Why wait until retirement to make your daydreams a reality? Erin Choa explains why she put her medical career on hold to take on a French château at the age of 31
I will forever remember the moment when Jean-Baptiste and I first saw the Renaissance-style turrets of the Château de Bourneau, rising above its wildflower meadow. Set in 16 hectares of woodland and park, with its encircling moats and romantic tourelles, it put us completely under its spell. After a frustrating year of research and months of visiting multiple châteaux across France, we knew we had finally found ‘the one’.
Just do it!
When I told my family and friends that I was putting my medical career in the UK on hold and buying a château in France with my French fiancé, Jean-Baptiste, a mechanical engineer, I think everyone was a little surprised! Our love of France, French culture and historical buildings has never been a secret but I don’t think anyone really expected us to take the plunge and move across the Channel just yet. For Jean-Baptiste and I, moving to France and restoring an historic monument has always been a mutual daydream, reserved for some rosy time in the far future.
We both have a huge love and respect for historical buildings and it’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to be able to save a piece of history and inject life back into a house for future generations to enjoy. I would dreamily flick through property magazines, sighing over crumbling turrets and walled gardens in the French sunshine, shocked that they cost the same as our little Edinburgh flat.
However, one rainy afternoon, we suddenly thought, why does living in France and restoring a property have to be a future dream? Why not do it now when we are young and still have the energy to take on a big project? The thought just needed to be spoken out loud. We immediately started an online search and tumbled down the rabbit hole of château-hunting adventures.
Heads and hearts
Initially, our idea was to purchase an historic property requiring renovation that would be our family home but would also have the potential of supplementing the restoration costs by creating holiday lets, should my French not be good enough yet to work as a doctor in France.
We started looking at manoirs requiring full restoration but our ideas evolved into searching for a larger property capable of supporting both of us full-time. Our aim was to create an events venue to serve the local community as well as attracting an international market to host weddings and private events that would fund the restoration. Although we are hapless romantics at heart, we are also scientists – our journey has been carefully thought out and liberally spread-sheeted!
It is so easy to be seduced by the seemingly low French property prices for glorious châteaux with 30 hectares of land and outhouses for the same price as a one-bedroom London flat. However, it can also be a false economy. Some châteaux we looked at would require an upfront injection of several hundred thousand euros just to make them structurally sound before even beginning to tackle adding indoor plumbing. We both love DIY but we are also aware of our limitations.
Furthermore, the annual costs of running an estate this size can be astronomical in terms of money and time. There are property taxes, maintenance of the gardens and swimming pools, and large utility bills – heating a 1,000m2 building in winter is no mean feat! Of course, we economise every way we can and try to be as self-sufficient as possible but there are also unpredicted costs associated with owning an old building. We would have been naive to think otherwise and this is all part of the adventure.
We have now been at Château de Bourneau for four months and we haven’t looked back. We love living in Vendée, Pays-de-la-Loire, which is the second sunniest area in France. We are surrounded by glorious French countryside, with picturesque medieval villages, small vineyards and France’s ‘Green Venice’ (Marais Poitevin), a large area of marshland criss-crossed with canals. It is such a beautiful unspoilt part of France; we have been delighted to have been warmly welcomed into the community and I feel my French improving day by day. The pace of life is slower and we take pleasure in the simpler things – glorious weather and the beauty of the countryside but also the local gastronomy and wine, bien sûr!
We work hard but every day I wake up grateful for having this wonderful opportunity to live in such a beautiful part of France and to be part of the Château de Bourneau’s history.
Running the château
Sadly, it’s not all about strumming harps or sipping champagne in the sunshine! The day-to-day life is a lot less glamorous. One seemingly small task tends to evolve into a bigger job when you own an estate on this scale, so every day comes with a fresh and exciting new challenge.
We both get up early and tackle the long list of tasks. Dividing our time is the hardest challenge. Firstly, there is the important administration side of things, such as accounting, marketing and speaking to our diverse clients, who want to put on everything from yoga and art retreats to weddings, hen-dos and private parties.
Then there is the need for continuing the general maintenance of the estate, such as unblocking drains, maintaining the vast gardens or dealing with a new leak.
Every Saturday morning in high season, we have the turnover of our four large holiday cottages (sleeping 42 in total), each with their own private pools, so we have become an absolute whizz at swimming pool pH management and bed changes!
And, of course, there is the need to actually make progress on the restoration of the château. It is quite a stretch for just the two of us and so our days are long and our weekends are very much DIY-themed; but this is also our choice.
Restoring the château is our pleasure and the best weekends are spent covered in paint or plaster with a brush in hand and standing back to admire the new life we are bringing back to these forgotten rooms. We have finished a sumptuous honeymoon suite and we have just started renovating the south wing in order to create a suite of luxury rooms for guests to stay in from spring 2019.
We are also very lucky to be surrounded by family and friends who love DIY too and are happy to give their precious time and skills in helping us bring the château back to life as a team, and we have a lot of fun in the process. There are lovely moments that make the hard work really pay off – we often remind ourselves of these when we do take the time to enjoy this beautiful region over a glass of wine in the Vendéen sunshine. It’s the newly engaged couple who have this moment of ‘wow’ when they see the château and honour us by choosing us to host their special day here; or our lovely elderly neighbour who tells us how much pleasure it gives her to see new life returning to Bourneau.
We aren’t really the châtelains who own the château; we are simply the guardians of this beautiful piece of French history with a responsibility to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy it. It is a real privilege and pleasure to be a part of the Château de Bourneau’s story.