty of floor space, the owner had no problem in displaying his industrial salvage and 1970’s paraphernalia. I didn’t stay long but did carry out a stack of porcelain plates, white beneath thick dust, and a small crystal vase that after a wash revealed itself to be Baccarat.
Turning north, I drove across country with slanting afternoon sun catching emerald fields of winter crops and russet forests against an inky sky. A white heron lifted from a ditch as I passed. This was Le Perche, deeply rural, peppered with turreted chateaux and charming towns. I’d been to this area for an excellent market in previous years. Now, with the completion of the autoroute, the area had become popular with Parisian weekenders, and a handful of rather beautiful antique shops had opened.
Outside the shop in Mortagne en Perche a van was unloading a metal bench, green paint faded to a perfect lettuce shade. An old florist’s sign still hung above the shop door. The bare boarded shop was arranged with hefty industrial cabinets and oak shutters, long farmhouse tables and pairs of eyes gazing from shadowy portraits. Dried leaves were scattered decoratively across tables and old documents were furled up on shelves. All gorgeous. The shop wasn’t properly open but often on the afternoon of a dealer’s fair it is possible to call in. A couple of American buyers with their courier were there too, peering with interest into an enormous stone font. I bought an 18th century iron door knocker and was offered a chocolate cherry liqueur. (Based on empirical evidence, cherry liqueurs would seem to be the bonbon of choice with antique dealers).
I’d arranged to visit a shop in nearby Belleme too. From the main square a cobbled street passed beneath a vaulted stone porch and up to the 18th century merchant’s house which was my destination. I pushed the bell and one of the double doors opened. Claude welcomed me into the long tiled hallway with high ceilinged rooms opening on either side. She and her husband had bought the house as a show case and it made a marvellous space to display their antiques. Tall glazed cabinets lined one wall of the salon. Large chandeliers hung lushly. An armoire of chateau proportions was filled with folded boutis quilts. A large stuffed lizard defended a secretaire with yellowed documents and jewelled boxes arranged in its compartments. Pale light fell through the windows on a marble topped table, glasses and candelabra. Enough to make any heart sing. (The two Americans arrived with their courier. We exchanged cards). Claude and Alain were as gracious as their surroundings, helping me to the van with my purchases.
From a café in a little square I watched the light change on pale apricot walls and pale blue shutters. Christmas baubles the size of footballs dressed the trees outside the Mairie. Next door, behind stacked rolls of fabric, an upholsterer was at work stripping down an armchair.