STYLE AND SUBSTANCE
Elizabeth and her husband David spent three years transforming a ruin in Provence into a treasured family holiday home, and the end result is every inch the quintessential French property dream, as Vicky Leigh discovers
Cover story Find out how a ruin in Provence was transformed into a stylish holiday home
With renovation projects on both sides of the Channel under their belts, Elizabeth and David are clearly not afraid of a challenge. The couple have recently finished renovating a property in Devon, where they live in the UK, and have also tackled two in France, both of which required considerably more than a bit of DIY and a lick of paint. Their first French property was a derelict house in a small village in Lot, which they bought in 1992 after enjoying several summers there with family and falling in love with the area.
“We spent a couple of summers in a row in Lot with my brother-in-law’s family and decided to look into buying our own property as we didn’t want to impose on them all the time,” says Elizabeth. “We loved the area and the idea of having our own house there, so my brother-in-law suggested we go and see the notaire in the village. As it turned out, he was handling the sale of several properties that were owned by a lady who had died without leaving a will. He took a big key out of a cupboard in his office and offered to take us to see them straight away. We were pretty much able to take our pick – we could virtually have bought the whole village for about £20,000!”
Having settled on the one they wanted to buy, Elizabeth and David went on to transform the house into a comfortable holiday home and enjoyed making use of it for the next 15 years. At that point
they decided the village was perhaps a bit too quiet, and having done all they wanted to do to the property, they made the decision to sell it. “We were lucky as someone wanted to buy it, so we sold it in 2007,” says Elizabeth. “We thought that was the end of it and that we’d move on, but we realised we missed having a house in France so we started looking for another one to buy.”
This time, Elizabeth turned her attention to the south of France and, accompanied by her daughter, spent several trips scouring an area covering both Occitanie and Provence, where they came across a pretty little village in Luberon.
“It seemed a lot greener than the rest of the south of France and it really felt like a home from home, so we thought we’d rent somewhere there for our next holiday and hopefully find a property to buy,” remembers Elizabeth. “We did that and when we went to buy some bread, we found there was an estate agency next door to the bakery with an advert for exactly the sort of house we were looking for in the window.”
YEARS IN PROVENCE
The rest, as they say, is history, and in 2011 Elizabeth and David bought their current property in the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, in the department of Vaucluse. With the Luberon hills to the north and the hilltop village of Grambois to the south, and with views over vineyards and rolling countryside, the setting was enviably picturesque, yet the house itself was in rather a sorry state. A former bergerie dating from the 19th century, it required complete renovation, and after obtaining the necessary planning permission, the couple spent the next three years overseeing its transformation.
“We wanted to bring it back to life,” says Elizabeth. “It was basically a barn and we rescued it from ruin, which involved taking the roof off and taking the walls down to first-floor level, and installing new wiring, plumbing and heating. We used a very good local building firm and they were able to put us in touch with the other trades we needed.”
As the property is located in a regional park the terms of the planning permission stipulated that certain conditions had to be met, and included strict rules on the materials and paint colours that could be used externally to ensure that the appearance of the house was in keeping with its surroundings. The end result is every inch the quintessential French farmhouse, with cream-coloured stonework and pale grey-blue shutters,
and it’s now listed as a bâtiment remarquable as a result.
Inside there are four en-suite double bedrooms, an open-plan living/dining room and a kitchen with French doors leading out to the terrace. Timber beams and flagstone flooring add character to the living spaces, creating a rustic feel that is both charming and cosy. Elizabeth purchased some of the furniture in the UK and had it shipped over to France, and a friend who creates her own fabric designs made the curtains.
“We found that a lot of French properties we saw had become very modern and that isn’t what we wanted,” says Elizabeth. “I think you have to try and make your home feel homely.”
Outside, the area around the house has been landscaped with gravel and plants, and there are plenty of terraces for making the most of the views and plentiful sunshine. The vast grounds include a boules pitch, and the couple also obtained planning permission to add a heated swimming pool, which again was subject to strict rules.
“Even the water had to be a specific colour!” laughs Elizabeth. “The pool liner couldn’t be bright blue; it had to be greeny-blue or anthracite. These things are only in place to make sure that any development looks sympathetic and are usually what you’d want to achieve anyway.”
HOLIDAY HOME FROM HOME
Elizabeth and David enjoy family holidays at the house with their grown-up children and grandchildren, spending between eight and nine weeks of the year there.
“The family are always keen to join in and spend time at the house with us,” says Elizabeth. “I wish the house was bigger and then we’d be able to have more people come to stay! We go over at Easter and in the summer, and have also spent Christmas there which is lovely. The days are still bright and sunny, and it’s great for walking and just chilling out completely. It’s beautiful in both summer and winter, and when the trees lose their leaves it lets even more light into the house.”
The house is also rented out to holidaymakers between April and October, and while it provides the perfect place to relax away from the modern world it still remains connected to it, with wifi access and English TV channels, and the nearest amenities are just five minutes away. The house is particularly well equipped for families with young children, with high chairs, cots, toys and games all provided, while child-friendly attractions nearby include Aquacity and Zoo de la Barben.
“It’s equipped for families partly because that’s how we use the house ourselves,” says Elizabeth. “We always intended to make this a home for us and also to rent it out. We realised from our experience with the house in Lot that it isn’t good to leave a property empty for too long, and it’s good to have an income to cover some of the costs.”
There are regular flights from Heathrow to Marseille, which is about an hour from the house by car, and there’s plenty to do in the surrounding area, from cycling and hiking to golf and wine tasting. Holidaymakers can also rent electric bikes during their stay, and as Elizabeth has made plenty of contacts during the time she’s spent in this part of the country, she’s happy to book local tours or arrange for a chef to come in and cook.
The attractions of this part of France have long been in the spotlight – this is Peter Mayle country after all, and it’s been almost 30 years since the author first introduced readers to the delights of Luberon in his book A Year in Provence. Elizabeth certainly has no regrets about her choice of location. “Perhaps I was a bit of a driving force as I spent a year in Aixen-Provence when I was at university, and I think you do put down little roots and get attached to places,” she says.
“It was a family decision though and we all went over to Provence to check we were making the right one. We’ve met a lot of nice people, both French and English, and there’s always someone to bump into when you go to the markets, which are really fantastic – they’re so colourful. There’s a lot of history and lots of art; you can go to vineyards and cafés, visit villages such as Lourmarin and generally just have a very nice time. It’s a lovely area and we love being here.”
provencefarmhouse.co.uk The house is available to rent through simpsontravel.com
Above: Timber beams and flagstone floors add character to the living space, as well as making it feel cosy
Below: Elizabeth and David have brought the property into the 21st century with en-suite bedrooms and a modern kitchen, while remaining sympathetic to its age and style
Right: The luxury of four en-suite bathrooms means no queues for the toilet when the family come to stay, or when the house is rented out to holidaymakers visiting this lovely corner of Provence
Clockwise from top: Elizabeth’s friend made the curtains for the house; the conditions of the planning permission meant Elizabeth and David were required to use certain materials and paint colours; the couple with son Will and daughter Anna