CREATING THE PERFECT PLACE TO STAY

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Having started my series of articles about renovation with a 12th century château renovated by a truly dedicated Frenchman, I thought it would be fun to go to the other end of the spectrum for my second article and meet an ‘expat’ family who have completely transformed two barns into a pair of fabulously comfortable gîtes. These jewels are nestled in the tiny hamlet of Vergné in the north of the department of the Charente Maritime and an hour east of La Rochelle, they stand alongside a lovely farmhouse which is home to Simon and Sue Paine and their two teenage children.

The Paines are a British family who came to the Charente Maritime on holiday a long time ago and fell in love with region. The temperate climate of the area’s long sunny summers and its mild winters, together with excellent transport links to the UK, made them wonder about the possibility of a future here for them. At the time they were London-based, with Sue working in fashion and Simon working for a large corporation in business development; but, wanting to escape the rat-race and envying the quality of life on the other side of the Channel, they eventually sold everything in the UK and bought the house, its two barns and about an acre of land over 12 years ago. They wanted to turn the barns into two gîtes that they could rent out and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for them to be able to work for themselves; they would be able to spend more time with their children and enjoy the slower pace of life which France offers.

The location they chose was perfect for them; rural but not isolated, within 15 minutes of the market town of St Jean d’Angely, and within a couple of minutes drive from the busy village of Loulay which has a boulangerie, grocer, bank, post office, pharmacy and restaurant with a bar.

Neither of them had ever tackled a project of this size before. In the UK they had renovated their house, but not completely from scratch, and Simon certainly had never done any heavy building work. But what they lacked in experience they made up for with a huge amount of enthusiasm, and undeterred they applied for the various permits required to convert the barns to dwellings. Nothing is easy when you are first and foremost a foreigner; like many people who move to a strange country they struggled at first to understand how things are done, a state of events compounded by their lack of French. Everything turned into a huge challenge. But by far the most frustrating part they found was the poor customer service they had to deal with, although Sue is quick to point out this has improved a lot since then. Things don’t happen overnight, often they don’t happen for several days or weeks, patience is the name of the game in France!

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Garden table

At the time when they arrived their children were very young and they all moved into the main house. This was totally habitable and they still have done nothing to it since they arrived. Sue tells me there is plenty she wants to change, and lots more she’d like to do, but the building is totally charming as it is and I can see why no one has been in any rush to do anything. While they lived in the house they started work on the first gîte, named Le Cognassier (The Quince Tree); it took a year to complete from start to finish. This gîte has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and it retains many of the original features and old stone walls. To give the gîte a personal feel and to keep things very French, Sue hand-painted the kitchen units and decorated everything in soft neutral tones.

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Cognassier stencils

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Cognassier twin

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The second gîte, Le Cerisier (The Cherry Tree) took just nine months to complete and again it has three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Like its neighbour, it is also beautifully finished with a hand-painted kitchen and traditional french colour schemes.

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Cerisier kitchen

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The entire property is surrounded by large walled gardens, with roses, clematis and grape-vines scrambling up them; it is totally private and in between the old walls they built a fabulous swimming-pool. My words don’t really do any of this justice, the gites are beautiful, just the sort of place where I would want to stay, not only are they extremely comfortable and stylish but they also back onto wonderful open countryside with walks straight from the garden, this is definitely my kind of place!

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Simon and Sue opened for business in 2005 and they have never looked back. In the summer it is hard work, with ‘changeover day’ on Saturday particularly hectic; typically there are six sets of bed-linen to be washed and ironed, two houses to clean to perfection and everything has to be finished within the space of a few hours. But, it’s worth it; they have met so many lovely people, and many guests who have become friends; one family in particular have returned every year for 12 years and are now considered part of one big extended family.

Sourcing local antique and vintage items to furnish the gîtes was one of the best parts of the renovation, but this came at the end of the work when the completion was in sight and visiting local brocante fairs and local stores is one of the great pleasures of living in rural France. With her creative flair and background in design, Sue has also created an online boutique, Chateau Chic Direct, where she sells original French furniture and accessories. An idea that became a natural progression once the building work was finished, the business now has a loyal and growing clientele from all over the world. Some people browse her website and like the look of one of her latest finds, whilst others contact her with requests to source specific items. Sue has become  well known in her area and as a result is able to seek out an eclectic mix of items at a ‘local’s price’ that an outsider would never be able to find. Inside her own home there is a nod to her background in design and her passion for vintage French, and despite the fact that little has been changed, it’s extremely pretty; anyone seeking the perfect French home would be very envious!

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Cognassier bottle dryer

Simon and Sue now have a lifestyle that suits them well; they love the peace and quiet, the tranquility of life in the Charente Maritime, and they love the upbringing it has given their children; wonderful education and a freedom that they would never have had back at home in the UK.

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Many dream of doing just as the Paines have done, ‘upping sticks’ and moving a family and possessions to start all over again in rural France. For some it is just that, a dream, sometimes impossible to fulfill; but for others it is a real possibility and so I wondered if Simon and Sue had a word of advice for anyone else wanting to do something similar, or indeed if there was anything they did that they would change?

“I can’t think of anything we would have done differently. Maybe invested more time early on learning the language but we really had no spare time back then,” Sue said succinctly.

For me, that just about says it all, with a lot of hard work a dream can certainly become a reality.

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I have to say I am finding this series totally fascinating, learning about how people renovate their properties and what drives them to do so. Next time I’m bringing you a property restored by a French family, laying to rest the old myth that the French don’t renovate houses as they only build new ones. In the meantime, if you would like to find out more about the Paines’ gîtes you can link to their website here and if you would like to browse Sue’s online shop and read more about her treasure trove of vintage finds click here! You can also find Chateau Chic Direct on both Instagram@chateauchic17 and on Facebook.

37 thoughts on “CREATING THE PERFECT PLACE TO STAY

  • I think it is wonderful to reinvent oneself. Habit keeps you from changing. When we left Eastern Canada to move to a small Island off the West Coast….friends thought we were crazy. We built a house including a small suite…..maybe to rent as a vacation rental. It was fun to do and furnish. Not quite filled with the wonderful antiques that are available from Brocants in France…..but garage sales and the kindness of friends. We have never rented it out….just use it for visiting family and friends.

    We would have loved to have done the same in France if we could have. We were not brave enough for that.

    Ali

  • Oh, good for them. Hooray that they were brave enough to take the chance, and that their efforts have paid off — hospitality is hard work. Your pairings of Before and After pictures are delightful; it’s nice to be able to see how the vision was realized.

    • Hi Emm, I totally agree with you, it is great to read of someone who has taken a risk and it has paid off and given them such a lovely rewarding lifestyle, and the gites are lovely, an inspiration to everyone. Susan x

  • The houses are beautiful. We hope to move to France with our little ones this year and I’ve come to the same decision as the Paine’s. Although I’ve always dreamed of renovating a tumble down property it’s not practical to do that to the main building with little ones in towe. I’m happy to do a little work, but nothing major. I’ll keep renovations to external projects so I can keep my sanity!
    This is turning out to be a wonderful series by the way.

    • Hi Andrea, I have renovated with little ones in tow, trust me it’s hard work and almost impossible to stay in the same house, you have made a very sensible decision!!! I heard this morning of a beautiful old farmhouse for sale in Normandy with probably just about the right amount of work required, i.e. All the major stuff has been done. If you are still looking, email me and I’ll send you further details. Susan x

  • We stayed with Sue and Simon not long after they opened the first gite…it was wonderful and they were excellent hosts. Your wonderful article has reminded me it is time to make a long overdue return.

    • Hi David and Jane, how wonderful, you know exactly how gorgeous the gites are! Hopefully you do return, it’s such a wonderful area with so much to do. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Susan x

  • Excellent series. Particularly enjoy the transformation process/photos. And the photos of blue, sunny skies and cheerful plants doesn’t hurt either. Like Lucky Lucy above, it is a tad dreary in my part of the world, too.

    • Hi Mary, I think this is the time of year when we all like to look outside and dream a little that we are a month further into the year, the last few days of winter always seem to drag by, but soon it will be Spring! It doesn’t actually look very spring like here today, grey skies as well, but the daffodils and blossom are doing their best to keep us in good spirits! Susan x

  • Fabulous house, what a lot of work but so worth it. We’ve just bought a tiny cottage that needs a lot of work but what was done to that large house in your post makes ours seem easy now. I wonder if I’ll say that when my back is aching from pulling down old plasterboard. 😉

    • I love renovating properties, although I can tell you it is hard work, and there comes a time when you think, will it ever be finished! But I am sure it will be worth it in the end, back ache and all. Good luck! Susan x

  • They did a really great job. It’s essential to get good contractors. When we bought our house, the real estate agent was one of those six-degrees-of-separation wizards who knows everybody. She lined us up with a plaquiste (to put up walls) and it kind of went from there. The plaquiste was a stand-up guy, and he recommended other artisans, such as the electrician, etc. They all got along (important!) and they all did great work. Now we have an excellent network of specialists that we were able to call on for our big, historically sensitive renovation. It also helps that we speak French well (husband is a native but not from the south, so he’s considered as foreign as I am).

    • Hi, they did a fantastic job I agree. Couldn’t agree more about the contractors, when we renovated our house here, the builder recommended the electrician, who recommended the roofer and the plumber. We have also found using local artisans in the village is of prime importance, they tend to know everyone and although they may take a little longer to complete the work, but at the same time we are usually told some history about the house that we didn’t know, another little story from the past, it’s always fascinating. Susan x

  • Fab my darling – I was having a hectic day – so I stopped and treated myeslf to some “OFO Therapy” Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

    • Thank you, I was not conciously changing anything, just writing about all the things that interest me and that I think others might find interesting too, it is such a rewarding lifestyle here, simple but luxurious in it’s simplicity. We have been away in the Pyrenees and came back to a garden full of spring flowers, very very pretty. Have a lovely remainder of the weekend Susan x

  • 🙂 hello!

    I just arrived here (I don’t know how…really!) and you have a fantastic blog and posts.

    This place looks fantastic, and I really love it, My parents are actually reburbishing our old house in the countryside and I hope it will look as beautiful as this one. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Hi Imma, well I am so glad you did find me! and fabulous to have you following along. Where are your parents refurbishing their house? It is always a fun project to do, hard work but so worth it in the end. Very best wishes Susan x

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