Noelle fell in love with an Englishman and, by extension, with his adopted homeland. Years later, his untimely loss led to the metamorphosis of their home into a creative retreat for artists and writers. Here Noelle talks to Sylvia Edwards Davis about her life in the Ariège…
FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE Why France?
NOELLE THOMPSON I was 22 and about to start graduate school when I decided that I should see a bit of the world first. I signed up with WWOOF [World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an exchange for volunteer workers] and had my hands in the dirt within 24 hours of arriving in Provence. Then I went on to another WWOOF project – a man needed help building stone walls on restoration project in the Pyrénées. His name was David Thopmson – he was an English cabinet-maker, writer and pianist – and he became my husband.
FM Tell me about your home
NT The house is an old dependence of the Château de Castelbon, a 14th-century stronghold in the village of Betchat, nestled in a little clearing in the woods, at the end of a 600-metre stone path. The house had three levels, two bedrooms and one bath, and had been abandoned for over 30 years. ￼￼￼￼￼￼ When I came along, four years after David, it was sort- of habitable, but not quite at the ‘invite-your-mum-over’ category. No hot water or heating, for starters. We demolished a good portion and reduced the footprint to a more reasonable 121sqm, with two open plan, loft-style levels. There are absolutely no neighbours – hay fields and wooded hillsides spill out the back as far as the eye can see, and the forest circles the front part of the property. It is unbelievably quiet here, and the birdsong in spring is breathtaking.
FM What was the renovation like?
NT The process was enormous. We did absolutely everything ourselves. It was a steep learning curve for a girl with a degree in music! It took four years to get the barn into shape, and even then we only had one habitable room upstairs. The downstairs remained a rough cement floor with bare light bulbs and no water for a very long time. Once we finished the barn, we noticed that the house was falling down and had to shift our focus there.
After my husband died, I realised that I couldn’t go out to work and run this place on my own.
I needed to find a way to generate an income from home. I re-renovated the barn to make it independent so I could rent it out. I did all thework myself – built walls, laid the plumbing and marble floor, redid the ceiling, all with a few wonderful friends guiding me and giving me advice. It was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically and emotionally, but it was incredibly regenerative – I was rebuilding my life.
FM How does the creative retreat work?
NT Artists and writers come here to work, paint, write, compose and draw – to really delve into their passion, with no constraints on their time at all. The silence and nature around the house are hugely appreciated by my clients. In the evening we relax in the garden with a glass of wine and talk until the sun goes down. I take people out on the weekends if they wish, to a market or for a long walk, but mostly people come here to advance an artistic project. I host a single artist or a couple at a time for a two- week stay, about 12 to 15 people per year. Half of them are repeat guests – they fall in love with the Ariège and its stunning natural beauty and can’t resist coming back year after year!
FM How did you manage with the language?
NT I loved learning French and I love speaking it now. I had the great fortune of working with children in the beginning – they’re the best teachers.
Working in France presents some unique challenges and I think that making an effort to learn the language is key. I was able to take a 10-week class on starting a business in France through the group AFPA Association pour la Formation Professionnelle des Adultes, and it was a great way to understand how things function here and what my options were. It was also terrific for my language skills.
FM With what you know now, is there anything you would’ve done differently?
NT I would strongly advise couples to learn the ins and outs of inheritance rules. Regarding renovation, our motto from the beginning was ‘no half-measures’ – even if the research and reflection sets you back a few months.
FM What’s your favourite spot in the house?
NT The upstairs balcony in the barn. It’s huge! It’s deep enough to put a bed out there in summer and wake up to birdsong.
FM What was your best day in France?
NT A private cello and piano recital that I organised with my very first resident. I invited about 50 friends. We sat together, listened to Brahms and Rachmaninoff and then we toasted the future. It’s been an amazing few years meeting so many inspiring artists from all over the world.
NAME: Noelle Thompson
WHERE DO YOU LIVE? Betchat, Ariège, South-West France
WHEN DID YOU MOVE? 2000
WHERE DID YOU MOVE FROM? California
OCCUPATION: Owner and operator of a retreat for artists and writers
WHY BUY IN THE ARIEGE?
One of the least populated and most unspoiled regions of France, the Ariège is sited on the border with Spain and Andorra in South-West France. Traversed by two major rivers, the Ariège and the Lèze, with the higher country dominated by the expansive Pyrénées, it’s paradise for lovers of nature and outdoor pursuits.