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

Living France - - CONTENTS -

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

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