Bénédicte and Phil Apple left gloomy Britain behind to convert an old mill house in Provence into an idyllic haven. They tell Greg Cook why it’s the best decision they’ve ever made
Bénédicte Apple is standing by the kitchen door of the 300-year-old Provençal mill house that she now calls home, reflecting on an old French proverb she first heard when she and her family moved here eight years ago.
“It turns out that the French have a popular saying,” explains Bénédicte as she relaxes in the gentle morning sunshine outside her farmhouse kitchen door. “It roughly translates as ‘with a house in the south, you’ll have friends for life’, which it turns out couldn’t be more true!” she laughs. Taking in the Apples’ idyllic surroundings, 10km east of Aix-en-Provence in the countryside at the edge of the Sainte-Victoire national park, it’s easy to understand why. “Yet the nicest thing about moving and living here has been the new friends we’ve made who frequently come to visit us now,” Bénédicte continues.
“There’s something very special about this part of the world, and it’s obvious that people who’ve lived here all their lives still appreciate it. Mind you, it’s hard to imagine anybody not being completely captivated by this area on sight. The beauty of this place makes every day here feel like a new beginning, even now there are plenty of times when I have to pinch myself to remind me that I’m really here.”
For Bénédicte and Phil, the charm of living in this magical region was thrown into even sharper relief by its contrast to their earlier lives. Before they came here, Phil ran a large Mercedes dealership, while Bénédicte worked for tobacco business Phillip Morris, which saw her spend most of her time rushing back and forth between London and Brussels.
“I loved my job, but in a high-pressure career there comes a point where the trajectory gets even steeper and you have to throw yourself at it completely – or walk away. Phil felt the same, and when we discussed it we soon realised that what we really wanted was to find a different way of life, one that was all about being able to spend time together without pressure, and to enjoy that while we were still both relatively young,” says Bénédicte. “So we decided it was time to quit our careers and go for a full change of lifestyle before it was too late. We both wanted to live in another country, we both loved France and visited frequently and we both wanted plenty of sunshine and a rural setting – so when we put all those things together Provence came out top of the list.
“What we were searching for in our mind’s eye was one of the many old stone farmhouses or barns you find in this region – preferably one that needed refurbishing so we could put our own stamp on the place straight away – and with a good amount of surrounding land attached.”
However, the couple were realistic enough to appreciate that such a popular ideal might be impossible to practically attain. And yet, after only a few weeks of searching for their dream home, they arrived in this beautiful area of the Rhône Valley and found themselves turning down a tiny track just off an empty main road, and into the heart of the countryside.
“We had the property particulars, and with every few hundred yards I was getting more excited,” Bénédicte vividly recalls. “As we were driving through woodlands with a bridge over a bubbling stream and on past banks of lavender, I knew that all this amazing approach came with the property, as part of the six hectares (15 acres) of accompanying land.”
After that kind of introduction, the house itself was going to have a lot to live up to. But as soon as the couple saw the beautiful 300-year-old stone watermill, set between a green mill pool and a rushing stream, they knew it was what they wanted. They put in an offer the same day.
Six months later, Bénédicte and Phil returned – this time as proud new owners standing in their courtyard at the height of a beautiful, blazing Provençal summer.
“The previous owners had been here for 30 years, so we always knew we’d need to do a fair amount of refurbishment and updating once we were in, although thankfully, everything was in pretty good shape structurally,” says Bénédicte.
“But we also had some bigger projects in mind,” she adds. “Like re-landscaping and converting some of the outhouses into self contained guest accommodation. However we were determined to enjoy our new lives here from the start and calmly take everything step by step over the next few years, rather than stress ourselves trying to get everything done in the first few months.”
Initially the couple focused on the main house, laying new flagstone or clay-tile floors where necessary, fitting in new updated bathrooms and redecorating every room. Next came the relocation of a new kitchen, refitted into a more pleasant and spacious room on the side of the mill house, which had previously been the garage.
Work started in September and took about nine months, after which the focus changed to landscaping the garden and tending their not inconsiderable six-hectare plot, while at the same time beginning the conversion of some of the outbuildings to create extra guest accommodation.
They undertook the last major project on the property two years ago when they decided to extend out from the other side of the new kitchen to make a large and impressive single-storey dining and entertaining room, projecting from the east side of the main house.
“We’re both delighted by the way that worked out,” adds Bénédicte. “It’s really helped to enclose the central courtyard with large French windows leading out to there, and with the local stone we used, along with clay-tile flooring and a traditional timber and terracotta-tiled room, as well as features like the reclaimed stone water-trough and fireplace set into the exposed stone of the side wall, it really feels in keeping with the rest of the house, which was exactly what we wanted to achieve.
“We loved our new lives here in this beautiful region – even though there have been some inevitable trials along the way. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to believe we’ve already been here eight years, until I look around and remember how much we’ve achieved. It’s just as well that most of the hard work is over, because one of the last things we installed was a beautiful outdoor pool to relax in!”
IMAGES © RICHARD PARSONS
PROVENCE - Brits have had a love affair with this region since Peter Mayle wrote his A Year in Provence – and with good reason. This sun-drenched corner of southern France is bursting with pretty hilltop villages, stunning landscapes, coastal gems and fields of lavender. We all hanker after a stone mas or farmhouse in Provence, but they don’t come cheap. There are bargains to be had if you scour the listings for town houses and village bolt-holes off the beaten track.
If you are looking for property in Aix-en-Provence and you can’t find what you’re looking for, or don’t have time to search yourself, FrenchEntrée has a dedicated Property Team to assist you in finding your dream property. Let us know what you are looking for and we will do our best to select properties matching your requirements. Please don't hesitate to get in contact with our property consultants on +44 (0)1225 463752.