Transforming a château into a cancer retreat in Gers

A desire to help people was motivation enough for one expat couple’s move to Gers, where they transformed a semi-ruined château into a cancer retreat, as Stephanie Sheldrake discovers

Three years ago, Angela Wood and her partner Dirk-Karel de Geus decided to do something completely different with their lives. The Anglo-Dutch couple, along with their two young girls, left behind their lives in Amsterdam and bought a semi-ruined château in rural Gers.

Now, after two and a half years of hard work renovating the medieval property, they have transformed Château Puyssentut into a peaceful retreat for patients undergoing treatment for cancer. “It’s like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Angela. “We brought the château back to life from its ruins and now it is being used to help people who have faced death to move on with their lives.”

Running a cancer retreat, deep in the sparsely populated Gers countryside in southern France is a huge leap from what the couple had been doing previously. For most of her career, Angela had lived in London working as an economist specialising in poverty reduction. She then moved to Amsterdam where she carried on her role on a consultancy basis, before deciding to retrain as a psychotherapeutic counsellor, and then as a core energetic therapist. “I’d had enough of trying to improve peoples’ lives a long way away, and I decided I wanted to do something that was based in my own community,” she explains

While living in Amsterdam, Angela met her Dutch partner, Dirk, who ran his own furniture business. Several years on, the couple decided the time was right in their lives to try something different. “We were 41 when we came to France. We’d lived our lives to the full – we’d travelled all around and we’d had our serious jobs in the city – so we were at a stage in our lives with our young children, Bella and Asha, when we were open to trying another aspect of life,” says Angela.

The idea to open a cancer retreat came about after some good friends suffered from the illness. The couple learned from their experience that while the medical system is good at treating cancer, more could be done to help the person, especially when treatment had ended. It was this desire to help people heal and live again that spurred them to set up a cancer retreat.

They began their search for suitable properties in northern Spain and southern France. “We also looked in Catalonia and the Basque Country because my Spanish was far better than my French,” explains Angela. “The reason we came back to southern France is because there are so many wonderful large old properties which are very affordable, especially compared to Catalonia, where the properties tend to be really large with lots of land, which was more than what we needed.”

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Angela and Dirk first saw Château Puyssentut while looking for properties for sale online in 2010. The couple were just about to move house in Amsterdam, so Dirk viewed the property on his own. “He loved it straight away,” remembers Angela, but when she tried to make another appointment to view the property herself, she was told it had already been sold. “For me, because I hadn’t seen it, I was okay about it. But Dirk had fallen in love with the place and couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

In early December, the couple had their hopes raised when they received a call from the owners saying that the château might not be sold, only to find out that it was. Eventually, in late January 2011, Dirk and Angela received another call to say the château was still for sale and they could view it before it went on the market. This time they both travelled down to see it, and despite it being one of the coldest days of the year, they fell in love with it. “As soon as I stepped into the house I knew it was the right one. We both had the immediate feeling of ‘this is it’.”

The beautiful pale-stone château is built on a rocky plateau overlooking a valley, and met all of their criteria: the main house was big enough to transform into accommodation for patients, and there was a stone barn which could be converted into a workshop and studio space – perfect for the yoga, meditation and dance workshops they had planned. Surrounding the house are fields and woodland where wild flowers and wildlife are in abundance, making it an ideal environment for those needing respite and relaxation.

Angela and Dirk were finally able to realise their dream and bought Château Puyssentut in May 2011. They employed local builders to do the renovation works, as well enlisting help from family, friends and volunteers who managed to transform the property into a stylish relaxing retreat in just two years.

The end result is a comfortable 10-bedroom retreat with pretty gardens with terraces for outside dining, a swimming pool and a juice bar. The interior style is a mixture of sleek, ‘Scandinavian-modern’ furniture with clean lines, and 1960s leather sofas and 1950/60s sideboards. “From the outside it’s a medieval château, but on the inside it’s a real mixture of 1950s and 1960s design pieces. I really do like this mixture of modern and old,” says Angela.

“Dirk has been in the furniture business for 20 years and during that time he’s picked up some great pieces. He developed his business after travelling in Indonesia – he started off with wooden handicrafts that he brought back, and then went into antiques, and then furniture. The wonderful thing for us is having a large enough house to put all of Dirk’s stuff in!” laughs Angela.

Angela has opted for a natural colour scheme which brings with it a feeling of calm. “We’ve gone with muted Farrow & Ball tones which suit the château very well, but I also can’t resist the odd splash of colour.”

Angela explains that the main aim was to create somewhere that people can feel at home. “We wanted something that is not busy but is comfortable. We’ve made it homely by having nice printed curtains and good-quality linen from England.”

Angela and Dirk held their first retreat in October 2013. “I felt it went even better than we had ever dared to hope, which is really nice. We had a group of five and everyone who came got something different out of being here,” says Angela. “For some it was the massage treatments, for others it was the food.” The couple are currently developing a potager, so that they can use organic produce in their menus.

Initially nine people were booked on the retreat, but four were unable to travel due to health reasons. “The thing with a cancer retreat is that it’s not something that you book like you do a holiday. You need to be physically fit enough to go. For most people it’s what they do at the end of treatment or in between treatments. In that way, it’s a very uncertain business. It’s not the best business to be in if you don’t like anxiety or uncertainty. We only found out in the last couple of weeks that four attendees were unable to travel.”

Because the group was smaller than expected, the couple were able to tailor it to their guests’ needs. “They decided they wanted a massage every day which made it a very healing journey for them because they were feeling very low on energy and that whole attention to their bodies really helped,” says Angela. The couple use highly trained and experienced therapists who have worked with people with cancer or prolonged illness to support the patients’ physical, emotional and mental needs.

“One lady hadn’t looked at herself in the mirror since she learnt she had got cancer and she was able to do that here with her massage therapist. That was an enormous step for her and she said she felt that she could love her body again. Those are very emotional things to hear.

“Another lady, who was 82, was at a very low point and on the first day of the retreat she lay on the floor during yoga and she wondered if she would be able to get up – and she did. For her, that was it – she thought ‘I can do it, I’ve still got it in me’. You see people flourishing again in front of your eyes. You see people coming alive again,” says Angela.

“I think when people get here they feel they’re in a place where they can relax. It just has that feeling about it. The place itself does it as much as anything else.”

Angela and Dirk have planned five retreats in May, June, September and October this year. “We’ve got people booked for May and June. We wouldn’t expect people to be booking for September because you just don’t know how you’re going to feel that far in advance.”

Finding ways to advertise and raise awareness of the retreat is key to the business at the moment. “We’ve got a huge amount of support, but it’s not as easy as we thought it would be to get people here,” admits Angela. “We’re advertising where we can, but we’ve got a limited budget. I think word of mouth is going to be the most successful route. We’ve got a new website which works very well, and we’re using social media.”

Despite these challenges, Angela and Dirk don’t regret embarking on this project. “We could have decided to be a holiday or a wedding venue, but we came here inspired to set up a place that would fundamentally help people. Even though it’s hard work, we still feel it’s what we want to do,” says Angela. “Our first retreat made us aware of how much pleasure we get from it and how much it gives back, so it is worth the anxiety of wondering if we’ll get enough bookings or how long it’ll take.”

As for adapting to life in France, Angela explains they feel part of the community. “There are a lot of village social events and having young children makes you part of that – it’s fun for all of us. The village has about 100 inhabitants, and the events are important to bring people together,” she says. “The locals are very open and supportive.”

Comparing Château Puyssentut to a phoenix rising from the ashes has helped Angela stay motivated; “I like that we’ve breathed life into the house and now in turn the house helps to breathe life into people.”

“We’ve risked everything in this endeavour; we don’t have anything else to fall back on. That’s scary, but knowing that the people who came on the retreat are getting on with their lives again is great – you can’t have better than that really.”

www.puyssentut.org

Find out how the couple went about buying renovating the chàteau and any problems they encountered