Renovating a 19th-century house in Charente proved all the more challenging on a very tight budget, yet David Carr and Lane Hunt have managed to achieve some very big changes, as Gillian Harvey finds out
Cover story Renovating on a budget is a big challenge, but David and Lane were ready to rise to it when they moved to Charente
When David Carr first visited France, he soon fell in love with the country he now calls home. “I spent a wonderful week in Granville during which I discovered the food, the wine and fell in love with it all!” he says. “I saw myself living here one day.” The only problem? At the time David (now 48) was just seven years old and accompanying a classmate on a French exchange.
It was nearly 40 years later in 2015 that David was able to fulfil his ambition to move across the Channel, after he fell in love for a second time – this time with artist Lane Hunt. “I was working as a manager in the music industry when we met, and Lane was starting an interior design degree at Southampton university,” David explains. “The industry changed, and I decided to quit while I was ahead; so while Lane completed his studies I took advantage of an unusual opportunity – joining a French circus company and touring Normandy! It was great fun, and also renewed my love for the country.”
With Lane also keen to make the move to France and embrace a new way of life, when his degree finished in 2015 the couple started looking for a ‘forever home’, eventually settling on their 19th-century mansion house in the small town of Champagne-Mouton in Charente.
“I had a dream of living in the countryside, so because the mansion is in a small town I didn’t even want to view it at first!” says David. “But Lane was keen to look at the building – mainly due to the large hallway and staircase in the house, so I agreed to go along. As soon as we got out of the estate agent’s car in the courtyard, we knew. That was it. We cancelled all other viewings and here we are. It was love!”
As well as its size and potential, the building is also steeped in history: during the Second World War, it was occupied by Nazi soldiers. “The town sits right on the demarcation line,” explains David. “There was even a photography studio in our attic for processing the pictures of those wanting to cross into the ‘free zone’.” In later years, the house was divided into apartments, one of which was used as a doctor’s surgery, but the couple have reinstated the house as one residence, which they now run as a luxury chambres d’hôtes.
THE RENOVATION GAME
“As the house was larger than we had imagined, we were left with a very small budget with which to renovate it,” says David. “This has meant that Lane and I have had to do most of the work ourselves. The only exceptions were employing a builder for three days to take out a staircase and move some radiators, as well as employing a professional decorator to hang some of the wallpaper Lane selected – which was far too expensive to risk in our inexperienced hands! Other than that, we’ve learnt as we’ve gone along. There are so many helpful people about – both English and French – who have given us advice and really helped us along the way.”
Although many would find the prospect of renovating such a large house daunting, the couple have taken the work in their stride. “There was one stage where we had nine rooms undergoing renovation at the same time, with just the two of us, which felt rather overwhelming,” admits David. “But living here, we have the time to learn to do things and enjoy it too. We’ve dug over gardens, restored furniture and sanded floors, and we’ve gained some useful skills along the way – we can now restore on a shoestring!”
However when the couple arrived at their new home, their first job was to deep clean the three-storey house, which hadn’t been lived in for about six years. During this time, the couple made some rather interesting discoveries. “There were washing lines and pegs in the attic left behind by the Nazi soldiers and German writing on some of the walls,” says David. “We even found that the roof of the orangery was created from an old sentry box that used to stand outside the house, and it still has Nazi insignia on it when viewed from underneath. We also found guns, bullets, and various pots and potions left by the doctor. The most unusual find, however, was a 15th-century cannonball!”
A DESIGN FOR LIFE
When it came to the décor, Lane, as an interior designer, provided the bulk of the ideas. “I wanted to restore the house to the best standard possible, using authentic furniture from Napoléon III and Imperial style to be in keeping with the age of the house, but then added my own stamp using contemporary wallpaper and light fittings,” he explains.
“The original wallpaper was dark and depressing, or very patterned, so we’ve gone back to feature walls using striking wallpaper, but only on one or two walls,” adds David. “Lane is a perfectionist. If a room has a theme, even the hooks on the walls will be specially chosen. In the guest room, which we’ve named the ‘Garden Room’, everything has a motif, a bird or a plant on it somewhere.”
With their modest budget, the couple explored antique fairs and brocantes in order to source the right furniture for the house. “It’s amazing what you can find if you really look,” says David. “The French are moving into smaller houses and a lot of the older furniture is too big for the new builds. We have made some wonderful finds and restored them to their former glory. Luckily there are no arguments when it comes to taste, and we’ve found that we’re both drawn to the same items. We seem to have the same vision for the house, which is great.”
The couple were also able to source a few pieces of furniture in the UK before they moved. “We were effectively homeless for three months,” admits David.
“We’d sold our house in the UK, but had to wait until the paperwork came through for the French property. We stayed with friends and took the opportunity to scour local charity shops and antiques markets, buying a lot of furniture to take over with us. Ironically, one of the items I found – a table I picked up in Croydon – was originally from France. Its owner had brought it over from a village just 10km away from Champagne-Mouton a few years earlier!”
Although the couple admit that the renovation is a bit like the painting of the Forth Bridge in that “it’ll never truly be finished”, the house is now up and running as a B&B, with all guest accommodation decorated to David and Lane’s exacting standards.
“We’re a B&B but we didn’t want to live separately from our guests,” David explains. “We want people to experience living in our house, just as friends or family would, and that’s our USP. That’s why everything is decorated to our taste.”
Despite having a third floor that, while cleaned, remains untouched, the couple have shifted their attention to the garden and orangery in recent months. “The garden was originally very formal,” explains David. “Everything was overgrown and it hadn’t been in its original state since the early 1900s. However, we found the plans from 1854 and returned it to its former glory.”
The orangery has also become a project, and the couple recently used the building to host an art exhibition in December 2016. “One of the locals is a photographer and he and a friend, who is a painter, wanted to put on an exhibition and asked us whether we had a suitable space. We’d just started to clear out the orangery and thought it could work really well. Eventually, there were six artists exhibiting, including Lane and myself,” says David.
Lane subsequently went on to do a solo exhibition entitled ‘Faces of ChampagneMouton’, having approached the mayor, doctor, baker and other local figures to ask if they’d mind him drawing them. With both exhibitions a great success, the pair now hope to eventually convert a large space above their coach house into an art studio and gallery. “We’d love to run a gallery which would be free to the public,” says David. “I love the idea of giving something back to the locals; everyone has been so welcoming to us.”
Of course, life in France is not all hard work, and the couple are also enjoying the relaxed lifestyle that the country has to offer. “We only got married just before coming here,” explains David. “We’ve cemented our relationship in this house, and have discovered how well we work as a team. We have time to see friends, both English and French, and really enjoy being together. And although we spend almost all of our time with each other, we’re never bored. The experience has brought us even closer together.”
“We’ve gained a lot of useful skills along the way – we can now renovate on a shoestring!”
These photos: David and Lane have transformed the cellar ( left) and library ( right)
This page: The dark and dated hallway has been painted in a vibrant shade of green
Above: The garden has been landscaped and is based on the original plans from 1854
Inset: The garden as it looked before gravel pathways and flower beds were added
Above: Guests can enjoy breakfast in the orangery
Clockwise from top: The couple recently used the orangery to host an art exhibition; interior designer Lane had a clear idea when it came to choosing wallpaper and paint colours for the rooms