Capture the castle
Matthew and Jitske Poventud wanted a new home and a new lifestyle, but never expected to find it in a tumbledown castle estate that hadn’t been touched since the 1940s
See the Poventuds’ renovation of this traditional French Château
Theirs was a house viewing with a difference.
But then Matthew and Jitske were looking for something different. They wanted a new home, a change of scene, and a dramatically different lifestyle. ‘We had a great house in a great location,
and life was fine. But I wanted to see my children grow up,’ says Matthew. ‘We longed for another kind of life; we wanted to spend more time with the children and with each other.’
So when they arrived in France, back in late December 2003, and caught their first glimpses of the old castle through the pouring rain, they knew they’d found the life-changing project they’d been looking for, somewhere they could live and work.
The last inhabitant had left just before the
Second World War and as the estate agent showed them round, the castle started to work its magic. Virtually untouched since the 1940s, the medieval kitchen was still intact, along with the 19th-century chapel, a small library, wood floors and marble mantelpieces. And it was packed with thousands of antiques, from tables, chairs and cabinets to cutlery, books, and even clothes. ‘During our tour all the shutters were closed and we could hardly see a thing,’ says Matthew. ‘It could have been a bit spooky but it is such a beautiful, noble building – just in need of a total renovation. Other people that had been interested in this estate had only focused on the castle. We didn’t – it was quite obvious we couldn’t live in the castle, but we immediately saw the potential of the courtyard and its two houses.’
Matthew and Jitske visited the estate on a Saturday morning. By the end of the afternoon they had signed the contract and were the owners of a huge estate, with a castle, two houses, several barns and stables, a dilapidated hunting lodge, a ruined orangery and watermill, a lake and a forest.
Soon after buying the estate, the couple decided to open a guest house. The idea was to live in the main house and create guest rooms in the other house across the courtyard. Both properties needed major renovation work. Many windows were gone, the buildings were hidden under vines and climbers, but the roofs were in good shape, and there were many authentic elements left, including the old tomettes (traditional floor tiles), a huge sandstone fireplace with a bread oven, a marble mantelpiece, winding stone steps and an unusual wooden outside staircase with a roof.
‘Normally in old French houses you’ll find one or more windowless walls, at least on the north side,’ says Jitske. ‘But there are huge windows in every room – there’s so much light coming in, and superb views of the grounds from every room. It feels as though you’re outside, even when you’re inside.’
Matthew and Jitske tackled the whole renovation themselves, with occasional help from family and friends. ‘Only the brickwork of one small chimney was done by a pro!’ In the old estate caretaker’s house, the ground floor was turned into a shared living breakfast area for their guests. Upstairs, four new bedrooms – and adjoining bathrooms – were created, some of the (restored and enlarged) antique beds come from the castle, along with many other interesting finds.
In addition to the guest rooms, Matthew and Jitske created a holiday home in the old hunting lodge, adding a two-storey cedar-clad extension to create a spacious kitchen and bathroom.
‘Whenever we needed something for the build,’ says Jitske, ‘we just had a look outside and in the barns.’ We reused old doors, handles and timber, and built the outside stairs of the hunting lodge using stones from a tumbledown building in the grounds. The wooden flooring in the guest rooms was made from 11 Douglas fir trees that had to be felled as they were too close to the main gate. ‘We had the trees sawn at the local wood mill, but made the planks ourselves. We built the kitchen and the winding stairs in the holiday home from the estate’s oak trees as well,’ says Jitske. The finishing touch is the magnificent mantelpiece in the hunting lodge.‘one day we found a beautiful carved stone in the vegetable garden. We dug a bit deeper and found many more. They appeared to be a 14thcentury mantelpiece! Only the cornerstones were missing, so we made those ourselves.’
The castle proved a treasure trove for all the decorative touches the couple needed for the guest houses. The interiors are sturdy and elegant, sober yet warm, and in keeping with the robust buildings they used solid materials like old wood, massive oak and rough stucco. Antique finds from the castle add authenticity along with goodquality textiles and curtains. A few well-chosen contemporary pieces of furniture and bright paint colours add a modern twist. As Jitske explains:
‘It’s always the wall behind the bed that is painted; this way the colour never comes out at you.’ Care is taken to ensure rooms are not over-decorated, so the focus remains on the beautiful setting.
Work never stops at the Château de Digoine. When they’re not busy with guests, Matthew and Jitske spend time with their children, their animals and their garden, and there’s a lot of maintenance to do. Plus, the once-dilapidated orangery has been restored and is now open as guest accommodation. ‘There’s never a dull moment, and we love it here. We don’t feel that we own the place, but for a few years in its many centuries of existence, we are temporarily its guardians,’ says Jitske.