French Property News columnist Erin Choa explains how she left her life and work as a doctor in London to take on a fairytale chateau in France.
It’s been three years since we received the keys to Château de Bourneau. It took eight months of research, multiple châteaux visits and crushing disappointments, but as soon as we set eyes on her dreaming turrets and encircling moat, I knew that this was ‘The One’.
I’m often asked how Jean-Baptiste and I, as two seemingly sensible people with traditional jobs, left our city lives in the UK to take on a huge château restoration project in Vendée. Neither of us had direct experience in property restoration or the tourism industry, but as we commuted to work in the British rain, escaping to France became our shared daydream that started to linger and spill into reality.
Could we really leave behind our ‘normal’ lives and pursue our romantic dream to look after a historic monument for the next generations to come? If so, how could we do it? As two scientists with a love of problem-solving, we developed the daydream into a tangible plan that didn’t need to wait for our retirement.
For the price of a London one-bedroom apartment, we could buy a French 16-hectare estate with a 30-bedroom château surrounded by a moat. It seemed utterly ludicrous. However, we were also aware that the ‘affordable’ châteaux didn’t come without their own unique problems. They often lured you in with their beauty but forgot to mention that their roof was about to cave in, the joists were rotten or other terrifying problems to the tune of several hundred thousand euros, not to mention extreme running costs.
Buying a château was one thing but maintaining, running and restoring it and its land was quite another. We would need to have a business alongside it with the idea of eventually returning to our careers as a hospital doctor and mechanical engineer.
After months of paperwork, we finally signed for the château at 10pm at the end of July 2018 and the following day we had 42 holidaymakers arriving to stay. We had no cleaners, laundry services or infrastructure, but it didn’t phase us. We just rolled up our sleeves, bought a 17kg washing machine and embarked on the steepest and most exciting learning curve of our lives. Three years on and we still work full-time for the château. We do everything ourselves from running our four large holiday cottages, accounting, marketing and managing weddings, to maintaining the estate with its woods, fields, gardens and four swimming pools as well as restoring the château to her former glory.
There are times when we wonder what madness possessed us to take on such a huge project. However, the magical times outweigh the tough ones and remind us why we did it. It’s our local community who have generously welcomed us and the historian who thanks us for bringing life back to the patrimoine. It’s the bride who sheds a happy tear seeing the château for the first time. It’s all the strangers who contact us to say we’ve inspired them to take on a historical property too. But the most wonderful thank you of all is Château de Bourneau’s honey stones that now glow in an amber sunset, clean and cared for by our own hands. After a long day, we sit in the fading sunlight and soak up the beauty of the French countryside with a glass of local wine. Château life is hard work but it’s also a privilege and we raise a toast to my most demanding patient yet and her next 100 years!
Follow Erin on instagram at The Intrepid Chatelaine