Behind the scenes with Dame Helen Mirren’s B&B hosts in Tarn-et-Garonne

Picturesque St-Antonin-Noble-Val on the banks of the River Aveyron

Picturesque St-Antonin-Noble-Val on the banks of the River Aveyron - Credit: Archant

From finding a home in France to hosting one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, Clinton Hadgill tells the surprising story of his own journey to St-Antonin-Noble-Val

The yellow bedroom became Helen Mirren's dressing room

The yellow bedroom became Helen Mirren's dressing room - Credit: Archant

Over the last two decades, my wife Denise and I have spent a lot of time travelling on holiday throughout southern Europe staying in, among other places, rented villas with pools and views.

By 2010, at our respective ages of 46 and 49, our only son, Anthony, was approaching university age and we had squirrelled sufficient funds away to devote to a holiday home or venture abroad.

We were partly motivated in our search to find somewhere to eventually live at a much slower pace for a good part of every year, and to eventually escape from our busy careers in the City and at the Bar. We had also considered that a modest rental income would be an added bonus and of great help in at least paying the annual overheads and taxes.

Our original remit had been to find somewhere offering a warmer climate within not much more than a day’s drive from our home in St Albans. We discounted Spain because of the bureaucracy and oft-reported corruption, and Italy due to the notably high cost of property.

We also discounted Portugal and Greece, because of their distance from the UK. By 2010 we were considering France as an option, and I was adamant that I wanted to avoid the mad prices and overcrowding of the Côte d’Azur and the rest of Provence, yet we were both keen to find a location in southern France. In our ensuing search, we kept gravitating back to the south west and in particular to Tarn-et-Garonne in Midi-Pyrénées, because of its southerly latitude and attractive stone properties.

Setting the scene

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Our property search essentially followed the classic country gîte with pool and a view, and we very nearly fell for one that we visited in October with Charles Smallwood from Agence L’Union. However, we both came to the conclusion that sitting on a mower all day and being completely isolated from others of our species was not going to be conducive to the home/holiday life we were really looking for.

What if we could find a large townhouse, with the glorious panoramas over the countryside, which was a must, but with not a blade of grass to mow? What if we didn’t have to worry about driving after a glass or two of wine and could walk straight from the house, and within, minutes find ourselves at a bar or restaurant? What if we became part of a vibrant local community made up of lots of expats, together with the local French inhabitants? What if we even abandoned the idea of having a gîte or chambres d’hôtes?

After many property viewings with Charles we ended up having lunch one day at one of our now favourite local restaurants by the River Aveyron, sharing lunch and a bottle of chilled rosé, staring across at St-Antonin-Noble-Val from the opposite side of the river. It was then that it came to us in a flash. Our first real look at glorious country views in Tarn-et-Garonne had been on our first approach to St-Antonin-Noble-Val and walking into Rue de la Pélisserie, with the Aveyron gorges towering above the town. Maybe, because we had stayed in St-Antonin before, we had not noticed what was right in front of us all the time.

Safe haven

On changing our minds volte-face and communicating our new remit to Charles, within two weeks he had arranged a visit to No. 7 Rue de la Pélisserie, an enormous stone merchant’s house dating back to the early medieval period.

We walked into the imposing front hall off the street and were immediately drawn through the house to the most glorious and captivating views from the back.

We had found our townhouse with a countryside view to die for, reaching over ancient medieval tiled roofs and a wonderful magnolia tree in the garden.

We were then confronted by a grand kitchen and downstairs salon, which you could fit our UK house into quite easily. At the back of the house we could descend into a multi-terraced private walled garden.

Then came the inspection of four enormous en-suite bedrooms with nigh on 20-foot-high ceilings. In particular, the yellow room with the view over that lovely magnolia tree surpassed many examples of honeymoon suites we had seen before.

We also inspected an empty shop area, separate apartment with living quarters and a room that would be perfect for use as a garden bedroom. Finally, we were presented with a 15x12m, high-ceilinged and beamed belfry fit for any baron.

After visiting the house on four occasions that July in 2011 we returned to the UK and within a week promptly put an offer in. It was ours in December and the following month we moved in. Neither Denise nor I have ever looked back since.

The hall and landings from ground floor to third floor have since been renovated with the introduction of a vibrant yellow Provence plaster. We created the garden en-suite bedroom for our use in the summer and the garden terraces have been finished in a mixture of gravel and paving, where we have preserved the magnolia, hibiscus, rosemary and roses. We await the introduction of miniature cypress trees and possibly some potted olive trees.

The shop has been turned into a snooker and pool room, while the laundry doubles up as a table-tennis room. We have also renovated the top belfry bedroom and bathroom for our use in the winter.

The front of the house has had a complete makeover with the introduction of new shutters and our chambres d’hôtes sign was put up this summer.

Last but not least, we have spent three years sourcing furniture, oriental carpets, paintings and ornaments to furnish and decorate the house, while at the same time still preserving its unique character.

Centre stage

Last year, we were so pleased to learn that after the 2001 filming of Charlotte Gray starring Cate Blanchett, St-Antonin-Noble-Val had again been chosen by a Hollywood producer for the location of yet another film.

The Hundred-Foot Journey, co-produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, is directed by Lasse Hallström, famed for another film set in France: Chocolat. The film stars Dame Helen Mirren as a haughty French chef who rages against the arrival of new Indian competition in town.

What made it even more exciting for us was the fact that for around three weeks, our home became the headquarters to the film director and some of his entourage.

Our kitchen became the filming wardrobe, with seamstresses sewing and mending garments. The yellow bedroom became Helen Mirren’s dressing room and our other principal bedrooms were used as dressing rooms for the other key actors.

During the filming we were lucky enough to rent our neighbour’s house directly opposite. We caught plenty of fleeting glances of the actors as they came and went from the house between sets, and we have some photographs of the costume room laid out in our downstairs kitchen and of the sets in the main square.

Denise and I had also left some of our toiletries in our house, so we had to tiptoe through the yellow bedroom to retrieve what we could find. This meant finding all of Helen Mirren’s costumes on a rail in the bedroom. The furniture had all been moved around to suit her particular needs.

Then one day, Denise and I were enjoying a quiet lunch on the top terrace of the house opposite when we saw Lasse Hallström leaning out of the window. We exchanged pleasantries and took a photo of him, before promptly arranging for our son to join him on set as he is very interested in getting involved in the film industry himself.

Our original contract with the film company was for use of the house on weekdays. However, Lasse Hallström so enjoyed the house that he reserved it for himself for the three weekends during the filming, and we happily obliged.

We have always cherished the peace and quiet of St-Antonin-Noble-Val, save for its vibrant Sunday market and this is particularly so in the quieter months such as September and October. However, the filming was like a neverending storm of noise and hubbub for three weeks, an exciting showcase for a very special town.

La Pélisserie is taking bookings from May to September 2015

Tel: 0033 (0)5 6 3 67 20 64

[email protected]