Meet the two former City workers who moved to France to tackle the mother of all restoration projects – doing up a wrecked rural château.
Words Nigel Lewis
Every year there are a handful of brave souls in the UK who buy a run-down château in the shimmering French countrywide and sign up to a new life of plaster, pinot and penury.
But many soon realise they have bitten off more than they can chew. Crumbling walls, officious bureaucrats, laissez-faire workmen and bills higher than the château’s turrets are often the ingredients for a Gallic shocker.
These stories also make gripping TV. Most recently, viewers of Channel 4’s Escape to the Château saw how such ambitious restorations often rapidly turn into gargantuan money pits.
Michael Bucknell, 69 and his wife Rose, 68, know all about that. Seventeen years ago the couple, who originally hail from Bloomsbury and worked in banking and insurance, retired early with ‘a project’ in mind somewhere in southern France.
After much searching they were directed to a house in the village of Parisot in the Tarn-et-Garonne in SW France, well-known for its literary festival, rose petals and 16th-century architecture.
And after buying it and rolling up their sleeves, they were astonished to be referred to as ‘lord’ and ‘lady’ in the local shop.
Since those early days, during which a small army of French builders and artisans spent five years doing the ‘bijou’ château up to the couple’s exacting standards, they have spent €1 million on its restoration.
“The scaffolding alone cost €25,000 because we had it up for two years during the work,” says Michael.
“Luckily the property hadn’t been listed and therefore the French heritage authorities only cared what we did to the outside, not the inside.”
One of the dramatic moments in the château’s restoration was the hoisting of new oak-beamed pointed roofs onto the recreated towers, both of which made it on with only inches to spare as the crane wasn’t big enough.
“We relied totally on the abilities of our French stone masons and carpenters – it wasn’t like the UK where you’d need acres of plans and permissions,” says Michael.
“Instead we told them approximately what we wanted to achieve and they got on with it.”
Built in 1501 Château de l’Astorguié was originally the home of a French family whose son, Jean de La Valette-Parisot, went on the defend Malta against the Turks in 1565. He’s why the Maltese capital is called Valetta.
But as well as being the seat of local landed gentry, the chateau has also been a magistrate’s court, store room, pharmacy and offices. And when the Bucknells took ownership, a wreck.
The couple had to replace almost everything including the roof, floors and windows as well as installing the basics such as electricity and water, and under-floor heating.
A top floor was also added after the extraordinary stone central spiral staircase was extended, and some vestiges of its 16th century origins were also preserved.
This included wall murals, quotes above two of the bedrooms reminding the Medieval owners of their own mortality, and ox-blood stained wooden rafters.
English artisans were also involved in its rescue. The couple’s wooden four-poster bed was built in the Home Counties and its woollen bed pane was bespoke-designed by William and Kate’s favourite interiors expert.
The Bucknells also have a sense of humour – the original long-drop toilets have been replaced with modern conveniences disguised as benches.
A few luxuries including an outdoor dining room and summer kitchen have been added and there was also the matter of the three barns within its grounds, all of which had to be restored.
One is now gite-style accommodation, while one houses Michael’s treasured tractor and the third is part-renovated.
But for anyone visiting Château de l’Astorguié, its wide-angle views of the local countryside from the front bedrooms are the show stopper.
The couple bought the fields below but guests can survey 20 miles of countrywide to the edge of the Aveyron Gorges as they yawn and stretch in the morning.
But it is now time to move on for the Bucknells. Their children live in New Zealand and are less keen on flying to France so regularly with their children. So it’s time to downsize to a more manageable property and spend more time at their Kiwi home.