John and Ber­nadette Grim­mett threw them­selves into their new lives in France when they founded an an­nual opera fes­ti­val, staged in the grounds of their home in the Loire Val­ley. finds out more

Stephanie Sheldrake

Living France - - DESTINATION -

Buy­ing a house wasn’t on the agenda when Ber­nadette and John Grim­mett shel­tered from the rain in an es­tate agent’s of­fice while on hol­i­day in France with their four chil­dren, but that is ex­actly what hap­pened. “It was the only shop open where we could all shel­ter from the rain, and we came out hav­ing bought a house!” laughs Ber­nadette. The cou­ple had been liv­ing in Lon­don where John worked as a free­lance con­sul­tant and Ber­nadette was a GP, but they had be­come dis­en­chanted with their busy city lives and were ready for a change.

The house that the cou­ple bought while on that rainy hol­i­day was a small farm with wood­land at­tached, si­t­u­ated close to Baugéen-An­jou in the Loire Val­ley. They moved into the house in 1989 and im­me­di­ately loved hav­ing out­door space, a con­trast to their for­mer Lon­don home with its small gar­den. “The house had been fully ren­o­vated by the owner of the lo­cal quin­cail­lerie (hard­ware store) we bought it from, so no work was needed,” says Ber­nadette.

The cou­ple soon fell in love with the area. “It has a won­der­ful golden light, ev­ery kind of wine you could imag­ine, with many traces of English his­tory and we soon made friends,” Ber­nadette says.

When a beau­ti­ful lo­cal château – Les Ca­pucins – came on the mar­ket, the cou­ple de­cided that it was per­fect for them and bought it in 1997. “It was a to­tally dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion: damp prob­lems, miles of in­ad­e­quate gut­ter­ing, leaky roofs and four acres of poorly main­tained gar­den,” says Ber­nadette, adding that the prop­erty has a long his­tory. “The crypt dates from the 11th cen­tury and part of the house from 1580. We have the names of all the ab­bots of the orig­i­nal monastery and the own­ers from when it was sold af­ter the Rev­o­lu­tion. From the Ed­war­dian pe­riod on, we have pho­to­graphs, let­ters and ar­chi­tects’ plans.”

The prop­erty has ex­ten­sive grounds, with gar­dens laid out in three ter­races with parter­res, lawns and wood­land, a foun­tain, stream and even a moat. Th­ese would prove to be the per­fect set­ting for an an­nual opera fes­ti­val that the cou­ple founded in 2002, host­ing opera per­for­mances on warm sum­mer evenings.

The in­spi­ra­tion for start­ing an opera fes­ti­val has its roots in a wet evening at the Glyn­de­bourne Opera Fes­ti­val, in East Sus­sex. “I asked my­self why some­one didn’t take this event to some­where with bet­ter weather and longer, warmer evenings. This seed of an idea took years to ger­mi­nate but, even­tu­ally, we said to some mu­si­cal friends of ours, ‘Why don’t you come and stay with us and let’s make an opera?’”

And so, the Opéra de Baugé was born. Per­for­mances are held in a mo­bile theatre, the only one of its kind in the world. “It was cre­ated by a band of trav­el­ling ac­tors and has even been to Rus­sia. It is con­structed from three long trail­ers and has stalls, side stalls and gal­leries. It has a fab­u­lous acous­tic be­cause so much of it is made of sus­pended wood,” says Ber­nadette.

The first fes­ti­val took place in the sum­mer of 2003 with a per­for­mance of Ben­jamin Brit­ten’s Al­bert Her­ring. “It was a great suc­cess and peo­ple pressed us to con­tinue. The next year was our pearl wed­ding so we wanted to give The Pearl Fish­ers. I also wanted to put on Martha as it was one of my favourites. That landed us with two heavy 19th-cen­tury works with full or­ches­tra and cho­rus. Hubris, some said. Our mu­sic di­rec­tor wrote to the con­ser­va­toires in Lon­don ask­ing for stu­dents to sing in the cho­rus. That’s when we hit the jack­pot; Gareth Malone, Ben John­son, Sophie Be­van and oth­ers, now bril­liantly suc­cess­ful, came, en­joyed them­selves, came again and brought their

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