Happy end­ing

A damp and dis­in­te­grat­ing prop­erty and freez­ing win­ters made Al­lie and Brian San­ders ques­tion their san­ity in mov­ing to France, but now they can’t imag­ine liv­ing any­where else, as they tell Kit Casey

French Property News - - Contents - the­french­escape.com

Af­ter a bumpy start, a cou­ple’s cham­bres d’hôte, gîte and beauty spa near Co­gnac is now flour­ish­ing

Se­duced by the prom­ise of long sum­mer days and af­ford­able coun­try houses, Brian and Al­lie San­ders went search­ing for the per­fect French es­cape. Brian, a pro­fes­sional musician, and Al­lie, a beauty and holis­tic ther­a­pist, had spent years restor­ing their prop­er­ties on the north Devon coast but once the works were fin­ished, they found them­selves on the look-out for an­other chal­lenge.

They had de­voted much of their spare time to scour­ing the in­ter­net and French prop­erty mag­a­zines for their dream es­cape but they hadn’t ex­pected to find it so eas­ily. A less-thanloved river­side house, once a fer­ry­man’s cot­tage, on the banks of the River Char­ente, seemed to have ev­ery­thing they wanted... or, at least, the po­ten­tial to be­come just that.

Look­ing around its gar­dens, al­though over­grown and boggy un­der­foot, they re­alised they had stum­bled upon a gem. The house it­self was dark and the re­cently lit log-burner barely hid the smell of damp walls and rot­ting tim­bers, but some­how they had fallen in love. And the fol­low­ing sum­mer, with their north Devon prop­er­ties sold, they were head­ing off to their new life in the sun.

The en­trée With no in­come, they knew they wouldn’t be able to sur­vive long on their sav­ings. So they set to work ren­o­vat­ing the at­tached annex to create a two-bed­room gîte; this would at least en­sure a small in­come if noth­ing else. Clear­ing what was a haven for snakes, mice and spi­ders was not for the faint-hearted but af­ter sev­eral months of work­ing around the clock, the cot­tage soon be­gan to take shape.

“I in­stalled a be­spoke spi­ral stair­case, set­ting the base over the en­trance to the old well; its hard­wood treads made it look as if it had been there for­ever,” ex­plains Brian. “We tried to keep as many orig­i­nal fea­tures as pos­si­ble, so we pointed stone walls with a lime mix and kept old tim­bers ex­posed. The last thing we wanted to do was to turn it into a clin­i­cal box.”

“At this point Brian was pretty much noc­tur­nal,” con­tin­ues Al­lie. “He’d work through the night, com­ing to bed at around 6am, when I would get up and tidy the rub­ble ready for his next shift.”

Al­lie, an avid fan of in­te­rior de­sign, has al­ways been pas­sion­ate about colour, fab­ric and fur­ni­ture. “Our bud­get couldn’t stretch to many la­belled brands, so I bought fab­ric rem­nants and asked a lo­cal seam­stress to make soft fur­nish­ings with our own la­bel. It was such fun sourc­ing the ma­te­ri­als and I was so ex­cited to re­ceive the fin­ished items,” she said.

With Brian’s keen eye for spa­cial de­sign, he man­aged to create gen­er­ous cir­cu­la­tion spaces with­out los­ing square me­treage in the rooms. He even built a con­cave wall at the top of the stair­case to mir­ror a con­tin­u­a­tion of the spi­ral.

“We are re­ally pleased with the over­all re­sult, and no-one has ever guessed it was once home to so many un­de­sir­ables and creepy crawlies,” laughs Al­lie.

The main dish The cou­ple’s at­ten­tion soon turned to the house. The pre­vi­ous owner’s idea of ren­o­vat­ing was a lit­tle off the mark. Plaster­board had been glued di­rectly to the old sand­stone walls, which, of course, of­fered no in­su­lat­ing prop­er­ties and pro­vided nu­mer­ous damp patches and a dank mildew odour that seemed to im­preg­nate any­thing that dared to en­ter the build­ing.

In ad­di­tion to this de­light­ful of­fer­ing, when they re­moved the ceil­ings they re­alised there wasn’t an aw­ful lot hold­ing up the first floor. The joists, or what re­mained of them, started at one end, had crum­bled half­way along and had been guided to the other side by scraggy bits of bat­ten. Live wires tucked into crevices, trunk­ing filled with wa­ter and un­sheathed ca­bles, meant that the electrics were a rather press­ing is­sue too.

Their search for sun­nier climes had dealt yet an­other blow with one of the cold­est win­ters on record. Temperatures of mi­nus 14 de­grees, with snow that pre­vented them leav­ing the house for nearly a week, were fol­lowed by flood­ing that blocked the roads in sev­eral di­rec­tions.

“We se­ri­ously ques­tioned our san­ity and won­dered whether or not we should sleep with arm­bands on in case we were washed away in the night,” jokes Al­lie.

Sev­eral very cold win­ters came and went and dur­ing this time the house was in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair and dis­rup­tion. “At one point we moved the kitchen into the bath­room tem­po­rar­ily, this room very soon be­came known as the Bitch-en,” says Al­lie. “We even spent a few weeks with­out doors and win­dows on the ground floor. It was four de­grees in­side the house, with the log-burner go­ing. We had to re­mind our­selves we were liv­ing the dream, as we sat with our coats and bob­ble hats on.”

A sweet end­ing But nearly nine years on Al­lie and Brian can fi­nally put away the tools and paint­brushes. With their gîte, cham­bres d’hôte and beauty spa open for busi­ness, they have a com­plete pack­age to of­fer their clients and, of course, a stylish and com­fort­able home.

“We just love river­side liv­ing and are so pleased to be able to share our ‘French es­cape’ with our guests,” says Al­lie. “And when peo­ple ask us, would we ever take on a ren­o­va­tion pro­ject again? Our re­ply is, def­i­nitely not... but only be­cause we could never imag­ine liv­ing any­where else!”

When they re­moved the ceil­ings they re­alised there wasn’t an aw­ful lot hold­ing up the first floor The cou­ple now have a gîte and a cham­bres d’hôte

The cou­ple en­tirely ren­o­vated the derelict house

Brian and Al­lie

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