Real Life: Work-life balance in the south of France

Real Life: Work-life balance in the south of France

While renting a temporary home in Provence, Peter and Cathy Bullen started a French antiques business in the UK, before finally buying – and furnishing – their own home in the south of France, as they explain to Amanda Harling…

With homes in Suffolk and the south of France, Peter and Cathy Bullen lead a life full of contrast and travel. “As antique dealers we divide our time between the two, spending roughly six weeks based in Cotignac before driving back to our Suffolk home, the van laden down with the latest items we’ve bought.”
The couple initially got to know the area some 15 years ago when Peter, who was then in the army, was posted to the south of France as a liaison officer with the French army. Peter recalls: “The prospect of spending three years in Provence sounded pretty attractive, especially when compared to some of the other places I’d served in. I went having undergone an intensive six-month long French language course before I arrived.”

Cathy, who was working as a dance tutor and choreographer, joined him in Provence having packed up their Suffolk home of 16 years. “Despite Peter’s army career we’d been lucky enough to avoid spending too much time in married quarters which I’d found difficult, not least because of the constant upheaval of homes, schools and friends. However, the children were leaving school and this posting offered an adventure for both Peter and myself. We found a charming house to rent just outside Cotignac, a beautiful village in the Var, not too far from the French army base. I began exploring the surrounding area, stopping to rummage through antique fairs and brocantes where I’d find interesting bits and pieces to style our temporary home, and improving my French in the process.”



Three years later, Peter’s posting came to an end and Cathy’s by then sizeable collection of French furniture and artefacts was trundled back to Suffolk in a large removal lorry. “Fortunately, our home in Bildeston, while not huge, does have a couple of old stables and an artist studio in the garden so we piled it all in there while figuring out how I’d start a French brocante from home. Having sent out invitations to all our friends, we priced everything up, styled the outbuildings into theatrical room-sets so people could see how decorative these pieces looked when part of a scheme, and waited to see what the response would be. By the end of the weekend there was scarcely anything left!”

Clearly the Bullens were doing something right, with the result that the couple regularly returned to France to source more furniture and decorative items for their flourishing business, The Boule-in. “Eventually we did a role swap,” Cathy laughs, “as Peter finally left the army to join me! Word spread and for the last 11 years we’ve been holding our Suffolk French Decorative Fêtes three times a year. The first one is around Easter and then we have another mid-summer, both of which concentrate on vintage garden furniture and decorative tableware for outdoor entertaining. Our third Fête is in the run-up to Christmas so we ensure that there are lots of smaller decorative items that would be ideal as gifts, in addition to larger pieces which could add impact to a festive table or room. We invite other local homeware artisans and companies to participate so there’s always a lively mix of colourful, gorgeous things to choose from,” says Cathy.

“As the contents of each fair are completely different from the previous one, creating the arrangements takes several weeks of preparation. Sometimes it’s hard to resist the temptation to keep a special piece but if I do, my rule is one piece in, one piece out. Being a lover of beautiful things, my instinct is to gather all together, but beautiful objects tend to look their best when displayed in a group or individually.”




With increasing amounts of time spent sourcing antiques in provincial France, it made sense for the Bullens to find themselves a permanent home there. “Having rented the house in Cotignac for several years, we were always daydreaming about owning our own property so when we spotted a somewhat dilapidated early 19th-century maison de maître on the market, we were first in line to view it.

“Although the property had been in the same family for years, it hadn’t been lived in for quite some time – the fact that it hadn’t been updated was very much part of its appeal, as was the adjoining garage which we knew would provide useful storage space. Fortunately, architectural details such as fireplaces in both reception rooms were still in situ as were almost all of the traditional hexagonal terracotta ‘tomette’ floor tiles.”

“The location in a side street, just steps away from the picturesque leafy marketplace, couldn’t be more convenient either; the shops, bars and restaurants of Cotignac are as renowned as the weekly street market, which attracts locals and visitors alike who fill their baskets with the variety of delicious French food and produce on offer.”

Having purchased the house, it underwent a complete overhaul over the course of the next two years. “The top floor had been used for grain storage and was traditionally tiled to discourage rats and mice, otherwise the walls were the ultimate in rustic, needing six tons of plaster to cover the rocks.” The Bullens transformed one of these grenier rooms into an enormous main bedroom with a bath and shower at one end, while another became the summer kitchen from where a locally commissioned staircase leads up to a newly built mezzanine-balcony.

Cathy explains: “Apart from a minute courtyard behind the garage, the balcony area is our only outdoor space but it’s quite enough. We lunch up there in winter and summer (as long as it’s not too hot!) and being able to sit out there in the evening and enjoy the warm summer breeze while stargazing is heaven.”




Cathy relished the opportunity to put her flair for design to good use on her new French home and while the interior is distinctly French in style, there are still hints as to the provenance of the owners.

“Our artist son Jack Bullen is director of the annual Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair and as well as his own prints and paintings, we’ve purchased quite a few works by artists at the fair. The lantern light in the kitchen couldn’t be more English as it originally formed part of a lamppost on London’s Embankment. A local lady was clearing out her garden shed and asked if we would take it off her hands.”

Textiles hail mainly from the UK, supplied by Suffolk neighbour and friend, interior designer Sophie Grattan Bellew. Hugh St Clair is another Suffolk friend with a range of classic fabric designs to his name that Cathy has incorporated into the scheme. “Hugh’s designs are timeless so they work well in a period setting while the colours and scale give a gentle nod to contemporary style,” she says.

Cathy points out that although the house is furnished with antiques, mid-century and modern design is very much part of the mix. “It can be fun juxtaposing old and new, and we make sure that that the pieces we bring back to England are a reflection of that look; antiques and vintage with more recent design pieces too. We only buy things we like and happily our customers seem to share our taste.”


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