A crafty B&B in Dordogne
- Credit: Archant
Vicky Leigh discovers the Brits enjoying the best of both business and pleasure in France
In the words of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, “only he is successful in business who makes that pursuit which affords him the highest pleasure sustain him.” He may have been born in 1817, but the wisdom of these words continues to be relevant almost 200 years on.
Using a personal interest or passion as a springboard for a business venture can be a very savvy move – it certainly has been for this British couple. A warm and friendly welcome awaits should you decide to stay at their French home, but there is so much more on offer here than simply a bed for the night.
CRAFTY IDEAS IN DORDOGNE
Traditional crafts such as baking, knitting and sewing have experienced something of a revival recently, and the trend for all things homemade has become quite a phenomenon.
Television programmes such as The Great British Bake Off, The Great British Sewing Bee and Kirstie’s Handmade Home now enjoy a cult following, with millions of viewers, both young and old, tuning in each week.
From television channels to the other side of the Channel, this revival can be seen in France too. Having left London behind 11 years ago for a new life in France, Katie Elliott Armitage is now in her sixth year of running creative residential workshops and courses in the heart of the Dordogne countryside.
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With subjects such as textiles, calligraphy, knitting and writing on offer, not to mention a comfortable bed for the night and meals at her 19th-century maison de maître, it is the ideal opportunity for those with creative flair to get even more out of their holiday experience.
Stumbling across the neglected property during a holiday in 1999, Katie immediately saw the potential it offered as a blank canvas for her own artistic skills. The house had been empty for 40 years, which meant a very large renovation project, but she and her husband eagerly rose to the challenge.
“When Mike and I came across the derelict maison de maître, it really was love at first sight,” says Katie. “The property offered me the opportunity to use my skills in design and interiors to create the perfect home we had always wanted.”
The next five years were spent gutting the house from top to bottom and redesigning the layout to suit their own needs. Mike then concentrated on the gardens, while Katie began work on refurbishing the barns alongside the swimming pool, turning them into a conservatory, pool house, wine cellar and self-contained flat. They have also recently added a bedroom and bathroom in the loft area of the maison de maître, which already included a double bedroom with en suite, Katie’s work studio and a relaxation area.
Having been taught at an early age how to sew and knit, Katie continued on a creative career path by studying graphic design and then retraining as a picture framer, before moving into interior styling for her husband’s property developments. Her passion for textiles can be seen in the decoration throughout their own house, and it was a textile tour of Peru eight years ago that led to a whole new chapter in their French story.
“After the tour I signed up for a workshop in the UK led by a well-known textile collagist,” explains Katie. “Inspired by her knowledge and beautiful work I suggested she might like to run a workshop at our home in France and to my delight she accepted with alacrity! Introductions to numerous other well-known ‘textilists’ followed, and the development of our property as a location for inspirational textile-related workshops snowballed. From small acorns…”
STAYING THE COURSE
The oak that grew from that small acorn was a creative workshop retreat, which aims to provide guests with “memorable, life-affirming experiences in their chosen creative subjects.”
Those guests are collected from and returned to Bergerac airport or the train station in Angoulême, and two home-cooked meals are provided each day. Katie’s husband Mike is a wine connoisseur and enjoys sourcing the best local wine to accompany the evening meal, which they all sit down to together. There is a maximum of 15 places available for each workshop or course, although Katie says 12 is the ideal number as she likes to try and keep the groups intimate.
Guests are given a timetable for their stay, but as Katie says, “they are not obliged to stick to it if they feel like playing truant and taking time off for themselves!” The local village is an easy 10-minute walk away, where there is a lively monthly brocante, and visits to the weekly Friday market are often arranged.
“With so many areas to relax in, participants can choose whether to wander off with newly made friends or find an area to sit quietly and read during their time away from the studio,” says Katie. “But we are always happy to tell them about the history of the house and the local area, or to suggest walks in the surrounding countryside.”
En-suite accommodation is offered within the maison de maître, where Katie and Mike also live, and they have also completely renovated one of the large barns on the property. Working with a local architect, the couple designed a self-contained gîte within the walls of the barn, as well as five bedrooms, two of which are en suite, a dormitory to sleep four people and three further bathrooms.
The large central space is used as the workshop studio, as well as for concerts and the occasional dance evening, while the spacious terrace outside boasts stunning views across the valley.
“Of all the work we have done, the renovation of the barn, known as L’Espace, has without a doubt been the biggest project,” says Katie. “We wanted to incorporate a much larger studio space as well as being able to offer additional bedrooms.”
The hard work has certainly paid off. The whole property is beautifully presented and extends a very warm welcome to those who come to stay here, many of whom have become regular visitors.
“We’ve made enduring friendships with many of our guests, some of whom return every year for a workshop,” says Katie. And la vie française is clearly suiting her and Mike down to the ground too.
“Remarkably, we see lots of our friends and family as we have a constant stream of visitors when we are ‘resting’ from the workshops we run. Cultivating our own vegetables and creating new recipes with the fresh ingredients has become a new passion too.”