A Labour of Love : Renovating Châteaux in France

Travel Team
By Travel Team 11 Min Read

Have you ever dreamed of giving up the daily grind? Swapping long commutes and desk jobs for a rambling house in the countryside and more time with loved ones? Meet Amy, Erin and Rebecca – three dreamers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Each of these women, along with their partners, purchased a château in the south of France, which they’re renovating and opening to guests. For each of the three couples, it’s been a life-changing decision.

Rebecca and her husband Tim are both British, and although they’d holidayed extensively in the Loire, they were happy with their life in Stamford, Lincolnshire. But then Rebecca watched a TV programme, Escape to the Château (which follows a British couple renovating an uninhabitable 45- room chateau in France), and realised there might be a better option.

“I started searching online and realised that we could swap our four-bed Victorian townhouse in Stamford, with its lovely, but admittedly little, garden for a 14-bedroom château with 15 acres of park and woodland,” she says.

For Erin and Amy, both of whom have French husbands, moving to France was always part of the plan. Amy and Marc had been living on Montserrat, a volcanic island in the Caribbean, but wanted to be closer to family.

“We didn’t set out to buy a château, we just wanted a little place in Europe. But things escalated when we started house-hunting,” Amy explains. “We decided if we did find a big place, we had to be able to make a living from it, so we didn’t have to get jobs in order to manage it.”

Meanwhile, Erin and Jean-Baptiste had always dreamed of buying and restoring a historic building in France together, and after nine years living in the UK, were ready to move.

“It was only when we first saw the Château de Borneau, with its romantic turrets rising above the wildflower meadow, that we both had a complete “coup de foudre” (love at first sight),” Erin says.

But renovating a château proved to be far from a fairytale experience for all three couples.

“A day in the life of a real “châtelaine” is a lot less glamourous than people think! More Cinderella-style task keeping than harp strumming and champagne swigging!” Erin says.

Extensive renovation was needed on all three properties. Château de Rosières, Marc and Amy’s home, had a derelict top floor. The surrounding outbuildings were also in a state of disrepair. And the more closely they looked, the more they realised there was to do. A simple bathroom renovation turned into a huge, nine-month project.

“We had to carve new paths for the drains all the way through the house, because it previously had some horrible shredder system for the toilet that just ended up in the pond in the front garden,” Amy explains.

Château de la Ruche, Rebecca’s petit château, was also very run down when they moved in.

“It had semi-functioning electrics and plumbing, and the septic tanks failed within two weeks of us moving in,” Rebecca says.

All three couples had to tackle challenging renovation projects before opening their châteaux to guests. Amy and Marc, for example, have recently completed the installation of a new woodchip boiler, which they will power using the trees from their estate – the largest domestic installation in France. Erin and Jean-Baptiste have renovated the four holiday cottages in their grounds, which house 44 people. Meanwhile, Rebecca and Tim have had to install a new septic tank and do extensive rewiring. These are all costly renovation projects – all three women say the financial burden is one of the biggest challenges of owning a château. As a result, the couples try to do as much of the unskilled labour themselves, learning as they go.

“It’s been a brilliant challenge and we’ve learned so many new skills,” Rebecca says.

Alongside renovation projects, there are lots of other tasks to be ticked off.

“Dividing our time is the hardest challenge – there is the important administration side of things from accounting, marketing and organising everything from yoga and art retreats to weddings, hen-dos and private parties, amidst the need for continuing general maintenance of the estate,” Erin explains.

Because of this, it can be difficult to strike a good work-life balance.

“You love where you live but you can never take a break because it’s always surrounding you, and you think ‘I’ll just do this’ or ‘I’ll just do that,’” Amy explains.

However, all three couples take pleasure in breathing new life into their châteaux by redecorating rooms, managing the grounds and sourcing period fixtures and fittings from local brocantes, or antiques markets.

The couples find that the reaction from guests is one of the most rewarding things about being a château owner.

“When they’re blown away by how magical it is here it makes all the hard work worth it,” Rebecca says. “You’re reminded of why you fell in love with it in the first place.”

Amy explains that the friendly atmosphere of Château de Rosieres and its surrounding grounds seems to really improve guests’ wellbeing.

“They feel like they can sleep better than they have for ages, that they can relax more – they just love it,” she says.

Another reward is how their relationships with their partners have developed while working on such large-scale projects together. All three say it’s strengthened their relationship, despite the stress of working and living together.

“We’ve been able to carve out our own roles and make the most of each other’s strengths. A big part of this adventure was about working together and it’s definitely made us closer,” Rebecca says.

Amy, who married Marc soon after meeting on Montserrat, knew that embarking on such a large- scale project together was a risk.

“It means you get to see each other all day every day, and learn about each other’s way of doing things,” she says. “As challenging as it is, each day is a challenge that helps you develop your relationship together.”

But the rewards of owning a chateau far outstrip the challenges. All three couples are happy with the decision they’ve made.

“The Château de Bourneau is our family home and a labour of love for us. It brings us so much pleasure seeing it come back to life and how much joy it brings our guests and local community,” Erin says.

Erin and Jean-Baptiste

Erin, a doctor, and Jean-Baptiste, a mechanical engineer, purchased Château de Bourneau in 2018. It’s a 50-room château in the Pays de Loire, built in the French renaissance style with fairytale turrets and a moat. The Château de Bourneau currently has the facilities to sleep 44 people in four large holiday cottages, each with a private pool. The couple has also converted a room in the château to a luxurious honeymoon suite. They cater for group holidays, weddings and other private events. In the future they hope to restore the château in its entirety and the open the grounds for more community events, such as concerts and foodie festivals.

INSTAGRAM: @chateaudebourneau @theintrepidchatelaine

Amy and Marc

Amy, a civil servant turned yoga teacher, and Marc, an agricultural engineer, bought Château de Rosières in 2017. It’s a 30-room château in the north of the Ardèche, on the edge of the Massif Central, a 13 th century fortified building that came into its own during the religious wars. Amy and Marc are still undertaking renovations, but will be open from September 2020 offering luxurious, exclusive B&B weekend breaks (which can be booked now). In the near future, it will be possible to hire out the château as a retreat centre – Amy and Marc will be renovating the outbuildings to make studios with underfloor heating, that can be used year-round. They will also be opening their café one day a week for the local community, and want to plant vineyards and a green amphitheatre.

INSTAGRAM: @chateaurosieres

Rebecca and Tim

Rebecca, a journalist, and Tim, an engineer, relocated to Château de la Ruche in 2017 with their two children, Rufus and Laurie. It’s a petit-château built in the late 18 th century, located in the Pays de Loire. The couple have currently renovated three bedrooms of their château and offer ‘laidback luxury’ B&B breaks (both families and couples are welcome). They’re currently in the process of renovating one of their outbuildings into a self-catered holiday cottage, for week-long rentals. Rebecca also plans on expanding her on-site brocante shop, where guests can purchase antiques similar to those in the château, and other locally sourced gifts.

INSTAGRAM: @chateaudelaruche

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