The children couldn’t believe it. Here was a real castle with huge fireplaces, massive beams, thick walls and bags of places to explore or hide - and they were going to live in it for two whole weeks! Their excitement was palpable.
From the moment of arrival, they galloped around this magnificent French manor, exploring its seemingly endless rooms, cellars and passages. They claimed their bedrooms, admired the views of the expansive grounds, ran down to the swimming pool, tennis court and swings and then wondered where granny and grandad - my wife and I - were going to sleep (we bagged a four-poster bed in a quiet en suite room). And who was going to occupy the extra house near the pool? And when could they use the barbecue? Or the jacuzzi? How do you play pool and would grandad like the mini-bar?
There were so many questions to be asked and decisions to be made but it was all sorted out amicably and so the sixteen of us settled into Le Manoir de la Baronie for our first night. With eight children whose ages ranged from three to thirteen this wonderful old house relished the opportunity to show us how easily it could cope with everybody.
Furnished with atmospheric French antiques among tapestries hanging from mighty walls and with leather-bound books in many rooms, Le Manoir managed to boast a well-equipped up-to- date kitchen and modern TV sets in the lounge and bedrooms. We wanted for nothing. In fact, it’s fair to say none of us really wanted to leave the house to explore the neighbourhood. Le Manoir boasted sufficient space with a choice of activities that would keep us all happy and busy.
We ate on the covered terrace around a table large enough to accommodate everyone - and we sat down together for meals. The owner of Le Manoir, an accomplished chef called Eric, prepared a couple of special meals, one being a birthday celebration for twelve-year old Anna and the other a belated birthday treat for Granny. Add two sons-in-law whose remarkable form of relaxation was to cook meals for sixteen and there’s little wonder we did not want to leave in search of restaurants and cafés.
But of course we did explore. There is so much of interest throughout the Dordogne - the delightful medieval towns of Bergerac and Perigueux are within half an hour’s drive on quiet roads that present no problems for English drivers. I went to St Emilion, famous for its wine, whilst the children explored the Rouffignac Cave with its six miles of tunnels containing drawings more than 13,000 years old - including some mammoths.
But the star of our visit was undoubtedly Le Manoir. Surrounded by woods full of green woodpeckers constantly calling, with black-tailed red squirrels gambolling around the grounds and running across the table tennis table, lizards sunning themselves near the swimming pool and buzzards mewing and soaring above the grounds, it was like the Garden of Eden. A beautiful and unforgettable holiday. Nicholas Rhea is author of 130 books including the Constable series upon which Heartbeat is based. His website is www.nicholasrhea.co.uk