START FROM SCRATCH
For Kris Hallet and her husband Dave, moving to Béarn and renovating a derelict cottage has been hard work, but well worth it. Scheenagh Harrington reveals how they managed the renovation on a small budget
Cover story Find out how one expat couple renovated a cottage in Béarn on a budget
It was the tragic events of 11 September 2001 that triggered a life-changing decision for former West Dorset community development worker Kris Hallett and her husband Dave. This defining moment proved to be a catalyst for change: a not-to-be-missed opportunity for the couple to take their lives in a whole new direction.
A visit to friends, who had moved from the north of France to the warmer Béarn region in the south-west, allowed the couple to soak up the stunning landscape of the Basque country during exploratory day trips.
“We just loved what we saw,” says 65-yearold Kris. “It had everything: mountains, sea, rivers, fishing, cycling, outdoor life – space! Space and quiet roads. We could see the possibility of settling somewhere, perhaps on the edge of a village.”
“We spent every holiday making a start with clearing the place, saving it from falling down and then adding to it”
The idea took root as the couple headed home to the UK, as Kris explains. “The difficult bit was going back from that holiday after everything unravelled on the TV about 9/11, and telling two of our three sons that we wanted to sell the family home that we’d lived in for 16 years. They were a bit stunned but not too surprised, because we’ve never been short of surprising our kids with what we do!”
The hunt began for a suitable property and it was retired government HR manager Dave, 58, who came up trumps. “He came out in February 2002 to visit our friends and they went house-hunting together. They went to our local town, St-Palais, where they had six properties lined up to look at and this was the first one that my husband saw.
“He rang me up to tell me that he’d found a place that met my criteria – I just didn’t want to be isolated – and said that he’d put in an offer and was still waiting to hear. I just had to trust his judgement.”
The offer was accepted and the first time Kris clapped eyes on Jauberria, which is Basque for ‘new castle’, was in April 2002.
“I was shocked at the state of it, because I thought it looked like a huge task,” she says, before adding, “but I looked to Dave and thought if he could cope with everything that was thrown at him, then I was there for the ride as well.”
‘The ride’ meant bringing a derelict cottage that was more than 100 years old and had been uninhabited for 25 years back to a habitable state, along with a barn from the early 1700s, in an equally decrepit condition that had been abandoned for half a century. While many would have quailed at such a task, old DIY hands Kris and Dave were happy to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in. “All the houses we’ve ever owned in the UK needed complete updates, and we’ve never had well-paid jobs, so we’ve had to learn to do things ourselves,” Kris says.
“Dave would do the jobs I didn’t like or couldn’t do, and I would take on the things I could do well. Between us we’ve learned a lot of skills. He’s taught me a lot here, especially about rendering and plastering and mixing.”
The early days were tough going as the couple worked in the most basic conditions. “Over the years that followed, whenever we came over for holidays we did all we could to stop the buildings disappearing,” she says. “We had electricity and water, but no light bulbs or fittings, so we had to rig up temporary arc lighting, and there was no septic tank.
“We found a second-hand caravan in the local paper, towed it down here and spent every holiday living in that and making a
Their decision to embrace their new way of life has impressed the locals
start with clearing the place, saving it from falling down and then adding to it.”
Help with bigger jobs came from a generous neighbour who happens to be a carpenter. He replaced the barn and cottage roofs, using the former to show off the quality of his work to prospective clients, and helping raise the latter, as it had been built to accommodate a much shorter family. “The upper floor is lovely and light and airy now,” says Kris.
Although the couple’s practical skills have been crucial to bringing Jauberria back to life, Kris’s former job as a community development worker has proved invaluable since they moved to France permanently, five years ago.
“I know how important it is to let people know how strongly you feel that you’re part of a community, even if you’re a foreigner,” she says. “We did deliberately mix predominantly with French people and that was our choice. We would never integrate if we don’t take it seriously – we adopted their ways.”
That decision to embrace their new way of life has clearly impressed the locals, who have taken the couple to their hearts. Kris reveals how a couple of neighbours, who have since become good friends, helped teach the pair French, though not in time to ease her worries during one of her earliest social gatherings.
“We turned up at a village do and everybody stared at us,” she says. “They were probably all nudging each other saying ‘ ah, les Anglais’. I was a bag of nerves.” Armed with their trusty dictionary to help them communicate, they discovered their neighbours wanted to know two things: why had they bought Jauberria and what were they going to do in the future?
“When they realised we were here for the duration and were going to be part of village life, we have had nothing but kindness,” says Kris. “I was stacking wood the other week and
the Roman Catholic priest came down our lane. He had a quick look inside the barn and when he came out again, he said the French government should give us a medal for what we’ve done and what we have done for the village. I thought it was really nice of him to say that.”
The couple’s tiny budget means their ‘Field of Dreams’ project has taken years, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel, with the cottage finally opening for business as a gîte this summer.
Clearly there are challenges ahead, but Kris isn’t worried. “What’s not to be happy about?” she says. “We’ve got our house, we’ve got beautiful views, we have learned how to survive with wood burners and dress up warmly. I will admit to one luxury: we did invest in an electric blanket.
“I think we’re a bit spoiled in the UK with our laminate flooring, fitted carpets, central heating, double glazing and loft insulation.
“You come here and you start with a hole above your head and you create something that will breathe and give you warmth.”
There’s lots more work to do for Dave and Kris, who insist this will be their “last renovation”, but when the DIY is all done, there will still be plenty of time for them to enjoy their ‘new’ new castle.
“We’ve got our house, we’ve got beautiful views and we survive with wood burners”
The barn, dating from the early 1700s, before work started
The barn with its new roof
Facing page from top: Summer at Jauberria after it has been renovated; Kris and Dave Hallet; the couple lived in a caravan while working on the property
This page, above: Dave converts one of the rooms into a lounge-diner (top two photos); the finished result (bottom photo)
Above: The couple fell in love with the beautiful landscapes of Béarn Below: Kris gets to work sanding a door
Kris hard at work restoring the fireplace
The finished fireplace with wood-burning stove
Uncovering the beautiful stone walls of the cottage The finished bedroom