Renovating a château in Lautrec
It was a huge undertaking but when Alison Ward and Paul Hunter set eyes on a derelict château in Lautrec, they knew they could turn it into something magnificent; and they have, as James Harrington discovers
Alison Ward and Paul Hunter’s reasons for moving to France will resonate with most Francophiles – a desire to escape the rat race combined with their love of the traditional French lifestyle. But, for Alison and Paul, their new life across the Channel also involved taking on an all-consuming challenge.
“I was running human resources for Canon in Europe, while Paul was travelling to Japan all the time as he was in charge of European operations for a global telecoms company based there,” says Alison.
“It was 2006. I’d finished renovating our 18th-century townhouse in Bath and was wondering what to do next. I wanted something more challenging, and what could be more challenging than a medieval property?”
What indeed? How about a medieval château that had lain pretty much forgotten and all but abandoned since the 15th century?
Eventually, they found what they were looking for at Château Brametourte, in Lautrec, in the Tarn department of south-west France. It stands high and aloof on a hill overlooking a grand vista. On a clear day, the views seem to stretch forever – well, to the distant Pyrenees at least.
But there were one or two problems to overcome before they could sit back and enjoy the view. “When we got the place, there were massive holes in the roof; water was pouring through the centre; ceilings had collapsed. It was in a desperate state,” Alison remembers. “After five years’ travelling all over Europe with Canon, we’d taken on an even bigger project.”
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It would be enough to send even the most hardened, seen-it-all-before property developer running for the hills – but it didn’t faze Alison and Paul, who had travelled the length and breadth of France looking for something ‘untouched’.
“We had travelled all over the place without success,” Alison says. “Then we went to Cordes-sur-Ciel and saw a yellowed photograph in a closed estate agency. I had the strongest feeling that this was the place we were looking for. I know it’s really weird, but I just felt this was the place we had to get to.”
At first, however, it seemed that they were destined not to live this particular dream.
“Even though I hardly spoke any French, I kept ringing the number, but when I finally got hold of somebody, they told me it wasn’t on the market any more,” she says. “I said: ‘I have to see it, even if it’s not for sale,’ and eventually they agreed to take me.
“The owner had taken it off the market because he couldn’t bear to sell it – even though it had already cost him two marriages and his third wife was threatening to divorce him – and, worse, people had come to see it and were planning to turn it into a nightclub.
“In the end, though, after we set out what we wanted to do – which would respect the traditional ways – he agreed to sell. He cried at the signing ceremony.”
Having found their ideal property, Alison and Paul were determined that their restoration would be sympathetic and sustainable. It would be no easy task as Château Brametourte, which used to belong to the Viscounts of Lautrec, dates back to the 11th century. It even comes with tales of its own ghosts – most notably a young woman who reputedly killed herself rather than be forced into marriage.
But, despite its long and turbulent history, Brametourte is not a national monument.
“No one really knew it was here,” Alison says. “It was so out of the way and overgrown. It went to rack and ruin after it was attacked in the 15th century.
“All the other châteaux we looked at had panelling and the roofs had been redone in the styles of the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries. This place is exactly as it was in medieval times.”
And it threw up a few surprises during the early part of the renovations. “When we were getting some of the layers of lime off to re-point the stones, we discovered pictures and even medieval graffiti,” Alison remembers.
They turned to volunteer website Help Exchange for assistance in restoring the ruined château, although living conditions were far from ideal in the early days.
Laughing at the memory, Alison says: “It was so primitive. We had 20 people to a room, all washing in a bucket – but they loved that whole experience and the camaraderie.
“An expert from Devon came over to teach us all about lime rendering and traditional stonework. He stayed for a few weeks and we passed on what we’d learned to the other volunteers.”
And they have faithfully kept their personal pledge to be as eco-friendly as possible.
“Everything’s green, everything’s sustainable. We’re even growing our own produce as much as possible. It’s something new for me. When we came here, I realised I’d reached 40 and never grown so much as a tomato,” Alison says.
“The insulation is either recycled newspaper or sheep’s wool; we have solar panels on the roof; all the water is recycled into two reed beds; and the pompe à chaleur brings in warm air from outside.”
It doesn’t stop there. “Eventually, we’d like to invest in a turbine to generate our own electricity.”
Now Brametourte is open for business as an out-of-the-ordinary B&B and wedding reception venue. They welcomed their first guests in 2011.
During the early part of the ongoing restoration, Alison, Paul and their army of volunteers were regular visitors to a local bar.
“We got to know a lot of people in the village having gone down to the bar,” Alison said. “And my French has developed from speaking in the bar over drinks. People are quite patient then and have all the time in the world.
“One person in particular wanted to learn and develop his English. So we’d just talk for hours. Mainly we’d speak in French but he’d try out his English, too – which is now extraordinary. And he’s helped my French so much.
“Just mixing with people helps a lot. Even going to the hairdresser’s is a lesson.”
Alison and Paul have also hosted events at the château. One of the most popular of these was the English cream teas.
Alison said: “We had clotted cream sent over from England; and Paul’s mother went into town and cleared the charity shops out of teapots and cups and saucers. People said: ‘nobody’s going to come; nobody knows what a cream tea is’.
“We’d got all these scones ready, all these cream teas, and a trio of volunteers all dressed up in frilly hats. We were worried it would be a disaster when suddenly a line of cars appeared – and no fewer than 120 people turned up.
“It just snowballed. We couldn’t cope with the numbers. In the end, we had to stop doing them because we would do tours and we’d lose people in the château. And once the B&B rooms were being used, it was impractical to keep doing the teas.”
Another hit has been intensive English courses. Alison said: “People from Toulouse or Paris come here for a week and are immersed in English. We’re not allowed to speak any French during that time.
“They go to Michelin-starred restaurant La Saveurs in Castres, where English chef Simon Scott talks to them in English about the food, and they see Alan Geddes, who’s Scottish, at his organic winery in Gaillac. We cook all their meals and sit down and speak English with them at mealtimes and in the evenings.”
But it’s the wedding side of things that has really captured the couple’s imagination. “We have a marquee area with tables and chairs overlooking that magical view. It’s a perfect venue,” Alison says.
They have plans to develop the château further, adding gîtes and refurbishing a currently uninhabitable area of the property.
As if restoring an abandoned medieval château in a sympathetic and sustainable manner while running it as a B&B wasn’t enough, both Alison and Paul still hold down day jobs to pay for all the renovations and their plans for the future. In the short term, it means Château Brametourte is closed out of season, but the plan is to live and work in the idyllic and romantic place all year round.
“We’ll continue to do contract work in the winter for the next few years to save enough to work on the gîtes and do more work on the roof, as we will then have more rooms we can develop and use, but eventually we want to live here full-time,” Alison says.
“It’s a difficult balance. Perhaps we could increase income if we lived here full-time, but the relative effort for the earnings at the moment just isn’t enough to then invest further in the renovations – especially as in the winter it’s very quiet.
“That said, I would love to offer romantic Christmas weddings and breaks, with roaring fires and everything.”
It was the dream of a better life that brought Alison and Paul to Lautrec in the first place, and it’s that same dream that has kept them going through all the renovation work. But it’s the people they have met while here that has convinced them they’re doing the right thing.
As Alison says: “I’ve lived in nine different countries all over the world, and the people here are the best I’ve ever met.” LF