Michèle and Rob McLusky bought a 17th-century maison de maître in south-west France, transforming it into a comfortable home combining French and English style, as Stephanie Sheldrake discovers
Find out how the owners of a 17th-century maison de maître in Landes combined French and English style to create a comfortable home
From shelves full of fine china and glassware to beautiful floral paintings adorning the walls, Michèle and Rob McLusky’s home and B&B in Landes, Domaine de Sengresse, has been described by some of the guests who stay there as a “petit musée”. But the couple are keen for guests to feel comfortable and relaxed in their home in south-west France. “There’s just so much to look at,” says Michèle, “but our guests feel relaxed here – they don’t feel worried that they can’t sit on a chair, and they don’t have to take their boots off when they come in. It’s important that the house is lived in.”
The couple bought the 17th-century maison de maître near Dax in south-west France, back in July 2005, having owned a holiday home in Brittany for nearly 30 years. “Rob wanted to retire to a warmer clime; he feels the cold and hated the dark days of winter in the UK,” says Michèle. “Our daughter, Sasha, was at that time working in New Zealand in the hotel/wine business and decided that a small hotel in the UK or France with the family paintings would be fun for all of us – she knew that an ordinary retirement was not for us!”
Michèle found Domaine de Sengresse during a short break in Biarritz in September 2004 and immediately knew it was the right property.
“As we turned into the bottom of the drive, I knew this was the sort of house I was looking for. There was a lot of work to do – I love gutting a house – and there was a park and lots of woodland.”
There has been a house on the site of Domaine de Sengresse for 1,000 years and gradually over time it evolved into what is considered a 17th-century maison de maître. “The ground floor is the oldest part of the house where some of the walls are made of large pebbles ( galets), and gradually more floors were added culminating in raising the roof in 1910, when they had lots of children and needed more bedrooms,” explains Michèle. What was once a massive estate is now the main house, the ‘little house’, the barn and six hectares of land.
“It was a coup de foudre, not so much for the main house, though I knew that I could do something with it. It was the little house that I really fell in love with, and the enormous barn, which is absolutely incredible.”
Having signed the initial papers, the couple put their house, near Taunton, on the market, but it took over 12 months to find the right buyer. “So we finally bought this property in July 2005 and then moved here in January 2006 when we had sold our house in England.”
Michèle and Rob used a reputable firm of removers for the move, which took two weeks to pack and unload the two pantechnicons and their trailers. “The removal men said that they had never had so much china to pack!” laughs Michèle, who let the removers pack the delicate items such as china, paintings and her mother’s collection of paperweights. “It’s worth it because you are covered for insurance, and they know what they are doing.”
Both the main house and the little house needed to be renovated, a project that took nearly two years to complete.
“We camped in the main house for the first nine months while we turned the little house into an apartment for us – somewhere we would be able to have some privacy when things got busy – and a ground-floor bedroom suitable for future visitors with a disability. As it turned out, we now let the apartment and we live in the main house,” explains Michèle.
Work then started on the main house, but a surprise was around the corner. Michèle and Rob’s daughter Sasha announced that she was engaged and wanted to get married in France. With a deadline looming, the couple pushed the renovation work along, and managed to complete it in time for the big day and the arrival of 150 guests.
The couple did most of the interior painting themselves, as well as other smaller tasks, but used professional local workmen to carry out the larger jobs such as putting in the new wiring, plumbing and insulation.
“We used all local people because I think that’s really important; all the money you have spent has gone into local pockets. It also opens doors. For example, the mairie was flexible with changes we wanted to make because they knew the workers we were using were responsible and knew French building regulations,” she says.
The couple installed seven new bathrooms in the main house, and two more in the little one. “We found an AGA in Auch, which was and is a much-needed and loved part of our kitchen. The 12m by 6m swimming pool was also a job for professionals and was the first major job to be started, as I wanted to make sure I had a pool for the summer.”
Michèle and Rob found that the work not only took longer, but also cost more than they were expecting. “There was always this ‘ mañana’ approach – the builders were slower than we wanted and also they were not used to renovation work,” says Michèle.
Having spent a lot of time in their Brittany “bolt-hole” through the years, the couple spoke good French, which helped them liaise with tradespeople. Despite this, Michèle needed a good dictionary to help with the specialist terms. “I can wholeheartedly recommend a dictionary we used: A Concise History of Housebuilding Terms published by Hadley Pager – it was a godsend.”
When it comes to décor and furnishings, Michèle explains that she trusts her instincts. “It just comes together,” she says. “The French would say the house is very English in style, but when I was in England, people always said I had a French style. So I think my style is a bit of both really. It’s a homemaker’s touch – I enjoy making it cosy and comfortable.
“We had great fun going to salons d’antiquaires and brocantes buying garden furniture, light fittings, carpets and armoires – and there was always an excuse to add to my china and glass collection!” says Michèle.
“We found a really good brocante at Soumoulou near Pau. There’s also a marvellous area of antique shops and markets in Bordeaux.”
There’s a lovely element of faith and positivity in Michèle’s approach: “I don’t research – it just happens; I believe I’m going to find the right piece.”
One such example of this is the candelabrum which hangs above the dining room table. “I was in the abbey church at St-Sever and I saw an amazing light and I thought, ‘I’d love one of those.’ Then two or three days later, we were at Soumoulou and I found a smaller version of it, which was perfect for hanging over the dining room table. We took out its electric lights and returned it to candlelight, so now for birthdays and special occasions we can have a candlelit supper.”
One tip that Michèle recommends is mixing more expensive items with those that are more affordable. “You might have one thing that really makes your room and you’ve spent your money on that, but it allows you to use other less expensive items.”
Michèle also thinks it’s worth having good-quality curtains: “Having well-made curtains will set off your room. Though I can make curtains, I usually pay someone to do it,” she says.
Michèle and Rob have run the B&B business for the last nine years, and have gained the top Gîtes de France rating of 5 épis. Their daughter Sasha stays for six weeks in the summer to help during the busy period. For the rest of the year, the couple manage with help from a gardener and their much-loved femme de ménage. “She really is our ‘treasure’ or perle as we say in French.”
Part of the appeal is the friendly welcome and comfortable stay that guests enjoy at Domaine de Sengresse. “The house isn’t divided into a ‘B&B side’ and ‘our side’. When guests come, they like staying in our house. One of the bedrooms on the top floor is ours – we have no locks on the bedroom doors.”
Right: The elegant maison de maître looks out over the property’s expansive gardens
Left: A raspberrycoloured chaise longue complements the muted turquoise blues of the salon
These pages, clockwise from top: The library, along with most of the rooms, display Michèle’s mother’s paintings; a collection of Michèle’s antique pieces; the ‘blue’ bedroom; a pretty piece of furniture believed to be a writing desk dating from Napoléon III; the elegant grey bedroom and its en-suite bathroom