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
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