We wanted to find some­where our son could live hap­pily with free­dom and space”

Living France - - Ala Maison - WORDS: GILLIAN HAR­VEY

“Some of the lo­cals didn’t even know the château ex­isted”


For­mer teacher Sue Birch lives here with her hus­band Robert, their sons Mike and Tim, daugh­ter-in-law Krys and grand­son Owen


Château Mon­teil in Calvi­a­cen-Périg­ord in Dor­dogne, Nou­velle-Aquitaine


The prop­erty was large enough for the whole fam­ily and had po­ten­tial as a cham­bres d’hôtes


Com­bi­na­tion of con­tem­po­rary and vin­tage pieces sourced from bro­cantes

With its fairy-tale tur­rets and lush green gar­dens, Château Mon­teil in Dor­dogne could pro­vide the ideal set­ting for a ro­man­tic novel. But this lov­ingly re­stored build­ing is home to a love story of a dif­fer­ent sort; by in­vest­ing in this enor­mous prop­erty, for­mer teach­ers Sue and Robert Birch (63) have been able to pro­vide a se­cure fu­ture for their son.

“Our son, Mike (37) has autism and will never be al­lowed to live in­de­pen­dently,” ex­plains Sue. “We wanted to find some­where he could live hap­pily with free­dom and space, while still be­ing cared for by the fam­ily.”

The beauty and space of­fered by the prop­erty, teamed with its po­ten­tial as a cham­bres d’hôtes, con­vinced Sue and Robert that Château Mon­teil could be­come the ‘for­ever home’ they were look­ing for when they viewed it in the sum­mer of 2012.

How­ever, as with most love stories, there were ob­sta­cles to over­come: the château needed ex­ten­sive ren­o­va­tion to make it hab­it­able, and sev­eral changes to ren­der it suit­able to re­ceive guests. “When we first saw it, the château was derelict and so over­grown that some of the lo­cals didn’t even know it ex­isted,” ex­plains Sue.


In fact, the cou­ple’s sec­ond son Tim (35) who, to­gether with wife Krys (28) has also joined the cou­ple on their ad­ven­ture, was the driv­ing force be­hind the pur­chase. “We might have been daunted, but Tim wasn’t,” says Sue. “Tim is never daunted! He’d ren­o­vated a house in the UK pre­vi­ously and while this was very dif­fer­ent, he could see where it could go and what it could be. We were swept along by his en­thu­si­asm!”

Luck­ily, Tim was also able to carry out a lot of the ren­o­va­tion work needed once the fam­ily moved in: “The château had been left unloved for a decade or two,” he ex­plains. “The beau­ti­ful thick wall fab­rics were com­pletely de­stroyed by damp and many of the beams had rot­ted. The build­ing had barely any plumb­ing and the electrics needed a com­plete over­haul.”

While they hired pro­fes­sion­als to redo the electrics and in­stall proper plumb­ing, the fam­ily car­ried out the ma­jor­ity of the re­me­dial work re­quired, with Tim tak­ing the lead, as his wife Krys ex­plains.

“We had to strip walls bare and start again, us­ing plas­ter­board and re­plac­ing rot­ten beams,” ex­plains Krys. “Hav­ing moved in in Fe­bru­ary 2013 and with a self-im­posed dead­line of Au­gust 2015 for com­ple­tion, we had our work cut out!”

In­deed, on ar­rival, their French dream was far from pic­turesque – with the château un­in­hab­it­able, the fam­ily spent the first few months in a small house in the grounds. “We call it our ‘hovel’,” laughs Sue. “It’s where Robert, Mike and I live now, but when we first ar­rived, we all had to live here – in two rooms! My youngest son Ben (33) came out for a break that sum­mer and said we were liv­ing like the Bucket fam­ily in Roald Dahl’s Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory!”

LUXURIOUS AND TRANQUIL Now, the château with its neatly cared­for grounds and smart ap­pear­ance is barely recog­nis­able, and the fam­ily have man­aged to cre­ate a luxurious and tranquil at­mos­phere in this im­pres­sive prop­erty. While not de­sign­ers by pro­fes­sion, Tim and Krys for­mu­lated the colour scheme and room de­sign af­ter a great deal of re­search, ex­plor­ing both mod­ern and vin­tage de­sign ideas.

“We opted for light blue through­out the guest rooms,” ex­plains Krys. “We wanted to give our guests a rest­ful ex­pe­ri­ence, so de­lib­er­ately chose a colour that is sooth­ing. We com­bined this with sim­ple, white linen to keep the dé­cor sim­ple and cre­ate a re­laxed mood.

“The hall­ways in the château are nar­row and long, so we chose a warm yel­low colour to give the il­lu­sion of light and warmth – a sum­mery feel – which sets off the par­quet floor beau­ti­fully.”

De­spite the château’s state of dis­re­pair, the fam­ily have worked hard to main­tain orig­i­nal fea­tures, in­clud­ing the cof­fered ceil­ing in the liv­ing room, which they ren­o­vated, sand­ing and stain­ing the wood and cov­er­ing dam­aged plas­ter. But Krys and Tim have also added a splash of moder­nity to the an­cient build­ing, by in­tro­duc­ing con­tem­po­rary colours in the larger re­cep­tion rooms to cre­ate clean lines and a cosy feel. “We chose cap­puc­cino for both the liv­ing and din­ing rooms,” ex­plains Krys. “The colour high­lights the orig­i­nal fea­tures, as well as mak­ing the rooms feel more in­ti­mate.”

Dur­ing the two-year ren­o­va­tion pe­riod, the fam­ily all helped to source fur­ni­ture, some­times driv­ing miles to find the right pieces at an­tiques fairs or on on­line sell­ing sites, and choos­ing both mod­ern and vin­tage pieces based on their beauty and crafts­man­ship rather than spe­cific de­sign or pe­riod. “Some pieces are mod­ern, some are an­tique,” ex­plains Krys. “We love the mix­ture of old and new. We also adore ta­pes­tries, so we opted to have at least one ta­pes­try in each room, usu­ally with a ro­man­tic scene which fits in well with the château’s ro­man­tic feel.”

How­ever, the fam­ily’s favourite pieces of fur­ni­ture are two an­tique chairs, which they dis­cov­ered at a lo­cal bro­cante. “At the time, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to buy the château as we were still wait­ing to sell our house in the UK,” ex­plains Sue. “How­ever we bought them with the hope that all would be well, and we now re­fer to them as the ‘lucky chairs’ as ev­ery­thing went so smoothly.”

An­other fea­ture that can­not fail to catch the eye is a large stained-glass win­dow in the en­trance hall. “We orig­i­nally thought this was orig­i­nal, and that it had been made in Loire, as it was marked ‘Chartres, Loire’, but we found out its true her­itage through a strange co­in­ci­dence,” says Krys. “Last sum­mer, one of our guests told us that he had been taught pi­ano by a woman called An­nie Loire, whose hus­band is a fa­mous win­dow maker: his de­signs can be found in cathe­drals and churches world­wide. We con­tacted him and dis­cov­ered a let­ter dat­ing to 1978 thank­ing him for mak­ing the win­dow! Now we know the win­dow’s true her­itage, we’re go­ing to have the let­ter framed.”

“We might have been daunted but Tim wasn’t – he saw what it could be”

“There was barely any plumb­ing and the electrics needed a com­plete over­haul”


Although the château has been open to guests since the sum­mer of 2015, it re­mains an on­go­ing project. “Tim is now work­ing on ren­o­vat­ing the at­tic to cre­ate an apart­ment for him­self, Krys and their new ad­di­tion, baby Owen, born this March,” says Sue. “And Robert and I still have to ren­o­vate our lit­tle house – we’ve been so fo­cused on the château that we’ve ne­glected this a bit!”

Krys, too, con­tin­ues to add fin­ish­ing touches to guest and fam­ily ac­com­mo­da­tion with her home-made soft fur­nish­ings. “I bought her a sewing ma­chine for her birth­day,” says Sue. “We went to lo­cal bro­cantes and found lots of old ma­te­rial, and she set about mak­ing cush­ions for the liv­ing room, as well as tie-backs for the cur­tains, throw cush­ions for the beds, and a lovely set of ta­ble nap­kins. Those lovely, in­di­vid­ual touches give the place such a homely feel.”

De­spite hav­ing to im­prove their own liv­ing quar­ters, the fam­ily have set­tled into life in France and their num­bers have swelled: “We’ve got a herd of Cameroon sheep now – our ton­deuses na­turelles – as well as chick­ens and a dog,” says Sue.

As well as con­tin­u­ing with work on the build­ing, Tim, a clas­si­cally trained chef, and Krys now run the fam­ily busi­ness, with Tim pro­duc­ing im­pres­sive five-course evening meals twice a week for up to 15 guests.

Now that the ma­jor­ity of work has been com­pleted, Sue and Robert have taken a back seat and are en­joy­ing re­tire­ment, along­side the more mi­nor ren­o­va­tion of their ‘hovel’. “I’m the granny liv­ing across from the château and avail­able for babysit­ting,” laughs Sue. “But it’s Krys and Tim’s busi­ness; they’re in charge of its dayto-day run­ning. We en­joy host­ing din­ner par­ties, and of­ten pop over to the château to eat with the guests. I’m en­joy­ing a qui­eter pace of life now – af­ter all, this is our re­tire­ment!”

Of course, for Mike, the move hasn’t been a straight­for­ward one. “My big­gest re­gret is that he had to leave some of the clubs he used to go to in the UK,” ex­plains Sue. “He had a few friends there, which is un­usual for peo­ple with autism, so it was a shame to leave them be­hind.” How­ever, there have been lots of ad­van­tages for Mike in their new location. “He helps out a lot at home, and re­ally en­joys look­ing af­ter the an­i­mals,” says Sue. “We had a small gar­den in the UK, and we’d never have had the an­i­mals we do here in our 2.6-hectare plot. Peo­ple with autism of­ten re­spond well to an­i­mals, so it’s been a real bless­ing for Mike.”

With Krys and Tim work­ing hard to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful busi­ness, this fam­ily venture has also pro­vided Mike with a se­cure fu­ture and the ‘for­ever home’ Sue and Robert had hoped for.

“It’s just such a won­der­ful life here,” says Sue. “We’re so glad we are able to share it with our fam­ily.”

Clock­wise from top left: Bright yel­low cre­ates the il­lu­sion of light in the long hall­ways; the din­ing room is ready for break­fast; one of the favourite an­tique chairs; bed­rooms are painted in sooth­ing pale blue Be­low: Tim and Krys com­bined the pale blue with white linen to keep the dé­cor sim­ple and re­lax­ing

An­tique brass chan­de­lier, £1,689 chan­de­lier­sand­mir­rors. co.uk

The fam­ily love ta­pes­tries and opted to have at least one in ev­ery room

The château was derelict when the fam­ily first bought it and to­gether they have trans­formed it, strip­ping walls bare, re­plas­ter­ing and re­plac­ing rot­ten wooden beams

This stained-glass win­dow is an eye-catch­ing fea­ture

Above: The blue mo­saic wall tiles make an eye-catch­ing fea­ture in the new mod­ern bath­room, while the turquoise toi­let seat in­jects a vi­brant splash of colour Left: The bath­room be­fore the ren­o­va­tion work

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