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

Living France - - Contents -

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

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