It was the tran­quil­lity and nat­u­ral beauty of the Cévennes Na­tional Park that at­tracted one Dutch fam­ily to start a new life in Lozère, as Stephanie Shel­drake finds out

Living France - - Contents -


How the beauty of the Cévennes Na­tional Park con­vinced a fam­ily to start a new life in Lozère

It takes a cer­tain type of guest to make it to La Source de Castag­nols. Nes­tled in the heart of the Cévennes Na­tional Park, far from ma­jor roads and towns, the re­mote cham­bres d’hôtes is a haven for those who seek a quiet stay, sur­rounded by the un­touched nat­u­ral beauty of this an­cient forested land.

This was pre­cisely what at­tracted Dutch cou­ple Henk-Jan and Mar­joleine Spruijt to this un­spoilt green en­clave in the south of France. The cou­ple had been liv­ing in the Nether­lands where Mar­joleine worked as a sur­gi­cal as­sis­tant in a hos­pi­tal and Henk-Jan ran his own ar­chi­tect busi­ness.

It was dur­ing a hol­i­day in the late 1990s when the cou­ple dis­cov­ered the Cévennes Na­tional Park. “We were look­ing for a fam­ily hol­i­day some­where sur­rounded by na­ture, with no hus­tle and bus­tle and far from ma­jor roads. Mont Lozère ap­peared as a green spot on the map and caught our at­ten­tion,” says Henk-Jan. The hol­i­day re­minded them of a feel­ing they had dur­ing a world tour in 1993 when they stayed in a re­mote vil­lage near the Afghan bor­der in north-east Pak­istan. “The en­ergy there was strong and the land­scape stun­ning,” re­mem­bers Henk-Jan, who felt the same en­ergy in Cévennes. “This an­cient land is full of en­ergy and steeped in his­tory, with un­ri­valled si­lence, abun­dant na­ture, no pol­lu­tion and dark nights. It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence.” Hav­ing fallen in love with the area, the cou­ple be­gan their search for suit­able prop­er­ties. “We found the prop­erty on the in­ter­net in 2005, after five years of in­tense search­ing with es­tate agents. It was a beau­ti­ful project: com­pletely aban­doned, un­in­hab­ited for the past cen­tury with an un­suc­cess­ful re­fur­bish­ment at­tempted 15 years ago. It was si­t­u­ated in the heart of the Cévennes Na­tional Park, part-roofed, part-ruin with sev­eral in­ner court­yards, arch­ways, ter­races and forested grounds. It was sur­rounded by a vil­lage with au­then­tic char­ac­ter, built in nat­u­ral stone,” ex­plains Henk-Jan. Thanks to Henk-Jan’s ex­per­tise as an ar­chi­tect, he knew that the project was fea­si­ble, al­beit com­pli­cated. “I said

to Mar­joleine, ‘If you say yes, we’ll go for it’. And she did. That’s how the project started,” he says.

Since the cou­ple bought the ne­glected farm­house 11 years ago, they have con­tin­u­ally ren­o­vated it. “When we moved in May 2006 we had no mains wa­ter or elec­tric­ity; no land­line or mo­bile phone sig­nal; no toi­let, bath­room or kitchen; and no win­dows or doors. We worked day and night for a year. It was very hard work and the be­gin­ning was un­de­ni­ably dif­fi­cult. Four months in, we fi­nally got elec­tric­ity and after nine months, we had a tele­phone and the in­ter­net. We had in­stalled 32 win­dows and doors and we fin­ished the chim­ney, mean­ing that just be­fore Christ­mas we were able to heat the liv­ing space,” re­mem­bers Henk-Jan.

The ren­o­va­tion work proved harder than they had an­tic­i­pated, and the lack of tele­phone line and in­ter­net con­nec­tion in the be­gin­ning de­layed the cou­ple from set­ting up their website, which is the main way that guests find them.

De­spite the set­backs, the fin­ished re­sult is stun­ning. The charm­ing ren­o­vated farm­house built from lo­cal stone fits seam­lessly into its sur­round­ings. The cham­bres d’hôtes bears the name of the an­cient wa­ter source that flows on its land, ‘La Source de Castag­nols’, and prob­a­bly dates from the 13th cen­tury. It re­tains many char­ac­ter fea­tures in­clud­ing thick stone walls, heavy chest­nut beams and a din­ing room with a large fire­place.


The cou­ple were keen to do their bit for the en­vi­ron­ment and the cham­bres d’hôtes is recog­nised by the Cévennes Eco­tourisme body. Henk-Jan and Mar­joleine also work closely with the lo­cal tourist of­fices and the Cévennes Na­tional Park.

Run­ning a cham­bres d’hôtes may be hard work, but the cou­ple have en­joyed build­ing re­la­tion­ships with their guests; an as­pect of their new lives that they hadn’t an­tic­i­pated. Meet­ing so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds has been in­ter­est­ing. “It’s like we travel in our own home. It is a con­tin­ual cul­tural and in­tel­lec­tual ex­plo­ration,” says Henk-Jan. “Peo­ple that come here have the same aware­ness as we do. They too be­lieve in be­ing re­spect­ful of your sur­round­ings, fel­low hu­man be­ings and the hard work of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions that is all around us. Meet­ing our guests has been hugely en­rich­ing for us. It is a win-win sit­u­a­tion.”

The cou­ple en­joy of­fer­ing their guests ta­ble d’hôte, which al­lows them to re­ally get to know them and truly share what they have on of­fer. “We do the cook­ing to­gether ev­ery evening, and we have each de­vel­oped our own do­main of ex­per­tise in the kitchen. We have a big se­lec­tion of cook­ing books and draw our in­spi­ra­tion from ev­ery­thing, re­ally, from news­pa­per ar­ti­cles to tele­vi­sion se­ries and most of all from our sur­round­ings. Just like the ar­chi­tec­ture, the cook­ing should in­volve lo­cal pro­duce, re­spect the core val­ues that we have set our­selves and yet have that lit­tle spark of moder­nity.”

When the cou­ple moved their chil­dren were nine and seven years old. “We set 10 years old as our limit, and we found the project just be­fore that. That was in 2006, when we em­i­grated to France. We al­ways in­volved them in the process and pro­jects to make sure they were a part of it,” says Henk-Jan. At the time of mov­ing, the chil­dren didn’t speak French and as a con­se­quence found the first few months in France dif­fi­cult. “They found their way after a few months and learned French at an in­cred­i­ble speed. Their flex­i­bil­ity is as­ton­ish­ing. The so­cial im­pact was big for them but they re­ally do see the ad­van­tages.”

For Henk-Jan and Mar­joleine, a re­turn to na­ture has been of vi­tal im­por­tance, and for Mar­joleine, she never ceases to be sur­prised by the fact that for the first time in her life she can­not hear the noise of cars, and can see the stars shim­mer­ing in the night sky ev­ery night. The light of the Milky Way can even be seen here.

But life in this re­mote part of France isn’t easy. “You need to truly work to live, rather than work for a liv­ing. It makes you think dif­fer­ently about ev­ery­thing you do. It is like things here mat­ter more,” says Henk-Jan, adding: “It makes you feel like you’re re­ally liv­ing and gives you a pur­pose in life. The breath­tak­ing coun­try­side of the Cévennes is some­thing we fell in love with. The diver­sity, the re­mote­ness, hav­ing the feel­ing you are but a guest. It makes you more down to earth.” castag­

“The breath­tak­ing coun­try­side of the Cévennes is some­thing we fell in love with. The diver­sity, the re­mote­ness, hav­ing the feel­ing you are but a guest. It makes you more down to earth”

Henk-Jan and Mar­joleine Spruijt

Left: La Source de Castag­nols cham­bres d’hôtes is si­t­u­ated in the heart of the Cévennes Na­tional Park Right: Guests can en­joy an evening meal over­look­ing the breath­tak­ing scenery Be­low left and right: Henk-Jan and Mar­joleine ren­o­vated the farm­house into a stylish and com­fort­able home for them­selves and their guests

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