A treasured find

A manoir in the Loire Valley has proved the perfect setting for Rosemary Conquest to showcase her passion for French antiques and interior design, as Anna McKittrick discovers

It was a love of French antiques that led to Rosemary Conquest and her husband Richard making the move to the Loire Valley six years ago. As an antique dealer specialising in French decorative pieces, Rosemary spent a lot of time in France sourcing items for her antiques shop in London so when it came time for a change of scenery, the couple decided to put down roots across the Channel in a country they know and love.

“We’d enjoyed holidaying in France but it was really getting to know it through the business that attracted me,” enthuses Rosemary, who travelled across the country in search of antiques. But it was the Loire Valley that left a lasting impression on her.

“I think it’s the architecture more than anything that attracted us to the area as it’s very different from the rest of France. There are lots of ch�teaux round here that are made of tuffeau, a soft limestone, and have incredible carvings,” adds Rosemary, who discovered their first property, near Saumur, on a buying trip.

The couple bought the manoir in the department of Maine-et-Loire in 2006 and renovated it with the help of their son Ben and his wife Sandra who were so taken with the area and the French way of life that they ended up moving from London to Loire Valley themselves. Ben and Sandra moved further south to the department of Indre and it was during visits to see their son and daughter-in-law that Rosemary and Richard decided to move from Pays-de-la-Loire to Centre.

“I always preferred that part of the Loire to where we were and I thought it was prettier because it’s much more undulating and less flat with beautiful old ch�teaux around. We loved where we were but we thought we’d keep an eye out and see if anything popped up, we’d consider moving and then we found Manoir de la Foulqueti�re,” remembers Rosemary.

The Conquests moved to the 15th-century manoir near Valencay in 2010. They bought it from an antique dealer and, as the property was already equipped with a workshop offering space to restore antiques, it couldn’t have been more of a perfect fit for Rosemary and Richard. The ground floor of the manoir had largely been restored by the previous owner, who retained the beautiful original flooring and vast old fireplaces. With her background in interior design, it’s no surprise that she’s used her expert knowledge of second-hand furniture and her eye for design to create a wonderfully serene interior in her French home.

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“I had an exact image of every room and how I wanted it to be. My son Ben’s been amazing helping with the building work and he drew up the plans for the renovation while I did the interior which has been really good fun. Even when Ben was 17 and at home with me in London he used to go to antiques markets and is very much in tune with how I want things to look,” says Rosemary.

Many of the pieces in their home, from furniture to decorative items, have been sourced at flea markets and brocantes and when time allows, Rosemary enjoys going to the larger antique fairs in the south of France but she also likes going to the smaller markets.

“I go to the tiniest markets in the tiniest places just in case there might be some hidden treasure. I always imagine I’m going to find something unique among the plastic Barbie dolls,” laughs Rosemary who has been going to brocantes and vide greniers since the late 80s.

With over 20 years’ experience of antique shopping in France Rosemary says it has changed since she first started out and now it’s much more difficult to find second-hand items at a reasonable price. Being in France year-round and having access to a steady stream of markets, particularly over the summer months, enables Rosemary to be constantly on the lookout for antiques; a welcome change after the frenetic pressure of buying trips.

Now browsing the markets take place at a more leisurely pace and Rosemary was recently rewarded for the fruits of her labour when she discovered two 18th-century French farmhouse tables that she snapped up.

Rosemary’s interior design skills have been at work once again as the couple has just finished converting the first floor of the manoir into four en-suite bedrooms which they are going to run as a chambres d’h�tes. Rosemary and Richard already have three successful g�tes, which have been converted from outbuildings, but starting a bed and breakfast business was something that natural-born host Rosemary had wanted to do for a while.

“We run creative writing workshops taught by a friend of mine and we had people here recently for one and I served them breakfast, morning coffee, lunch and dinner in chapel every evening and it was enormous fun. I love cooking. We’ve got lovely fresh herbs and vegetables in the garden and if it’s not in our garden we get it fresh from the market,” says Rosemary who enjoys cooking traditional French dishes.

A recent French guest said that Rosemary’s b�uf bourguignon tasted like his grandmother’s – culinary accolades don’t get much better than that. Rosemary loves making up recipes from what’s in her garden or on her doorstep, whether it’s a glut of tomatoes or some leftover goat’s cheese, they often end up being transformed into a delicious savoury tart.

Aside from the mouth-watering local produce, Rosemary and Richard are also ideally situated to enjoy the wines that the Loire Valley is so famed for. “The wines are fantastic and where we live we’re just on the border of the appellations of Touraine and Valencay. Literally 10 minutes down the road, you can go to little vineyards and try Touraine wine and then 15 minutes the other way is Valencay which tastes very different. There’s also lovely bubbly that’s fantastic quality and very inexpensive,” says Rosemary, who adds that they can arrange tours and tastings for guests who often end up filling their car boots with bottles.

Wine is certainly an icebreaker and when the couple first moved into the manoir, which used to be part of a larger farm, their 80-year-old neighbour Jean-Pierre, who was actually born in the manoir, gave the Conquests a warm reception.

“He came over with a lovely bottle of pink local bubbly that didn’t have a label on and some glasses and said we want to welcome you to the area,” says Rosemary, who loves being able to talk about the history of the manoir with Jean-Pierre and his wife Colette.

Rosemary and Richard have settled into life in rural France and haven’t found the change of scenery from London to the countryside to difficult to adjust to.

“We were so busy when we first moved here and because we were determined to get everything renovated as quickly as possible and get the g�te business up and running, we weren’t fazed by it,” says Rosemary.

Since moving to Foulqueti�re, the couple are now closer to Ben and Sandra, who live in La Roche-Posay and run a shop selling high-end paint and wallpaper, and get to see them and their two children – George, two-and-a-half and Charlie, five-and-a-half months, regularly.

For the Conquests, who have three other children – Emily, Daisy and Tom – having a house in France that’s spacious enough to welcome all the family was paramount and they’ve certainly succeeded in creating an inviting and stylish home in their little corner of France.

www.manoirfoulquetiere.com