Renovation gives Côte d’Azur château the X Factor
Against the odds, Morag and Chris Baxter transformed a rundown château on the Côte d’Azur into a luxury rental property with star potential, as Anna McKittrick discovers
You know you’ve done something right if the production team from The X Factor chooses your property for the Judges’ Houses stage of the popular reality television show. So when Simon Cowell brought his final six contestants to Château Lou Casteou on the Riviera for the 2011 USA series, owners Morag and Chris Baxter knew that the hard work they had put into transforming the neglected château had paid off.
When the couple purchased Lou Casteou, which means ‘The Château’ in old Provençal French, in 2006, they knew they were taking on an ambitious project, but they didn’t know just quite how many challenges they would have to overcome to create the business they envisaged.
Buying a property in Provence and setting up a business was something that Morag and Chris had wanted to do for many years. Having spent 15 years working for a large international company in France, Morag knew the country well. “I was the business manager for a company called Medtronic MiniMed, and I was running clinical trials for new diabetes products, so I spent my time travelling around some of the most wonderful parts of France. I had a lot of French friends, and knew that it was where I wanted to be working. I truly had the French bug,” remembers Morag, who speaks fluent French.
Morag was living in Moscow with her husband and two sons, George and Joe, now 17 and 16 respectively, and was commuting between Watford, Switzerland and France, which she describes as a ridiculous and manic lifestyle, when she took the plunge and followed her dream. “We decided that it was time to do something for the family, and to put us as a priority. I left my job in 2006, and decided that we needed to find a family project,” says Morag who then began her property search in earnest.
Originally, the Baxters considered setting up a joint venture with four families, but Morag says this proved to be too complicated because everyone had their own visions of the property they wanted to buy and the business they wanted to create. After ruling out a group project, they then considered setting up a tennis academy, but they couldn’t find the right property with sufficient tennis courts so instead they decided to create a luxury residence and restaurant.
They had already settled on Provence and then narrowed their property search down to the Côte d’Azur; an area they already knew well having spent many holidays on the Riviera. With the location decided, next came the task of finding the right renovation project. “We probably looked at around 30 properties and then took the family to see about six that we shortlisted. We ended up falling for this property, near Fréjus, in Var, which was the craziest of them all,” laughs Morag. Many of the properties they viewed had been partially renovated, and as they had a very clear idea of how they wanted the interior to look, they decided to go for a property that hadn’t been touched, so they knew they could put their own stamp on it. “It had been empty for over 20 years and structurally the facades were very beautiful, but the inside was a total wreck and it was full of squatters. It was certainly the most ambitious project, but it was also the one that was most appealing to us,” adds Morag, who was also charmed by the property’s history.
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Built in 1904 by Lord Amherst of Hackney, a collector of antiquities who funded the Howard Carter expeditions to Egypt and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the property is a Provençal château, a typical architectural style of the region. Lord Amherst only enjoyed the château for a short while before his death, and a Swiss aristocratic family then bought it, along with the neighbouring property built by Lord Rendall. Sadly, Lou Casteou went into disrepair and no one in the family took responsibility for it, so when Morag and Chris purchased the property, it was a complete ruin.
But they had ambitious plans for it and were keen to get on with the renovation. However, they encountered a huge stumbling block early on that forced them to radically reassess their business model. “We purchased in April 2006, and had already created the family business so it was clear we had a business objective. We submitted the plans to the town hall and were told that we were in a B0 land category, which meant that no commercial activity was permitted in the area. This was a major blow because we always had a commercial plan in mind,” says Morag, who explains that B0 means that the land is green belt, a high fire risk and completely protected.
Selling Lou Casteou wasn’t an option, so the couple had to come up with a way of transforming the property into a viable business option. Two years of legal battles ensued during which time they found a solution to the problem. “To have a hotel and restaurant you have to be in B2 category, and we were told that was impossible but that we might be able to get the property out of B0 and into B1,” remembers Morag who adds: “With our lawyer, we found out that there’s a category called Location Meublée Professionnelle (LMP), which means that you can rent out the whole building rather than running it as a hotel, and I’m able to do that in B1.” It took almost three years to get it signed off as B1 as they had to have meetings with the fire brigade, the head of urbanism, architects and then make adjustments to ensure the property met the stringent criteria.
In tandem with all the legal wrangling, Morag and Chris began the renovation of the property. The house was uninhabitable to begin with, and Morag stayed in a caravan in the gardens and then in various hotels while overseeing the architects and builders. For the first year, Morag let the squatters stay in the château as they were living in the basement and were looking after the place when Morag was at home in Surrey. “They weren’t an issue as long as we respected each other. My friends and my mother were horrified but because everything had been so problematic, I just got used to coping with every problem as it arose and trying to find a solution,” says Morag stoically.
The renovation saw the château’s 22 bedrooms converted to become 15, of which 12 are en suite, and a larger reception area was created by taking out one of the interior walls. While they made changes to improve the design of the château to suit the business, they were keen to stay true to the history of the property. “We wanted to do a genuine renovation and didn’t want to turn it into anything contemporary. We wanted to respect the beauty of the building as it actually has a really beautiful design,” says Morag, who used 16 local artisan companies, many of them fathers and sons working together, to cover the different building disciplines needed to bring Lou Casteou back to life. The facades remain the same as the original design, but they needed to be repaired, renovated and repainted. Just landscaping the garden, which was full of rubble, trees and broken cars, and installing the pool, was a sizeable job in itself.
When it came to designing the interiors of the château, Morag had a clear idea of the look she wanted to create. “We spoke to a couple of interior designers and I just hated what they were proposing. They just focused on what was trendy, and that wasn’t my objective. I did a lot of research, visited several historic properties and design fairs. In the end, we designed all of the colour schemes and the interiors ourselves, bought antiques at fairs and had them renovated,” says Morag who also worked with antiques dealers in Dorking, especially Margaret at Arkell Antiques, who sourced many pieces for her.
After hard work and dogged determination, Château Lou Casteou was ready to host its official inaugural event in 2011, an investment forum on African urbanisation. Morag held several corporate events the previous year in order to find chefs, chauffeurs and teams to staff the functions, and since then they have hosted weddings, The X Factor, cookery schools, cultural retreats and, recently, their first tennis academy.
Morag, who lives in Ashtead, comes over to France at least once a month and is always on the ground to oversee the functions. Relocating to France is definitely something that Morag would consider in the future. “Soon both the boys will be away at university or working, and I would love to move there and really manage this business full-time,” says Morag, who knew from the offset that she wanted to run a business rather than invest in a holiday home. “We really wanted a business because I thought, if we bought a holiday home, we wouldn’t meet anybody, and we didn’t want to just go there and sit by the pool. I wanted to be hands-on and become part of the community,” adds Morag, who has made firm friends over the years thanks to her staunch work ethic. “I don’t want to have days off. I want to be working because that’s when you meet people.” And with an outlook like that, it’s no surprise that Morag and Chris have made a success of their French adventure. LF