Open house in Alet-les-Bains

When Antoinette Fairhurst and her family bought a 19th-century renovation project in pretty Alet-les-Bains, little did she know they would become local celebrities...


I’d only known my husband Keith for two weeks when he told me about his dream to live in France. Luckily for us, his dream quickly become our dream," says Antoinette Fairhurst, owner of beautiful Languedoc chambres d’h�tes, Les Marguerites. "Keith’s strong passion for the country and the French way of life was infectious."

The Fairhursts bought their 10-bedroom, early 19th-century home on the outskirts of medieval Alet-les-Bains in 2008. They had already owned a holiday home in Languedoc for five years, but always hoped to move to France permanently and when they found the house for sale their decision was made for them. "Keith and I had decided to spend a weekend away without the children for his 50th birthday and we decided to stay in a part of Languedoc we’d never visited," explains Antoinette. "We were pottering about the village and peered over a big wall only to see this beautiful house, all shuttered up and unloved. We fell in love with it, but never in a million years thought we would end up owning it."

It wasn’t until the family’s next trip to France that Keith and Antoinette discovered Les Marguerites was for sale. They arranged a viewing straight away. "We walked through the front door and knew we had to have it," says Antoinette. "Breaking all the rules, we put down a deposit there and then, even though we hadn’t even sold our house in the UK yet!"

Luckily, thanks to their experience buying their holiday home, the Fairhursts had enough knowledge of the French property market to navigate the buying process without too much difficulty – they even used the same notaire they had used before. They also insisted on carrying out a full survey, which can be unusual in France. "We paid for an English surveyor to assess the property and estimate what the renovation costs would be," explains Antoinette. "The house was structurally sound, but we wanted to know what we were letting ourselves in for after the contract was signed. I would really recommend a survey to anyone buying a property in France."

The renovations were certainly going to be a challenge. Les Marguerites had been unoccupied for 50 years, so needed a major overhaul to make it suitable as a family home, not to mention a luxury B&B. Antoinette had originally planned to take on a smaller project, so becoming project manager on such a big renovation was a daunting challenge, particularly when Keith was dividing his time between France and the UK due to work commitments. But the house had cast its spell. "On the first day we were in the house we threw open all the shutters to let it breathe," remembers Antoinette. "Someone shouted up at us from the street, It’s so good to see the house alive again!’ and I knew then we’d made the right decision."

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Antoinette and the children lived in their holiday home, 13km from Alet-les-Bains, while the renovations were underway. The move out to France had been a big upheaval for Tori, 14, Abigail 11, Louis, 5, and Lydie 3 and the challenge of fixing the house was often overshadowed by the challenge of settling the family into their new home. "We had registered the children at the village school in Alet-les-Bains," says Antoinette, "even though we didn’t live there yet. It made the school run a little trickier, but I didn’t want to have to uproot them again when we finally moved.

"The children spoke very little French, but I had managed to arrange some private lessons in the UK before we left, which gave them a bit more confidence. I think Abigail found it the hardest struggle as she is dyslexic, so had an even greater challenge ahead of her. Little Louis was only three, so he didn’t really know what was going on!"

Luckily for Antoinette, the children really embraced their new life in France and approached everything with a very positive attitude, leaving her to concentrate on the house and its renovations. "I’d never done anything like it before, but I decided to trust my instincts," she says. "I could see how I wanted it to be and my experiences staying in B&Bs with small children helped me decide what I needed from each bedroom."

Early on in the process, Antoinette contacted Channel Five in the UK who were making a programme called Build a New Life in the Country. Knowing how important good publicity would be in attracting future customers for her chambres d’h�tes, Antoinette thought that being featured on television would prove a great opportunity. The programme’s producers loved the idea of Les Marguerites and decided to follow the Fairhursts’ renovations. "We were already the talk of the village," laughs Antoinette, "but with a camera crew turning up every month for two or three days we became local celebrities!"

The presence of the camera crews proved a double-edged sword for Antoinette, who sometimes felt the pressure of having to move the project on before each visit by the production team. "I think we might have taken things a little slower had we done it in our own time," she says. "Although, having said that, we may have sat on the project for ages rather than just biting the bullet and getting on with it if we didn’t have the deadlines imposed on us by the production people."

Having a camera crew filming the project also provided a few unexpected benefits as kitchen and bathroom suppliers, hardware stores and furniture companies offered the Fairhursts free products or discounts on the off-chance they would be featured on television!

The renovations were carried out by a team of French and English tradesmen – a French electrician who came recommended by their English electrician, who in turn was recommended by their builder, also English. "We were so lucky as the team worked so well together," says Antoinette. "They were managed by our surveyor, who signed off the stages of the project as they happened. We felt comfortable with this arrangement as we felt he was impartial, and didn’t have anything to gain from signing off work that wasn’t up to standard. It also meant I didn’t have to struggle with giving instructions in French!"

Keith also worked hard on the renovations when he was in France and did most of the ripping out and demolishing himself. The old attics were made up of 20 rooms, so the walls were taken out and the floor plans changed, so that the top floor bedrooms could be larger. "Not everything went to plan," Antoinette laughs. "On a few occasions we took a wall out and the ceiling fell down."

Alet-les-Bains is a historic village, with strict planning rules, so Antoinette had to seek permission for any external works to Les Marguerites. Fortunately, their neighbours had been nothing but supportive of the Fairhursts’ venture – Antoinette explains that it is rare for the French to want to take on such a big restoration project – so they were confident they wouldn’t come up against any opposition. In fact, Antoinette’s meeting with the mayor proved a very jovial affair. "The camera crew came with me to film my planning appointment at the mairie, and I also had my 18 month old, Lydie, with me," she says. "As the mayor and I discussed the project, Lydie was pottering about opening cupboards and emptying them of all their files. The camera crew loved it, and luckily the mayor did too!"

After nearly two years of renovation works the Fairhursts moved into their new home in April 2010, welcoming their first paying guests just a month later. Since then, they have taken bookings from all corners of the globe, many having first seen Les Marguerites on television. "It’s been great," enthuses Antoinette, "and so enriching for the family, especially the children. Tori is a great help, baking bread and making desserts for the guests, and all of them love meeting new people and playing with the children that come to stay. The house is big enough for us never to feel claustrophobic when we have guests, and I think it would be a sadder place if it was just us here all of the time."

The renovations are ongoing, with tweaks being made here and there, and Antoinette is still learning the mysterious arts of PR and marketing to really help Les Marguerites realise its full potential. But the Fairhursts have no regrets. "We have all been made to feel so welcome here, and I think our neighbours really appreciate what we have done to one of the most loved buildings in the village. The children have all thrown themselves into French life, and make full use of all the amazing activities around here, and they’re all fully bilingual now. I’ve been made president of the Parents Association at the village school and Keith and I have just been formally invited to the mayor’s speech. There are only around 500 people in our village, so we really feel part of the community."

And is the magic of Les Marguerites still casting its spell? Of course. "We’ve just had our first Christmas and New Year here, with a huge three-metre Christmas tree, wood fires all through the house and, it goes without saying, lots of people having fun. I absolutely loved it. We’ve brought a beautiful house back to life and now it’s a beautiful home too." LF Image � Keith Fairhurst