Changing spaces

Creating five g�tes from a rambling farmhouse and its 19th century outbuildings proved a real labour of love for Brittany expat,?Caroline?HaycoxWORDS: KATE CHAPPELL

When Caroline Haycox moved to Brittany with her young family in 2002, finding a property with the potential to develop holiday g�tes was always the plan. Finding the perfect property was a more daunting prospect. "When we first moved out to France we rented while we looked for somewhere to buy," she says. "We’d tried to buy from the UK, but we had a very definite list of requirements – including outbuildings that could be renovated into holiday cottages – so we decided it would be much better to search in situ’."

Luckily, a farm close to where they were renting in Les Champs Geraux, eight miles from Dinan, came onto the market and looked perfect. The French couple who owned it had been running it as a chambres d’h�tes, with four guest rooms on the ground floor of the large farmhouse, but Caroline and her then husband, Ian, were more excited by the farm’s former stables and piggeries. "We had a young baby at this point, so one of our many requirements was that any outbuildings we were going to renovate would be within easy earshot of the main house," Caroline explains. "We knew we would be doing most of the work ourselves, so it was important that we could get on with it while the children were tucked up in bed. This farm’s outbuildings were set around a courtyard next to the house, so the whole property was spot on."

By December 2002 the family had moved into the farm and work began almost straight away. "Our first project was to take out the existing guest rooms and renovate the three g�tes attached to the main house," says Caroline. "We knew how important it was financially to be open to visitors from the start of the next season, so we literally worked through the night to get the work done. The g�tes already had plasterboard and insulation installed and were structurally finished, so we managed to do most of the work ourselves. I had done some plumbing in the UK and Ian was a dab hand at electrics, so we managed it ok." By March 2003, their first three g�tes were open and ready for business.

But it was the 19th century barn that was to prove the couples’ biggest project. "We had always planned to convert the barn," explains Caroline, "and our existing g�tes were proving enough of a success to make it a viable option. Nevertheless, this was something very different to the renovations we had tackled so far."

The barn was structurally sound, but would need windows, doors and a new roof to convert it for residential use. Caroline knew how she wanted it to look, but as the building had more than 170m� of floorspace, French law required them to employ an architect. They also found a local firm of builders to help with the structural side of the project, choosing to take on the rest of the work themselves with the help of an English friend who was planning to start his own building business in France. "We did consider getting a building company to take on the whole project, but it would have cost a fortune as labour in France is so much more expensive than in the UK. And anyway, working on the initial g�tes had given us the confidence in our own abilities."

One of the trickiest aspects of the project was deciphering the building regulations that had to be adhered to. The barn’s use had to be changed to residential, which involved a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Caroline and Ian, the local mairie and the prefecture. "At times it seems like the mairie knew even less than we did!" laughs Caroline. The couple also considered applying for a grant, as money is available for g�te conversions, but they decided that the time restrictions would put them under too much pressure.

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The build finally started at the end of 2004. "As we were out of season, there were no guests staying in the other g�tes," explains Caroline. "I wanted to get the outside of the barn completed before the spring so that our business would be disrupted as little as possible. Luckily, the builders we chose for the project were fantastic – they worked through the dead of winter and, apart from the obligatory two hour lunch break, hardly paused for breath!"

Caroline was keen to keep as much of the traditional elements of the barn as possible, so all the stone that was taken out of the building was used elsewhere wherever possible. Although working to a strict budget, Caroline was also keen to use materials that were typical for the area, for example using the more expensive granite to create new lintels for the windows. "I was firmly of the opinion that we could scrimp on the inside, but not on the outside," says Caroline.

Once the exterior was finished, complete with terraces and blossoming flower pots, the farm re-opened for business and guests were undisturbed as work continued on the inside of the barn. The building had been turned into two g�tes, each with three bedrooms, and Caroline knew they would be perfect for families on holiday. "When it came to getting the interiors right, a priority was keeping them practical for families with young children, so lots of easy-to-clean surfaces! Other than that, I wanted simple furnishings and colours that would complement the beautiful beams that were still in the barn’s roof. I knew I could put fresh flowers in the g�tes before guests arrived and add colour that way."

By spring 2006 the new g�tes were ready. "I was, and am, very proud of them," says Caroline. "They looked even better than I had hoped they would. I think they’ve got a real wow’ factor."

Today, the g�tes are proving popular with families looking for a friendly place to stay in the Brittany countryside, with great beaches close by. Caroline is close to finishing a covered swimming pool, which she hopes will entice even more guests to her farm.

"I don’t regret all the hard work it took to convert the g�tes," says Caroline. "Obviously it wasn’t all plain sailing, like the time the plumber forgot to solder some pretty vital pipes and we had to take down all the plasterboard and start over again! But once you’ve started a project like this you can’t just stop midway, so you always manage to find a solution to every problem. Just because you have to.

"I’m proud that I came to Brittany with a firm idea of what I wanted to achieve and, through a lot of hard work, it’s all become a reality." LF

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