Gîte renovation in Normandy
PUBLISHED: 10:20 24 October 2014 | UPDATED: 15:19 18 December 2015
Find out how one British couple transformed their Normandy farmhouse into an attractive gîte
A change is as good as a rest so the saying goes, and when Tom Reilly sold his successful bistro in south Manchester, both he and his partner David Streets wanted to do something completely different.
That something turned out to be renovating the barn at their Normandy farmhouse property La Vaquerie to turn it into a luxury gîte, which opened for its first season this year. So named as it was once a herding place for cattle (‘vache’ being the French for ‘cow’), La Vaquerie stands in five acres of land and is surrounded by tranquil countryside in the Manche department, in France’s Lower Normandy region.
For Tom and David, renovating the gîte and getting it ready to rent out has been labour of love that began in essence more than a decade ago.
“We’ve been coming over here for years and years,” says Tom. “My oldest friend lives over here and we used to come and stay a lot. I had a restaurant, called Midlers, in Marple, near Stockport. It was lovely but hard work and when we decided to sell, we both wanted a change. We decided to look for a place over here.”
Choosing the location was easy. They knew immediately that Normandy was where they wanted to be.
“We’d fallen in love with the region,” says Tom. “It’s so easy to get over here from the UK. All around Cherbourg is beautiful; the countryside is so green; the weather’s lovely; and there are loads of beautiful beaches within 10 to 15 minutes’ drive. In the summer, if there’s 50 or 60 people on the beach, that’s a lot; it’s absolutely beautiful.”
A fortuitous meeting with a notaire in Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte led them to the place they now call home, near the village of Saint-Jacques-de-Néhou, on the picturesque Cotentin peninsula.
“We were in Saint-Sauveur with some friends who were doing a translation for one of the notaires in the town,” says Tom. “Our friend told the notaire that we were looking for somewhere and the notaire said this house had only just come onto the market. He’d only got the details that morning. He told us where it was and we came and had a look. We didn’t come right up to the house because it’s down the end of a really long lane and surrounded by fields, so we were only able to see it from a distance; but even then in the sunlight, it looked absolutely fantastic and just we just fell in love with it.”
They went back to the notaire arranged a viewing and a few months later, in September 2004, the pretty Norman farmhouse with attached barn and outbuildings was theirs. The house, which dates back to the 17th century, had been passed down through the same family for generations and was used latterly as a holiday home until the decision was taken to sell.
As a result, the main house was structurally sound, but the décor was a bit tired and it needed some TLC. “It was habitable but it needed decorating,” says Tom. “We also installed a wood-burning stove in place of the big open fire. We used to come over with family and for holidays, and then I moved over four years ago on a more permanent basis. Dave works in finance for a hotel company, so he is still based in the UK, but he comes over once a month.”
With the long-term plan being to work towards a permanent cross-Channel move for them both, Tom and David decided to convert the attached barn into a luxury gîte. The building, which had been used as a playroom when the property was a holiday home, was pretty much a blank canvas.
“There were no windows and it had a great, big, old wooden door that didn’t shut properly,” says Tom. “There was a table tennis table in there and next to that room was another one with a big cider press in it and a big cider barrel. You could only get upstairs using a ladder, and it was like the rolling sea when you walked along; the floor was all twisted. It was just one great big room and you walked through there to the room above the cider room, which was full of birds flying around and nesting. It was in a right state; a shambles really.”
They engaged the help of a French architect and found an English builder based in the region who did the bulk of the renovations. And today, what was once a dark and gloomy cavern is now filled with beautiful natural light and transformed into luxury living space painted in soft Farrow & Ball colours and carefully furnished.
The gîte has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen/diner and living/dining room. Patio doors open out onto private outside space which overlooks the orchard and on across the surrounding countryside.
Much of the interior stonework and original oak beams have been left exposed, a decision which saw Tom blossom as a dab hand at traditional pointing with lime mortar.
“There are 13 interior walls and I did all those,” says Tom, proudly. “I’ve got a friend, Ian, who’s a builder, and he showed me how to do it. I had some help from friends but mostly it was me. It took a long time but it was very satisfying. After the first couple of days, I started getting a bit faster. It was amazing to be able to do it.”
He mooted extending his new skills to the outside of the house, but David advised bringing in the professionals.
“I did want to do the outside but Dave reckoned it would probably take me about 20 years so we got a local builder to do it,” says Tom with a chuckle.
It took them about three years to complete the work to the property so they could start their gîte-rental business.
“I did all the decorating; wire brushing all the beams and varnishing them; the pointing; painting the kitchen cupboards; sourcing the furniture,” says Tom. “We got some furniture from a gîte that was being sold, and we got some bargains from dépôt-ventes. We bought four kitchen chairs for a euro. I made new seat pads for them and then painted them. I’ve really enjoyed doing all that and I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I like things to be right.”
They launched their website in January this year; bookings came in immediately and they’ve had a very busy summer, being pretty much full throughout.
“We wanted it to be somewhere we’d like to go ourselves; more like a boutique hotel with original features but making it comfortable so people can relax and enjoy it. People have said it’s just like a home from home.”
And that’s exactly what La Vaquerie has also become for Tom, David, and their two pedigree beagles, Saffy and Sid. They have been warmly welcomed into their new community and feel at home in their adopted country.
“We have loads of friends here,” says Tom. “The local people are lovely and we’ve made some really good friends. The local farmer, Roland, and his wife, Suzanne, have taken to us really well. They come here for meals; we go there for meals; and we help them collect apples for cider.”
Tom is also captivated by the surrounding countryside and enjoys the time he now has to appreciate the simple things in life. “It’s so quiet. It’s beautiful. I can’t describe how wonderful it is – so tranquil. The bakery in Saint-Jacques makes the most fantastic croissants and pains aux raisins, so I’ve been up there this morning and got those, made a pot of coffee and sat outside in the sunshine; listening to the birds and thinking how wonderful it is.”
The time is also coming in handy for working on his French. As well as two lessons a week, he is grateful for the patience and encouragement of his neighbours and the wider French community.
“It’s come on a lot this year and the thing that helps is talking to people. Roland and Suzanne come down with some eggs, or whatever, in the evening and they’ll have a sit down and a chat, and laugh at my French; and our neighbour Jean comes too. My French teacher says you can always tell when I’ve been talking to French people because I’m more fluent than when I’m just talking in class. It’s been hard work but it’s worth it.”
They have lots of plans for the future including creating a garden, converting another barn on the property into a second gîte, and combining David’s life-long interest in dog breeding and showing, with setting up a boarding kennels when he too moves permanently to France. In the meantime though, they are happy with how things are panning out and hugely enjoying life in their picturesque corner of Normandy.
Read Tom’s tips for running a gîte
Thinking of setting up a B&B or gîte? Read our how-to guide for things to think about before you start