In 1999 Paul and Chantal Cox from the UK decided to look for a home in France. Chantal wanted something not too far from Belgium where she was born and where her family still lives and Paul wanted to be within easy travelling distance of London.
They looked at properties for a year in the Nord-Pas de Calais region, an area they already knew thanks to friends living there. They were aware of the outstanding natural beauty of the countryside of the Seven Valleys, the beautiful coastal towns and historic towns and cities. Paul, a business consultant, had a partner who owned a home at Remaisnil (Picardy on the border with the Seven Valleys) on the corner of a Château once owned by renowned British designer Laura Ashley. Paul and Chantal stayed there often and grew to love the area which has so much to offer but is not well known to tourists.
They searched for a year and saw many beautiful properties, indeed they fell in love with an old house in the town of Boulogne-sur-Mer on the Opal Coast but were disappointed to discover that previous owners had completely modernised the interior “removing the soul”.
There was a house that Paul had seen that he liked the look of on paper in a small village called Saint Georges near Hesdin in the lush and rich countryside of the Seven Valleys (Pas de Calais). It was one of the first houses they’d received details for, however, despite repeated requests to view it the appointments kept being cancelled. Later Paul and Chantal discovered the owner was known as the “dragon of Saint Georges”, a fearsome woman whom the neighbours were in fear of and estate agents had no wish to meet with. After gentle persuasion, the agent eventually arranged a viewing. The woman was surly and unfriendly; the house was a wreck and had been allowed to fall into drastic disrepair.
The property consisted of a Maison de Maître, a tiny cottage where the house keeper used to live and a tiny ruined chapel. It was described by the mayor as uninhabitable. It came with an overgrown, out of control 4.5 acre garden that Chantal, a garden designer, knew would be a huge undertaking.
There was something about the house though that inspired the couple and against all the odds, Paul persuaded Chantal that they should buy it.
Chantal admits that this was “definitely not” the image she had had for a house in France. She had childhood memories of her Belgian family’s country house by the sea and weekends spent endlessly working on it. She had told Paul that their French home should be low maintenance with a small garden! What she got was a house that needed major restoration and renovation and a huge garden.
In 2000, on the first night of ownership, they slept on a mattress on the floor and wondered what on earth they’d gotten themselves into; Chantal confesses that she thought Paul must have gone mad.
Over the course of the next few months they discovered more and more problems.
Their first job was to clear the 4 tonnes of rubbish left by previous owners. Chantal went to the déchetterie (rubbish tip) daily for weeks on end. Paul burned what he could in the garden and in the fireplaces in the house. When he came across a stack of old newspapers he lit the main fireplace and soon had a roaring blaze and all was going well until a breathless neighbour burst onto the scene to announce that their roof was on fire. Paul quickly damped the fire out but the problem seemed to lie in the chimney and he needed to get to the back of it which was behind a wall. There was nothing for it but to knock the wall down or risk the entire house catching fire. Chantal was dispatched to fetch the largest hammer she could find and Paul smashed into the wall upstairs where the chimney problem seemed to be. To their astonishment the hammer went through the wall with ease and disclosed a perfectly cut doorway into a sealed off room. It had lain completely boarded up – unknown to the people they’d bought from and not on any plans. Paul and Chantal turned it into their bedroom suite with the most perfect views over the garden.
Elsewhere in the house the windows had plastic bags covering the many missing glass panes, every time a tractor or truck went past the bags were blown into the room like a weird bellows system.
The upstairs hadn’t been used for 300 years – it was filthy and dangerous. Every room seemed to smell of “incontinent dog”. Walls, windows and floors were made up of bits of plastic, wood, dirt – they’d known they had their work cut out for them but the more they saw the more they realised what a huge task they’d taken on.
The house was dark, damp, and dank – hundreds of overgrown and diseased trees in the garden cut out any light through the windows so they cut down more than 100 trees. Paul says that they have enough wood to last more than 25 years!
And there was the problem of trying to bring three separate buildings together.
When the ceiling of the cottage collapsed completely – falling on Paul and covering him in tonnes of rubble, the couple managed to turn what could have been a disaster to their advantage.
They rethought the renovation plan and came up with a scheme to join the cottage, house and chapel together using glass passageways and installing new stair cases and making the whole property far more usable.
The work to restore the chapel became a passion and won the admiration of the local and neighbours. The renovation of the house took several years. The couple sourced ornaments and artifacts from family pieces or second hand, scoured at local brocantes, flea markets and auction houses. This has added a real air of establishment, age and authenticity to the house.
Chantal and Paul now love the house and enjoy drives in the gorgeous countryside of the Seven Valleys in their Citroën cars despite the hard work and long years of toil to turn the house into a beautiful home, they say it’s been worth it (though Chantal says she doesn’t think she’d do it again!)…
Read more about the French chapel restoration
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