Twenty years after finding fame on BBC show Changing Rooms, Anna Ryder Richardson is taking on her most ambitious makeover project yet, a ruin in south-west France
When Anna Ryder Richardson tells you she’s planning to turn a French ruin into a family home within two years, you should probably believe her. After all, this is a designer who used to transform homes in a weekend on the TV makeover show Changing Rooms and who now revamps them in super-quick time on Peter André’s 60 Minute Makeover. She famously survived a night in a dungeon with 200 rats on I’m a Celebrity… Get me Out of Here and has spent the last decade running a wildlife park with rhinos and tigers. So surely she won’t be defeated by a “pile of bricks” in the countryside near Bordeaux.
The property may consist currently of a collapsed farmhouse (with a wonky wall) and an old barn, but come back in a couple of years and you will probably see a splendid conversion complete with pigeonnier and pool.
“It’s not that frightening. You just have to have imagination,” laughs Anna, who is planning to move to France permanently with her teenage daughters Bibi, 15, and Dixie, 14. “I would have done the work in two days on Changing Rooms, but it would have fallen down! This one can’t.”
Swansea-born Anna has loved France since she was “teenie weenie” and remembers epic journeys down to Biarritz in the family camper van. “I have always wanted to end up living there,” she says. “I used to dream of living in a château, but I’ve ended up with more of a shed. It’s still going to be beautiful though.”
Despite her enthusiasm, it has been a tough few years for the TV presenter and her family. Renovating and running an animal wildlife park in Pembrokeshire took its toll on her relationship with husband Colin McDougall and the couple are getting divorced. So the move to France is a fresh start as well as an adventurous new project.
Anna spent two years looking for the right property before finally falling in love with the ruin set in six acres on the hill above Duras, a Lot-et-Garonne village with a château. She did consider the pretty town of Eymet just over the border in Dordogne, but worried that she would feel too conspicuous joining its large British expat community. “I’d hate to end up being ‘that girl from Changing Rooms’ meeting in the town square and having a coffee. I want to have English friends but I want to live with the French,” she says.
Amazingly, Anna was in Wales when she first saw the property and put in her offer, having been given a virtual tour. An agent from local estate agency Clé Rouge used the iPhone app FaceTime to drive her through the wrought-iron gates up the sweeping drive and to the top of the hill where she could look out on the surrounding sunflower fields and see the château in the distance.
“It’s a really romantic setting but I’m only five minutes’ drive from the supermarché and an hour from Bordeaux,” says Anna. “We couldn’t live in the middle of nowhere. I have two teenage daughters so we needed access to airports and to towns. They were like ‘no we are not leaving our friends’ so I took them to see Bordeaux first. It’s a beautiful, chic, clean city and they loved it.”
The climate and outdoor space also appealed to Anna, who has two quarter horses, Palomino and Stanley, plus two Shetlands, Dolly Parton and Tiny.
“It’s beautiful in Wales but it rains all the time so I live in waterproofs,” laughs Anna. “I would like to ride my horses without wellies.”
An architect has drawn up plans for the new family home. First to go up will be a pigeonnier with a large kitchen, utility room and bathroom downstairs and an en-suite master bedroom upstairs with two large dressing rooms. Initially, Bibi and Dixie will share the pigeonnier until the attached barn has been converted to create an open-plan living room, dining room and another two large bedrooms.
Outside there will be a pool, while the various outbuildings will be converted into a one-bedroom gîte plus stables for the horses.
“I want the pigeonnier built within a year, so we can be living there before Brexit, and the whole thing done within two years,” says Anna.
“Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I think the building can be up. I’m used to being in the middle of the zoo so I’m fine to rough it. It doesn’t need to be plastered and completely finished inside.”
Anna plans to do a bricklaying course so that she can help rebuild the exterior walls. But when it comes to the interior, she will be well within her comfort zone. And before you ask, no, she will not be making everything out of MDF, the cheap fibreboard that was used so liberally on Changing Rooms to make everything from shelving to faux Roman statues.
“I want it to be very traditional,” says Anna. “I’m almost obsessional about French furniture to the point where my Welsh farmhouse is really a French farmhouse. I’ve got a beautiful big wooden farmhouse dining table with snail shell feet and a linen press/armoire, and also one of those washstands with the jug and bowl. I shipped all this stuff over from France and now I’m going to be shipping it all back again. My kids are like ‘why are you buying all this stinky old furniture?’ They think Kim Kardashian style is the way to go.
“I’m obsessed with vintage soft furnishings too, or ‘smelly second-hand fabrics’ as my daughters like to call them. I have some toile that I’ve made into a lovely big lamp shade.” Anna is also excited about reinstalling an old fireplace that she stumbled upon while hacking through the “masses and masses” of brambles surrounding the property.
It all sounds like the makings of a new home improvement show to join her long list of TV credits, from Changing Rooms, House Invaders and Staying Put to Chaos at the Zoo and Anna’s Wild Life.
Speaking of staying put, is Anna hoping to put down roots in Duras?
“In a perfect world I will stay there forever,” she says. “But obviously if Johnny Depp wants to marry me, I will have to sell up. Actually, I’ve heard they do weddings at the château.”
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