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

Period Living - - Contents - Words and styling Monique van der Pauw / Coco Fea­tures Pho­to­graphs Ton Bouwer / moon­shineweb.eu

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.

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