Writing Your Own Fairytale
Sylvia Edwards Davis talks to Channel 4 documentary stars Dick and Angel Strawbridge about renovating their Pays de la Loire château.
You may find that Dick and Angel Strawbridge look familiar because they starred in a television documentary, Escape to the Château, which aired on Channel 4 this June. The series followed their leap from a two-bedroom flat in Essex to the 45-room five-storey, 19th Century Chateau-de-la-Motte-Husson. After a four-year search for a French property, as soon as they set eyes on the chateau, at Martigné-sur-Mayenne in the Mayenne département of the Pays de la Loire, they instantly knew it was ‘the one’.
Priced at under €350,000, this fairytale château is set in 12 acres of stunning parkland and boasts a moat, a walled garden and seven outbuildings. However the château was largely abandoned and had no heating electricity or plumbing, which certainly put Dick’s engineering background and boundless energy to the test. He started with the daunting task of stripping lead paint from almost 80 window frames which are at least a century old and laying 600 meters of pipes.
Entrepreneur Angel, who’s the author of a popular series of Vintage Tea Party books, worked alongside Dick to turn the château into a comfortable family home, in which to raise their two-year-old son, Arthur, and baby Dorothy. Angel and Dick have also started a business, opening the château as a venue for elegant vintage weddings.
Frenchentrée Magazine: Why did you choose to make the jump to France?
Dick Strawbridge: Angel and I love France and all the romance that it offers. When you come on holiday, you get to experience the good food, long lunches, wind and the countryside. We wanted this as our everyday lifestyle. We could never afford what we have here anywhere in the UK, and from a business perspective it also fitted – people have a love affair with France.
FE: How long ago did you move?
DS: We moved in 2015. Angel was based in London and I was in Cornwall.We were living in London, but moved out to Southend-on-Sea while we were searching for our property and while we were having our daughter, Dorothy.
FE. What led up to the decision to buy a property in France?
DS. We wanted more space and no mortgage. I’m a simple man and would have been happy with a small house in the country, big enough for our family to grow in, with a workshop and some land. Angel is a little more complicated! The children are definitely her priority, but after building-up her business [The Vintage Patisserie] for 15 years in London, she was keen that out property could be used for business as well.
On one of our first holidays together, near Carcassonne, we just started idly looking at property prices. Although the time wasn’t right then, we actually started looking seriously because we realized that it was something we could – and would – do rather than simply a daydream.
FE: What was the factor that most influenced your choice?
DS: Property in France is plentiful and it’s a very huge country so it became very clear, very quickly, that we could have both space and elegance. It wasn’t long before our search for a simple family home changed into the decision to buy somewhere that could be used for business. The more we searched, the more things we added to our list of desirable aspects for our new home.
I’d always dreamt of a walled garden and a moat. Angel wanted an orangerie and a castle with a turret. So they were all added to the wish list. We saw so many places, but after travelling all around, we decided to focus on the Pays de la Loire. It’s easy to get back to the UK for work and family, the provenance of seasonal food is a way of life, and it’s full of rolling hills. We saw so many properties over our four-year search that were nearly right.
And then the Chateau-de-la-Motte-Husson in Mayenne popped up. The 19th century château was built on the site where an old fortified castle stood for 600 years, hence the moat. There’s been much debate about what classifies as a room. Are the turrets a room each? We have agreed, amongst ourselves, that we have 49 rooms, although it’s fair to say that some are massive and others are cosy. In addition to the moat, it has a walled garden, numerous stables and barns, an orangerie and about 12 acres of parkland.
Angel wanted to make an offer before we’d seen it! The rest is history…
FE:How did you manage the renovation?
DS: We managed it between Angel and myself. I did a lot of the work myself, to save money, but we knew where the skilled workers were needed. Before we moved, we’d already talked about the ‘flow’ of the house and how it would be used. It’s quite a hard process, because there was a lot of guesswork and it’s incredibly important to get it right. Once this ‘flow’ was decided – over long evenings and lots of wine- I designed the routes and infrastructure requirements or the utilities, and divided the implementation into phases. I posted some of the technical details on our website, in a section called The Techy Bits, in case anyone may find it interesting or useful.
At the start, we simply had to do enough to move the family in – not as easy as it sounds, especially in France. The national power company, EDF (Elecricité de France), turned up a couple of weeks late, so the small team I had was just using battery-operated lights and tools in the meantime.
After that it was a matter of just getting on with it. We’d decided to set ourselves a silly timescale and wanted to be ready for our wedding, ten months after we’d moved in.
FE:Did you manage to stick to the budget?
DS: After the purchase and move we were left with £20,000. We always knew that this wasn’t going to be enough to see us through to the wedding, so I ended up taking a job with National Geographic to provide a much needed cash injection. But the flip side was that I was away from March to July – it was very hard on Angel.
We were as frugal as we could be throughout the entire process. Angel rarely buys anything new, and France is incredible for its flea markets and charity shops. What did throw us was how expensive everything DIY related was. Paint for example, was nearly four times as expensive as in the UK.
FE:Did you apply for financing?
DS: It wouldn’t have been easy to get a mortgage on the château as it was lacking all the utilities and had some major problems, so we had to get together enough for the initial purchase. After that, I took any jobs offered to bring in extra money to do our restoration. It’s very obvious why people do restorations like ours over years, or even decades.
FE: What’s your favourite spot in the house?
DS: Without sounding too boastful, I look out of every window and think how lucky I am. If you forced me to choose it’d be the basement with the interconnecting kitchen, preserves room and wine cellar. Angel would probably say the orangerie.
FE: What is there to do in the area?
DS: So much! Historical and cultural hubs Mayenne and Laval are both a 15 minute drive from us. There are amazing parks, restaurants and beautiful
walks along the Mayenne River. Fishing, bike-rides, the theatre and even shopping!
FE: What would you say to someone who’s considering starting a similar business?
DS: Go for it! If you think about it, the cost of coming to us for a wedding can be less than travelling up to Scotland or spending a weekend in London. However, do try to do it within your means. There’s no point moving to France for a simple life and living with financial debt.There’s so much variety here really something for everyone. One tip, though try and be near an airport or port, if you want to host events or pop back to the UK for work.
FE:Anything you would have done differently?
DS: Maybe a couple of things. We would’ve been better organised with supplies from the UK. Because of the time pressure, we probably spent a lot more money buying stuff in France because we needed it quickly.
FE: What was your experience with paperwork and bureaucracy?
DS: Ha-ha, the same as everyone else’s, I think! Plentiful, not frightfully logical and they have their own unique way of doing things. No sense in complaining – you just have to battle your way through. Sorting out the necessary paperwork for our marriage took months and caused more than a little stress.
FE: What was the worst aspect of the move?
DS: France closes during August. When you’re working to a deadline, it’s a monumental pain when everyone associated with the building trade goes away for five weeks!
FE: What was the best day ever in France
DS: Undoubtedly, it was our wedding and celebrating all of our hard work with our friends and family!
NAMES: Dick and Angel Strawbridge
WHEN DID YOU MOVE? February 2015
WHERE DID YOU MOVE FROM? Essex
OCCUPATION: Dick is a television presenter and engineer, and Angel is an entrepreneur and author
WHY BUY IN THE PAYS DE LA LOIRE?
Also known as ‘Valley of the Kings’ for its famous chateaux, which attract many foreign visitors each year, the Loire offers world-class wines, exquisite gastronomy, and a myriad of cultural events to complement its genteel beauty.
IMAGES © DICK AND ANGEL STRAWBRIDGE