Francis van der Elst was a man with a dream. Belgian born, a history lover, working for airline company Sabena, he had a passion for castles. His overriding goal in life was to have a castle of his own though he never he says “believed for one minute that my dream would ever come true”.
Despite this, Francis spent all of his holidays and free time visiting castles in Belgium and neighbouring France where he discovered that Chateaux could be infinitely more affordable. In his quest he visited more than 100 castles for sale and clearly perseverance pays off because one day in 2011, Francis saw on the internet, one that looked perfect. He went to see it in person in Aire-sur-la-Lys, northern France and instantly fell hopelessly in love.
It was not in a good state and had been left neglected and abandoned for many years. Built by a local lord on the site of a much older chateau in 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo, Chateau de Moulin le Comte was once very pretty and important. Aire-sur-la-Lys was a prosperous area. Fought over for years, by turns Spanish, Flemish, Dutch, English and Burgundian, even occasionally French though not for long until finally becoming part of France for good in 1713. In its position close to what is now the Belgian border, there was a train station and the land was rich and fertile. The Lord built stables and lavished attention on his chateau home. Over the years though it was sold to the Mayor (in fact he sold it to himself, a perk of the job!) and then became municipal property. In the 20th Century it was converted into a school and then into offices. The interior was worn and dowdy; the rooms had been ruined by false walls and horrible decorating. Francis however, saw through this. Many of the original features remained and he knew that he could restore the chateau’s soul.
He bought Chateau de Moulin le Comte and spent two years turning it back into a grand home. Plaster experts came from Paris to restore the sculpted ceilings; the original gas lighting fixtures that were still in place were updated and the grand rooms were returned to their former state and ensuite bathrooms installed. Francis and his son rejuvenated the gardens and worked long hours to fulfil the dream. The old mill had stood next to the chateau and gave it it’s name is now long gone but the river that once drove the mill wheel now gurgles gently at the bottom of the garden. Francis opened the chateau as a private house with 5 bedrooms for guests in 2013.
Popular with Brits on their way south and with Belgians because of its proximity to their country, and the beautiful surrounding landscape of this rural part of northern France. Francis loves to help guests discover the walks, markets, historic towns and picturesque villages that are a bit off the beaten track. A keen cook he runs a table d’hote where he spoils guests with his home cooking “I learned from my grandmother and mother from the time I could walk. I was always in the kitchen, helping, learning and asking questions….”
“I love to buy fresh produce from the markets and local farms” he says, adding that his portions are homely and healthy. One of his favourite markets is in nearby St Omer on a Saturday morning and Aire-sur-la-Lys in front of the impressive tourist office built in 1600 (below) on a Friday morning. He is though spoiled for choice, there are several markets to choose from every day of the week.
The knowledge that Francis has built up enables him to help house hunters in the area and those shopping for authentic French produce and specialities especially wine and cheese (this is an area rich in artisan food products). Many visitors are memorial tourists who come to see the battlefields, memorials and cemeteries of World War I and World War II; some guests want an active break and some want to completely relax. Whatever the reason, Francis and his son Cedric (photo below) who helps manage the chateau, can help with recommendations, directions and their experience of the area.
Arriving at the chateau, everyone receives a warm welcome. There’s ample parking, huge rooms and fast Wi-Fi. Francis chuckles when he tells how a recent guest, 104 years old, complimented him on the fact he was able to post a selfie in front of the grand wooden doors of his bedroom to Instagram within minutes of arriving!
Chateau de Moulin le Comte is the perfect place for stop overs and breaks in the area. Thanks to it’s the central position of Aire-sur-la-Lys, its easy to get to Bethune, Saint-Omer, Lens; Lille is just an hour away as it Le Touquet, Calais and Arras.
Aire-sur-la-Lys, a gentle part of northern France, a place of rolling hills, gurgling streams and pretty little villages…
St Omer a delicious taste of rural France
The Louvre Lens, a museum with soul
La Coupole, an incredible historic site near St Omer, a vast bunker left behind after World War II