French ch�teau life


With its striking turrets and grand facade it’s no wonder that Mark and Nicky Selwood fell for the charms of Ch�teau de la Couronne words: ANNA MCKITTRICK

Nothing gives a boutique hotel the seal of approval more than a celebrity guest, so when A-list couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and their children spent a two-week holiday at Ch�teau de la Couronne in Charente, owners Mark and Nicky Selwood knew they were on to a good thing. But it’s not just the famous guests who have given Ch�teau de la Couronne its cachet as a cool place to stay; its design-led decor has also attracted the attention of the interiors world.

With backgrounds in fashion and interior design, it’s no surprise that Mark and Nicky have created something a bit different with the ch�teau they bought back in 2003. With an eye for design, the couple could see that the 16th-century ch�teau had potential: “When we bought the property it looked very grand on the outside because it’s a traditional fairytale castle with turrets and a tower, but it had been used as a training centre for many years so internally it was incredibly institutionalised and anything with character had either been covered up or ripped out,” remembers Mark. So while the property was structurally sound, internally it needed completely redoing and the family spent two years up to their knees in plaster, brick, dust and stone transforming it.

While the exterior of the property looks like a traditional ch�teau, once you walk through the wrought-iron and glass doors you are welcomed by a much more modern aesthetic. “Nicky and I both have very clear ideas about what we like. We’re both reasonably well travelled so what we wanted to do was create a place where we would really like to live. Once we’d ripped off the plaster and concrete that was covering the original features we had the structure of a beautiful building that we didn’t have to do a great deal to. The walls, ornate ceilings and beautiful wooden floors all existed but they’d just been hidden,” says Mark. The couple did a lot of the work themselves, but with 32 bedrooms alone, the grand scale of the renovation meant they hired local builders and masons to help out.

Mark says they were a great asset, thanks to their knowledge of local materials: “We’ve been used to renovating properties in the UK but in France the materials are different which means all the techniques are different, so we employed local people because they are used to working with those materials.”

When it came to deciding on the decor, Mark says it’s a fusion of both their styles: “I’m much more of a modernist than Nicky who likes more ornate things, while I prefer the clean lines of Sixties’ and Seventies’ style. Nicky spent about a year going to brocantes every weekend to source furniture and little objects because one of the things when you have a place this size is having enough stuff to fill it,” laughs Mark.

Creating a home in which Mark and Nicky wanted to live with their two sons Elliot and Max (now 19 and 15) was the couple’s priority when they moved from London to France, so it was important that the decor reflected their tastes. “I think if you approach these things with a view to making money you will only ever end up with a very bland and, to my taste, boring place because all you’re doing is decorating every room with Ikea. It has its place but you don’t want an entire ch�teau filled with it. The main driving force for us was to create somewhere that when you walk into it you go, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic’. It doesn’t mean you have to spend lots but it should feel like somebody has taken the time and effort to decorate it in a way that gives the home the opportunity to shine,” enthuses Mark who acknowledges that the style of the interiors won’t be for everyone.

“It’s not going to appeal to everybody’s taste but so what? We haven’t designed it for everybody’s tastes, we’ve designed it for ourselves and if people love it, that’s brilliant.”

Running a business from their French property was something the couple planned to do from the offset and the vast size of Ch�teau de la Couronne meant that it was perfect for welcoming guests.

Originally Mark and Nicky ran the business as a bed and breakfast but it has evolved since then and now they rent out the ch�teau for weddings, family reunions or to groups of friends looking for somewhere to enjoy a relaxing weekend away.

Of the 32 rooms, nine spacious bedrooms are available to hire and they all ooze contemporary style. Aside from the bedrooms guests have use of three large salons, of which one has a bar and another a baby grand piano. The musical theme continues with a separate music room complete with acoustic and electric guitars and amplifiers which Mark says is incredibly popular: “You’d be surprised at how many people play the guitar. In almost every party there will be someone who will sit there strumming in the music room.”

There’s also a private cinema with a nine foot screen and surround sound and a vast DVD library from which to choose.

Mark says the cinema actually gets a lot of use in the summer when guests want to escape from the midday heat. The couple have thought of everything to keep guests entertained at the ch�teau and there’s also a billiards room, ping pong tables and five acres of grounds that include a football pitch and a heated swimming pool. Mark and Nicky created a family environment because they knew what they would want themselves from a holiday rental. “In terms of a family destination it works well simply because we had our own children when we designed it so it was important to have somewhere that worked for families with children of any age from toddlers to teenagers. Although a lot of effort has gone into designing the interiors it is pretty much child-proof. Who wants to go on holiday when you spend two weeks chasing after your child saying ‘Don’t touch’? That’s not a relaxing holiday,” says Mark.

While the amazing facilities are wonderful for guests they are also great fun for the couple’s two sons who Mark says slotted easily into French life when they made the transition from London to village life in Marthon, Charente.

“France is such a fantastic place to raise children. Our two have benefitted so much from it, not only linguistically as they’re both bilingual, but it’s given them both a really good start and university is free.”

Eldest son Elliot is currently at university in Poitiers while Max is at a coll�ge in nearby Angoul�me. Having two school-age children when they moved made it easier for the Selwoods to settle into life in France and attending the village school helped both the children and Mark and Nicky make friends and feel at home.

“It was important for us to integrate into the community particularly because of our children but I suppose to some extent you get out what you put in and we did try very hard from day one. The French people in our village have been unbelievable and very warm and welcoming to us,” says Mark.

Buying a property in a village location was a conscious decision for the couple who knew they didn’t want to be too remote especially coming from London.

“We wanted to live in an area that wasn’t overly touristy but also wasn’t in a backwater,” says Mark. “We wanted to be in a proper working village with a butcher and a baker and we chose Marthon because it gave us the ideal blend between being lively enough for it to feel like an exciting place to live, but not overly developed in terms of tourism so that it’s manic for three months of the year and dead for the other nine.”

The couple are delighted with the location they chose and not only do they feel part of village life they have also carved out a successful business in their little corner of France which eight years down the line they still don’t take for granted.

“We get up in the morning and look at a place people get to see for two weeks a year but we get it all day everyday. You have to remind yourself occasionally just how lucky you are. It’s difficult to get away in the summer as it’s our peak time but it’s a small price to pay for living somewhere like this.”

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