With help from the team who re­stored Wind­sor Cas­tle, Bri­tish cou­ple Paula and Stephen Parkin­son cre­ated the il­lu­sion of an­tiq­uity in their his­toric Nor­mandy town house Words by Vinny Lee; pho­to­graphs by James Bal­ston

Living France - - Contents -

Read how a cou­ple re­stored a Nor­mandy town house, with help from the Queen’s builders

Most peo­ple whizz by the town of Sées in Nor­mandy as they take the au­toroute south to the French Riviera, but in the Mid­dle Ages it was an im­por­tant ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal cen­tre on the banks of the River Orne. Now the cob­bled streets are quiet, but a sense of his­tory and im­por­tance re­mains.

In the cen­tre of the town, be­hind a knobby stone wall, lies the home of Bri­tish cou­ple Paula and Stephen Parkin­son. From the mo­ment you walk over the pale Caen stone floor you are en­veloped in the house’s air of an­tiq­uity. A sub­tle scent of am­ber in­fuses the air, as if an al­tar boy has just walked by swing­ing a gilded censer, and the an­tique linen drapes on the bed look as though Eleanor of Aquitaine might have rested here en route to Eng­land. But not all is as it might seem.

“It took five years of hard slog to get to this stage,” says Paula, rest­ing her hand on the head of a snarling stone lion. “The house has a 15th-cen­tury façade, the cel­lar is 11th cen­tury, but the kitchen sec­tion, which was a garage, is some­thing we added. We re­moved par­ti­tion­ing in the din­ing room and put in the stair­case.”

The story of the stair­case is where the ap­par­ent his­tory be­gins to un­ravel. “The stone bot­tom step is new. I bought the treads 15 years ago and kept them in stor­age in case they came in handy. The rest is put to­gether from other pieces we’ve ac­quired,” says Stephen.

The Parkin­sons are hands-on, or, as Paula says, “a real pair of do­ers”. Her back­ground is in art and pho­tog­ra­phy but, af­ter di­vorc­ing her first hus­band, with three young chil­dren, she and a friend set up an an­tiques busi­ness, through which she met Stephen, a spe­cial­ist in wood and metal.

They lived and worked in France for 18 years be­fore find­ing their home in Sées. “It is easy to travel from here to Eng­land and prop­erty prices weren’t too out­ra­geous,” says Paula.

The need to get back to Eng­land is not just to see her fam­ily, but also be­cause, as co-founder of the Pet­worth-based an­tiques com­pany Au­gus­tus Brandt, she sources and supplies an­tiques to

the busi­ness, which is run by her son. But the cul­tural ex­change works both ways.

“We brought out the Oak­wrights team from Eng­land. They are tim­ber ex­perts who worked on the restora­tion of Wind­sor Cas­tle af­ter the fire. We had to re­place 50% of the beams in the house and the team lived here, well, camped, while the work was done.” Look­ing up to the 20ft-high ceil­ing, it is dif­fi­cult to make out what is old and what is new.

Paula also seems to have a motto of “Why stop at one?”, be­cause her home is dec­o­rated with sev­eral of ev­ery­thing. Around the for­mal Pu­gin oak din­ing ta­ble, one of Au­gus­tus Brandt’s re-creations, two floor-stand­ing can­dle­hold­ers are po­si­tioned at one end, while over­head hangs a metal orb with 10 can­dles. On the ta­ble are two can­de­labra, as well as four 18th-cen­tury Ital­ian torch lamps on the side ta­ble.

“We had grand ideas, but tup­pence to spend,” says Paula with a laugh. “Styles change in the an­tiques world. It can be fickle, like the fash­ion busi­ness,” she adds. “But I’m as happy do­ing up mod­ern homes as I am old ones. What I am wholly against is the Bo­tox ef­fect of bad restora­tion, where there is a lack of def­er­ence to the orig­i­nal build­ing.” Fear not. No one could ac­cuse her of that.

Fac­ing page, from top: The cou­ple in their kitchen, which was built on the site of a garage; the for­mal sit­ting and din­ing room with re­stored ceil­ing tim­ber

This page, clock­wise from left: The bath­room ex­udes his­toric charm; the spa­cious hall­way; Paula and Stephen en­joy din­ing on the ter­race; the main bed­room is draped with an­tique linens

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