The serene countryside of Normandy is quite a change from the rush of Clerkenwell in central London, but for Jon Barnsley it was a change he was ready to make when he started to look at property there.
Jon, who worked as travel and showbiz editor of the News of the World, had dreamt of running a guest house for many years but the type of property he had in mind was unaffordable in the UK, so he decided to search across the Channel instead.
“I didn’t want to just have a backstreet B&B in Brighton and even that would’ve cost a lot more than what I bought in France. It meant I could get a signature building in Normandy,” remembers Jon who moved to France in August 2004. It was during a weekend viewing trip to Normandy that Jon and his then-partner found Le Castel, a classic Napoleon III ch�teau on the outskirts of the town of Montpinchon in Manche. It was just what Jon had in mind:
“We came down the driveway and I just knew it was what I was after. Half an hour later we were signing the first set of paperwork,” he recalls.
Of the four properties Jon viewed, it was Le Castel with its symmetrical exterior, twin turrets and dramatic three-metre high windows that made an impression, and it’s easy to see why Jon was so quick to put in an offer and not let it slip away. He chose Normandy because of its proximity to the UK, but Jon also saw a gap in the market for the type of guest house he wanted to run: “There are a few top-notch ch�teaux in Normandy but there was a gap for upper to mid-range properties, so it worked very well.”
The 19th-century ch�teau is set in more than three acres of land and its design is unusual for the area in that most of the other ch�teaux are built in an old stone farmhouse style while Le Castel is much more formal. The property, which is on an elevated position overlooking the grounds, was in pretty good condition when Jon bought it but it did need work to transform it into a luxury chambres d’h�tes. The intimate ch�teau only had four bedrooms which Jon converted into three suites, each with two bedrooms, that are all named after historical French figures.
Renovation wasn’t new for Jon as he’d been doing up houses since he bought his first property when he was 19. “It was something I was well acquainted with and thankfully I can do a huge number of the jobs myself which is vital, especially when running a B&B,” he says.
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Aside from the ch�teau, Jon also renovated the old servants’ quarters and stables to create three cottages which are rented out as g�tes, enabling Jon to capture both the B&B and self-catering market.
When it came to choosing the interior decor of the guest house, Jon decided to keep things simple and go for a classic French feel: “I went for the very safe traditional Victorian look ? as the property was built around the time of Napoleon III ? but with some eclectic touches. There’s quite a lot of fairly modern artwork, all of which is very cartoony, but it works really well together.”
Jon moved from a spacious loft flat in central London so much of the furniture didn’t suit the new property in France but he did bring two large leather sofas with him, which in spite of his initial reservations, look right at home in the vast living room of Le Castel. Much of the furniture was sourced at brocantes in the area and Jon visits a d�p�t-vente in the neighbouring town of Coutances regularly. “I sometimes go two or three times a week and seven years after moving here, I’m still finding items that I need. With a property this size, you’re always buying new stuff and moving things around so the d�p�ts-ventes are brilliant,” says Jon.
The business has evolved since it first opened and in 2010, Jon shifted the focus of Le Castel to all-inclusive family holidays, which have proved to be phenomenally successful, with many bookings already taken for summer 2012. It’s clear that Jon’s hard work has paid off as Le Castel has been voted as one of the top child-friendly hotels in France by the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times and receives glowing reviews on parenting websites and blogs, thanks to Jon’s acute attention to detail that allows both parent and child to have an enjoyable holiday. Thoughtful touches, such as offering early suppers for children so that parents can relax over the five-course dinner once the little ones have gone to sleep, plus plenty of baby and toddler paraphernalia so guests don’t have to lug it with them, have helped Le Castel become very popular with parents. The location of the property is also a draw for families as it’s within an hour of Cherbourg, Saint-Malo and Caen ferry ports and equidistant from Normandy’s top three tourist sights – Mont Saint-Michel, the D-Day beaches and the Bayeux Tapestry.
Alongside the family holidays, Jon also hosts weddings and special celebrations at Le Castel. While Jon admits that organising the weddings is hard work, he says they are also lots of fun: “They’re fantastic to do. The idea is that it feels like the couple’s home and they’re here with all their family and friends for three or four days. I think I’d always dreamed of being a wedding planner so it’s wonderful to be able to do it.”
Le Castel is the perfect party venue and depending on the time of year and weather, celebrations can be held both indoors and outdoors. Aside from the occasional whole- house bookings, Le Castel is closed during the winter months which allows Jon to have some much needed time off.
“It’s very much a natural season for Normandy and it would be difficult to push outside of that. I work 15-22 weeks of the year and I can have the rest of the year off which is a fantastic situation to be in. I tend to go back to the UK but I’m still a travel writer so I also go off and do pieces for newspapers over the winter.”
For Jon, even though moving to Normandy was a complete change in lifestyle, he found settling into life in rural France very easy and says that both the locals and the expats pull together in the small community. “I’ve got wonderful French neighbours who’ve got a farm opposite and we help each other out. It’s a fantastic way of living. There’s a huge expat community here full of weird and wonderful people, a lot of whom I would never have met in my normal life in the UK.”
Even though Jon says he had a “phenomenally brilliant career” as a journalist, he had always wanted to be his own boss and the move to Normandy enabled him to be just that. And although running the ch�teau is hard work, it’s clear that Jon is relishing his new life, which he sums up as being, “like stepping back in time”. LF