THE ROYAL TREATMENT
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
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