Most of us fantasise about ditching the daily grind and escaping to a castle in the countryside, but that’s where it begins and ends – a daydream.
Rebecca and Tim Jones were no different, until one day just over a year ago something changed. Rather than talking endlessly about ‘The Good Life’ they wanted one day, a subtle chain of events prompted them to go out and find it. Within six months they were nervous, elated and slightly shocked to find themselves the owners of a French chateau on the edge of the stunning Loire Valley.
This is how Rebecca, Tim and their two boys, Rufus, 8, and Laurie, 5, found and fell in love with their magnificent ‘forever home’, Chateau de la Ruche (warning: prepare for feelings of extreme lifestyle envy).
What first prompted you to look at a property in France?
In March 2017 Tim was away on business in China and I had retreated to my Mum and Dad’s for some R&R and some back-up with the children.
My dad is a serial channel hopper, so Mum and I had commandeered the remote to try and find something we all wanted to watch on TV. It just so happened that Channel Four were re-running Escape to the Chateau that Saturday night and since none of us had seen it before we decided it was worth a look. As we watched Dick and Angel seal the deal on their chateau we couldn’t believe just how little they’d paid for it. Thinking the programme was probably years old I googled ‘French Chateau for Sale’ and before long I had been sucked into the French equivalent of Right Move for Chateaux.
Searching for forever homes on Right Move has always been a happy past time of mine, so, like I had for many years before, I emailed Tim a link to the show on 4OD and a couple of Chateaux I’d found and said, ‘We should buy a chateau and move to France.’ I expected him to email me back, as he usually did, and say ‘in your dreams love’ – which admittedly he did at first. But then he started googling and couldn’t stop looking.
How long were you looking before you discovered Chateau de la Ruche?
Tim got back from China the following week and kept on looking for Chateaux. We found La Ruche online that first weekend! There were hundreds and hundreds for sale, but we kept coming back to this one.
The pictures of the house were beautiful; it wasn’t too big, it wasn’t too small, it had lots of land, outbuildings and its own woodland. Tim and I had always said that when we grew up we wanted to own a forever house with a really big, old tree in the garden – and this house promised a wood full of them. Plus it was in an area of France (the Pays de la Loire near Le Mans) that we sort of knew, because Tim’s mum lived in here ten years ago for a while.
But despite the fact that it was my initial idea I hadn’t really been serious. Yes, I loved the idea of living in a Chateau but I didn’t love the idea of moving to another country and leaving all my family and friends. I was terrified about tearing the children away from their friends and from a school they were happy and settled in. I worried about how they would cope learning another language and going to a new school where they knew no one and couldn’t communicate with anyone.
Tim couldn’t let it go though; for him (and, if I’m honest, for me) this little chateau represented the answer to the question that we’d been asking ourselves for a long time: ‘Is this it?’. We had a lovely, happy life in Stamford; we had great friends, good jobs, two healthy kids, family nearby to help out and a beautiful home that we’d spent years getting just how we wanted it.
But we kept on asking ourselves if this was really it – was this our life’s work? Were we destined to stay in the same jobs, sensibly paying off our mortgage and living our perfectly nice life for the next 35 years until retirement?
The conversation came up at every dinner party we held, we discussed it endlessly, we came up with various ideas for new businesses – but each one would have involved one of us staying in our job to pay the mortgage while the other person took the risk and had the adventure.
Moving to a chateau and turning it into our own business was something we could both do together. And because we could swap our Victorian townhouse in Stamford for a 14 bedroom Chateau in France with space to run a chambre d’hôte and even a wedding venue in the future without saddling ourselves with a crazy mortgage it was something we just had to explore.
Tim emailed the agent for the particulars for Chateau de la Ruche. When they arrived we poured over the photos, searching online for all the information we could find about it. We were going to France on holiday during the Easter holidays and decided it was worth a few hours in the car, just for a nose around. We kept saying to ourselves – “well if nothing comes of this at least we can tell our grandchildren that we once looked into buying a chateau in France.”
Why were you looking in that particular area?
We weren’t it just happened that this was the house we fell in love with – and it was in an area we already knew, which made it just that tiny bit less scary.
What kind of condition was it in when you found it?
When we turned into the drive on 11th April 2017 I was determined that I wasn’t going to like the house. But as we drove down the tree-lined driveway I knew already I was in trouble. I’ve always been a sucker for a tree-lined country road and that is just what our driveway it. It was magical, lined with wildflowers and trees with sunlight dappling through. My stomach flipped with nerves and I gave myself a stern talking to, reminding myself this was a pipe dream and that I had to be the sensible one.
The house was in slightly worse condition than it seemed in the pictures. The family who owned it before us hadn’t lived here for a while, just using it for holidays and family parties. It had been shut up all winter and it had that musty, damp smell of a house that was in a need of a lot of love and a family to fill its rooms again.
We flung open shutters and windows and the sunlight streamed in. There were dead flies everywhere and the children said they wouldn’t move in unless someone cleared them up first. We walked through room after room, getting lost and confused in what seemed like a maze of bedrooms and very few bathrooms. The windows were beautiful and it had original panelling and so much potential.
I felt overwhelmed though, unable to take it all in.
Outside was a different matter, the country girl in me had fallen hard for the trees, flowers and space. I could see the boys roaming the grounds for years to come, building dens in the woods and having the kind of childhood I had growing up with my sister and cousins at my Grandma’s farm.
Did you decide right there and then to buy it?
After three hours looking at everything, we got back into the car to drive back to Eurocamp. Tim asked me what I thought and I shut him down. “No, we’re not doing it. We’ll end up moving in November, it’ll be freezing cold, they children will have to go to French school, they won’t be able to speak to anyone and we’ll all be miserable. No, we’re not doing it.” We drove home in silence and didn’t talk about it again.
We’d taken hundreds of photos as we walked around the house and Tim convinced me to look at them the next day. Each photo showed something that had potential, a beautiful feature or sparked an idea. We started talking about the business we could build and the home we could create for the children. In my heart, I knew that my ‘no’ reaction was down to fear and that my natural aversion to risk was holding me back.
What did friends and family say?
Our friends and families have been amazingly supportive through this whole journey. I know my parents and sister were initially worried and nervous – but they would never stand in the way of my dreams. Mum and Dad had been talking about retiring for a while and they decided that this would be the push they needed. They said that if we moved to France they would retire, downsize and come and visit us every month. This made an enormous difference to me. We’re a very close family and the boys have a brilliant relationship with their grandparents, which I really didn’t want them to lose. And I knew that I would need their support too.
Not one person told us that what were we doing was crazy (though I’m sure some of them were thinking it). So many people said that they could see us living in a Chateau and running a B&B and that if anyone could make a success of it we could. That meant so, so much to us. Everyone was so excited about it and the buzz of everyone’s interest definitely made the decision easier to make.
How did you get the ball rolling?
After the Easter holidays we emailed over an offer to the French Estate agent – it was cheekily low and we knew it would be rejected but we wanted them to know we were interested. We knew we needed to see the house again. Tim was already going back to Le Mans for a weekend at the Moto GP in May with friends, so we flew out a few days early for another look. By this point, we’d put our house on the market knowing we could always take it off again if we needed to.
We still loved it.
The family who was selling it had asked to meet us and we’d agreed thinking it might help us reach an agreement. We were expecting two brothers (the family were selling because their father had passed away and neither the mother or any of her nine children could afford to buy all of the others out), but when they arrived it was Madame Pousset, the mother of the family, and her eldest son Xavier, who spoke brilliant English.
We were terrified. Madame Pousset looked stern and reserved; we were convinced she wouldn’t like us and would say we couldn’t buy the house. The estate agents negotiated while Xavier took us around the house telling us stories and showing us furniture that would be left as part of the sale.
We told him that we wanted La Ruche to be our family home and that we wanted to love it and restore it to its former glory. He asked us to tell this to his mother because she was finding it hard to let the house go. As we explained and he translated, her eyes filled with tears. I tried to smile at her but I suddenly found myself crying, overcome with sadness for a woman who was letting go of years of memories and history that was locked into this house. She gave me a huge hug, grabbed my arms and told me that we wanted me to love the house, bring my family here and turn it into a home again. I felt then that I had her blessing to take on this house and make the next part of its history ours.
We went back to the UK with our offer accepted. By early June we had sold our house and the day afterwards we were back in France to sign the paperwork and pay our deposit. It still didn’t feel real and we kept expecting something to go wrong and for it all to fall through. We kept the children in school and didn’t say anything about taking them out until we knew that they would definitely be leaving. We didn’t want to lose their hard-fought-for places until we really knew we were going.
How did Rufus and Laurie react when the move was confirmed?
The boys, at seven and five, I think found it hard to really grasp the concept of moving. They were concerned about their toys and their rooms until we explained that everything inside our house would be coming with us to France. Rufus was more sensitive about it than Laurie because he understood more. He was nervous about leaving his friends, especially his best friend Charlie. I remember one particularly tough evening after his penultimate night at Beavers. He was so sad to leave his friends and burst into tears as we were leaving. I gave him a hug and couldn’t stop myself from crying either. We just stood in the car park crying while a friend gave us both a hug.
I did feel guilty, and I worried so much about how they would cope with it all. My mum kept reminding me that their worries would be the same if we were moving to another town in the UK and that children move house all the time and make new friends, so I tried to reassure them as best I could and keep them focused on the adventure of it all. We were honest though and involved them the whole way through so they knew it was coming and it wouldn’t be too much of a shock.
When did you move, and how did it feel to say goodbye to the UK?
We finally moved on 18th September 2017 just six months after I first watch Escape to the Chateau on tv!
Leaving our Stamford home was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I knew I’d see all of our friends and family again so it didn’t really feel like we were leaving them behind. But saying goodbye to our beautiful home was so tough for me. It was the place where I’d got ready for our wedding, the home I’d bought my babies back to, the rooms were I’d walked the floors with them in the middle of the night when they wouldn’t settle and the venue for so many lovely evenings with friends. We’d been so happy there and to see it empty and looking so sad without us was difficult. I cried for hours on the day we finally handed over the keys.
We then spent three weeks in limbo living with Tim’s mum with all of our stuff in the back of a lorry – so when it actually came to it we were so happy to finally be moving to our new home. Plus the children had been off school for 10 weeks by this point and we really, really wanted them to go back!
When you first stepped inside, knowing you were now living here, what emotions you were feeling?
It was unreal and in fact, it still is! I do keep expecting someone to say we can’t stay here and that we need to go back to the UK. Tim and I flew out the week before we moved to sign the final paperwork and get the keys. We camped out in the house by ourselves that night and I was terrified. I didn’t sleep a wink, listening to every noise and creak. The only furniture in the house were the pieces the Pousset’s had left us and it felt like I was surrounded by the ghosts and memories of another family. But once we came back again with all of our own things it started to feel like our home.
Did you already speak French, or was this another challenge to undertake?
We don’t speak French – but we’re learning fast. Tim did GCSE French at school and I did German A Level – which is not at all useful! We had some lessons before we left the UK and used the Michel Thomas CDs in the car. Tim is doing really well, though he mostly chats to our French artisans, so while he can chat all day about pipes and electrical cables he isn’t all that great at general conversation! The children are picking up the language really quickly and while they aren’t anywhere near fluent after six months living here, they can chat to their friends and understand their teachers.
Did you feel welcomed by the local community?
We’ve made a huge effort to get to know people locally. It would be incredibly easy for us to shut ourselves off in our Chateau and never speak to anyone, but it’s always been important for us to be part of the village. We go to village meetings, help out on work days and made the effort to meet the Maire in the very first week we arrived. Our closest neighbour Alain is a friend of the Pousset’s and has been amazing. He has helped us out no end and pops over regularly for coffee, cake and dinner. Everyone we have met has been so friendly. We always try to speak French, despite being terrible at it, which people seem to appreciate. Most people speak a little bit of English and if they see us making an effort and being rubbish at it, they’re happy to try a bit of English without feeling embarrassed. We have lots of random Franglais conversations which can be very funny.
What was your very first clean up/renovation job at the Chateau?
We spent a long-time cleaning and sorting through things the family had left behind. We also did a lot of work outside to get on top of the land. We didn’t really start ripping the house apart until after Christmas when the plumber and electrician started to rewire and re-plumb the whole house, which was our biggest expense. We’ve taken down some walls to make bigger rooms and we’re working on the chambre d’hôte side of the house first so that we can start making some money to support ourselves. I should probably say that I am still working – freelancing for magazines in the UK to pay the mortgage while we do the renovations. It’s made a huge difference to still have some money coming in, although it’s definitely going out faster than I can top up the renovation pot!
Were there days when you wondered if you’d bitten off more than you could chew?
We still have days when we wonder if we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. While our chateau is definitely more modest than most, it’s still a big old house. There are a lot of decisions to make and that can be hugely overwhelming. It’s also hard when you move to a new country to know how things work. In the UK if I wanted to buy paint I’d pop to Homebase or B&Q but here there are specialist paint shops, in fact, there is a specialist for everything and finding out where to buy what has been a big challenge
The winter was very hard. Our heating was cut off in January when the plumber and electrician arrived. Our only source of heat was the log burner in the kitchen. We have two friends, Dale (an old school friend of Tim’s) and Claire (a friend of my sister’s) living with us to help with the renovations so, at points when my parents were here too, we had eight people, two cats and a dog all crammed into one room to keep warm. Outside of the kitchen it was a balmy 4c max and we learned to get dressed fast, wear thermal undies at all time and sleep in jumpers, socks and hats!
What got you through?
To be honest I have no idea how we got through it. It was pretty miserable at times especially because it rained for pretty much six weeks straight, the garden turned into a quagmire and we all caught a flu-like bug that knocked us for six. It was definitely a day-at-a-time kind of moment. I definitely threw more than a few tantrums about living in a house with millions of rooms, but only being able to use one of them. Generally, though, we took it in turns to be down about it and we kept reminding each other that it if we could get through the winter, we could make it through anything. And we drank a lot of wine! Now that the sun is shining again we can look back and laugh about it. And in years to come, I’m sure we’ll reminisce about it being great fun.
How did you manage juggling the boys with the renovation?
This is a constant battle – they have every Wednesday off school and it is so hard to down tools to entertain them. I try to keep them entertained while the others crack on. Sometimes I try to sneak a few jobs in while they’re playing, as all mums do. It’s definitely easier now the weather is better as they can be outside building dens and poking about.
Were they able to help out in little ways?
They’re generally too busy playing to want to help!
Have they adjusted well to the new environment and school?
They adjusted really well to their new school and have made lots of friends. It’s amazing how children will play together despite not being able to speak the same language.
What have been some of your greatest moments so far?
It’s been great watching the boys adapt to their new surroundings.
I was quite shocked when we first arrived at how reluctant they were to just go out and play; when I was little we used to disappear after breakfast and come home when we were hungry. But actually for the whole of their lives so far we’d lived in a small town with a small garden, they weren’t used to space and they weren’t used to being allowed to roam that far from us. If they wanted to ride their bikes we had to supervise them doing it in the alley behind our old house. If they needed to run around we took them to the park. If they built a den we did it with them in the woods.
I realised that they didn’t know how to play outside by themselves really because they’d never had that wild, free childhood. Slowly, slowly, slowly they are getting used to it: they will play in their treehouse in the woods now and venture out down the drive on their bikes. I’m sure as they get older we’ll hardly see them as they adapt to life here and the amazing freedom they have.
Watching the house come back to life is brilliant – though at the moment it’s looking worse than it did when we arrived! Our best find was a secret door hidden behind a boarded-up wall. It was stuffed closed with newspapers and old letters from the 1880s. And, happily, it’s exactly where I wanted to put a door anyway – it was definitely fate.
What is your ultimate goal for Chateau de la Ruche?
We love it when people come and visit us here. It’s so lovely seeing people fall in love with the house like we did; it’s a special place.
We are hoping to open a luxury, family-friendly chambre d’hote by the end of the summer. We’re creating two beautiful suites with sitting rooms that can also be used as children’s bedrooms. We always find it tough travelling with kids and finding places to stay that allow the kids to be close enough to us to be safe without them being in our room! Each suite will sleep two adults and two or three kids.
We’d love to offer table d’hote too with an earlier kids’ tea, so grown-ups can have a relaxed dinner in the evening after the children are in bed. We’re just off the main route to the south of France so, hopefully, lots of lovely folk will stop on their way down (and maybe back up again…). Eventually, we’ll have four beautiful B&B rooms on offer and – of course – the gorgeous grounds to explore.
In years to come we’d love to hold weddings here, we have a beautiful barn that would be perfect for wedding receptions and I think a ceremony in the woods would be stunning.
Ultimately though, we want to restore this house and preserve it for the future. I hope that in fifty years time I’ll be looking back on years of memories here with my children, just like Madame Pousset does now. We know we have a responsibility here as custodians of this little bit of the house’s history and I only hope we can do the place justice.
• you might also like to read my post ‘Inspirational Interiors – Professional Home Styling Tips from Amara‘