Reassessing life, work and everything is a common midlife activity, but while most of us carry on regardless, Debbie Bell and Nigel Lawson opted for a radical change.
As a result, the couple, who are both 57, are now the proud owners of a 26-room house in the rural Limousin region of France and are set to star in Escape to the Chateau DIY, on Channel 4, between March 30 and Aprl 3.
The documentary series is a spin-off from the hugely successful Escape to the Chateau, which saw Dick and Angel Strawbridge renovate a 19th century, 45-room castle with a moat in north-west France. It is now a successful weddings and events venue.
Dick and Angel are filmed offering advice to Debbie and Nigel as they renovate their French home, Chateau Gioux, and turn it into a B&B. “They were great and they inspired us to just have a go,” says Debbie, an entrepreneurial foodie who is best known for creating a farm shop and cafe at Raskelf, near Easingwold, before moving into food business consultancy and launching a small lettings agency.
"We have tried to be like them, in that we have done almost all the work needed on the house ourselves. Nigel and I were working hard and we were also helping his parents move to France, so we were back and forth across the Channel a lot. Life was hectic and we started wondering whether there was an alternative that would give us a better work-life balance.
“We both love France and so we started looking for somewhere to live that we could run as a business.”
It helped that Nigel had already lived in France for four years in the 1990s. He ran a dairy farm there and speaks the language fluently, so they began hunting for a chambre d’hote, the French equivalent of a bed and breakfast.
“Nigel found Chateau Gioux and thought it would make a great chambre d’hote but it was 100,000 Euros over budget so we had no choice but to forget about it.
“Then we almost struck a deal to buy an old mill but it went wrong. We were really disheartened but when we got home that night Nigel looked at a French estate agent’s page on Facebook and saw Chateau Gioux. The 400,000 Euro asking price had just been reduced by 100,000 Euros for one week only,” says Debbie. “Suddenly, a year after we first saw it, it was within our budget. Buying it felt like fate. It was meant to be.”
They put in an offer for the house in October 2018 and moved there in April last year. The location is idyllic. The historic property sits in four acres of land within a rural hamlet in the Limousin countryside between Limoges and Gueret. It is in the tranquil Millevaches National Park, which is popular with cyclists and walkers, and is 15km from Lac de Vassiviere and its lake beaches.
Built around 1895 for members of the French and Belgian nobility, the sturdy building was one of the first to use a steel frame, which was clad with granite.
It was used as a hunting lodge and later became a sanctuary for French resistance fighters during World War II. More recently it was a home for the elderly before reverting back to a home for an English couple.
While a lot of restoration had been done, the house needed more work before it could open as a B&B, so Nigel and Debbie rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in.
“Labour is expensive in France and we couldn’t afford to get tradespeople so did we everything, except the electrics,” says Debbie. “Nigel is really handy and even put a shower in and tiled it. I did most of the painting and decorating.”
Time was of the essence as they wanted to generate an income straight away. They managed to get three bedroom suites ship-shape and made their own quarters down in the cellar rooms, where there is a small chapel and a priest’s confessional.
They have since refined the decor in the three B&B bedroom suites and completed work on a fourth. Two salons, aka sitting rooms, have been refreshed, along with the dining room, rear scullery and the kitchen.
The sun room at the back of the house has also been renovated and there are plans to replace an old conservatory with a new orangerie. The interiors, which retain their period features, were furnished on a budget thanks to finds from brocantes (flea markets) and Debbie and Nigel also upcycled some of the furniture they bought from the previous owners of the house.
“We are now in the middle of renovating a bedroom for ourselves and there is still a lot of scope to do something with the attic and cellar rooms. We’d also like to replace the oil-fired heating with air source heat pumps,” says Debbie. “Getting Chateau Gioux ready to trade as a chambre d’hote has been hard work but Nigel and I are a good team. He is very handy and I love interiors and cooking.”
The only issue, they say, is the unhurried bureaucracy in France, but Nigel’s fluent French helps and they have learned to be patient. They are looking forward to telling their story on TV and hope it will open viewers’ eyes to an area of France that few Brits visit.
“It’s a wonderful place. If we hadn’t bought the chateau and moved here while we were still young enough we would have regretted it. We now have a five-year plan and after that we’ll make a decision on whether to stay. For now we love it here,” says Debbie, who has grown-up children in the UK. “It’s very quiet and very rural. The pace of life here is slower and we are hoping to take advantage of that and relax at some point – once we’ve done all the decorating, of course.”
*The story of Nigel and Debbie’s transformation of Chateau Gioux will feature on Escape to the Chateau DIY, on Channel 4, over five days from March 30 to April 3 at 4pm.
The house is now a chambre d’hote, aka boutique B&B, has four bedroom suites to let. Debbie cooks breakfast and an evening meal for guests.
For more details on the property visit www.chateaugioux.com and find it on Instagram @chateaugiouxlimousin.