A certain je ne sais quoi

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The best French homeware in Britain is found in Yorkshire, thanks to one man’s love of the country. Sharon Dale reports. Pictures James Hardisty.

When Stephen Hazell bought a holiday home in the Pyrenees, he imagined it would be a restful retreat away from the rigours of property developing.

Stephen Hazell's French House, Huntington, York

Stephen Hazell's French House, Huntington, York

Instead, it led to even more work and a family business importing French homeware into Britain. “The house I bought had two prices, one to buy it empty and the other to buy it with the contents. It was full of antiques so I went for the second option. The French don’t value antiques like we do, so I brought some back to Yorkshire and kept some then sold the rest to family and friends. That’s when I realised there was a market,” he says. “It created one of those crossroads in life and I’m glad I went down that road. It’s been interesting.”

He and his son Marcus bought a van and embarked on a road trip hunting out more stuff to satisfy an appetite for antique and vintage French furniture and furnishings. Soon there was enough to fill a shop.

The French House in York was born on Micklegate 25 years ago, in a property that Stephen had intended to renovate and sell. Instead, he turned some of the rooms into boudoirs with romantic French beds, chandeliers and armoires straight from châteaux, others were devoted to country style cornucopia and everywhere there was something quirky to covet.

The business has grown every year since and has now moved to a larger site in Huntington, York. It also has a store in London that is a favourite with top interior designers.

Stephen Hazell's French House, Huntington, York

Stephen Hazell's French House, Huntington, York

“Marcus and I started out as a couple of explorers in our van and it was and still is fun,” says Stephen, who still runs his property development company Trinity. “Otherwise I wouldn’t do it because my property company makes more money, but this is about enjoyment.”

He and his partner Kathryn now travel to France eight times a year and stay between two and four weeks each time. They have a home in Sancerre in the Loire Valley and are an established part of the community there.

“I love France, the pace of life there is slower and it’s like England used to be. When we are there we are working and although finding the right pieces for the shops is no problem, we are having to travel further to get them. We go anywhere between Paris and Toulouse,” he says.

The couple have contacts, visit sales and do house clearances, and it’s the latter that yield the most interesting finds and stories. They were clearing the home of an elderly man recently and found the account he kept of his experiences in the Second World War. He was a leading member of the Resistance and had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo.

Stephen Hazell's French House, Huntington, York

Stephen Hazell's French House, Huntington, York

“It was heartbreaking and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. He writes about how they stuck matches down in his nails and then I read ‘they were lit’ and that was just horrifying. I’ve so much respect for him and I kept the diary because it’s not something you can throw away,” says Stephen.

“When I handed the keys back to the notaire he asked if I had found the submachine gun, because the Germans never managed that. We didn’t.”

Another poignant moment came when he and Kathryn arrived to buy some pieces from an old farmhouse.

“There was a beautiful old painting of a young girl. We asked who she was and the 90-year-old lady just looked at us and said ‘C’est moi’. Both Kathryn and I were in tears,” says Stephen, who points out a great coat that came with a host of other items he got in a château sale.

“It’s British and from a big house in France. It was left by a soldier passing through in 1943. The house owner kept it but the soldier never came back .”

The mannequin it is draped over will soon be sold. They are among the most popular items at the moment.

“At first it was all armoires but now people aren’t buying big lumps of furniture so much, though armchairs, farmhouse tables and beds are very popular,” says Kathryn.

Their success with furniture is thanks to their workshop, which restores and reupholsters. Customers can choose fabrics, while custom-made mattresses are bought from the York Bedding Company. Old French beds are notoriously fickle when it comes to sizing. They come in all widths.

“That’s a service we offer that others don’t. If a table is too long we can cut it down, we French polish, upholster and we deliver and install, which people appreciate, especially if it’s a huge mirror,” says Kathryn.

Now, as ever, the store is a treasure trove. There’s everything from street signs to bowler hats to impossibly elegant furniture, a bust from a chateau in Orleans, chandeliers, mirrors and conversation pieces like the dressing table with bottom drawers that hide a chamber pot and bidet which pull out on legs.

The 1965 Slazenger tennis balls made in Wakefield were bought from a French sale. Inside the box is a handwritten endorsement, in French, from the Austrialian tennis player Ken Rosewall.

Visitors arrive via word of mouth or are tempted by lists of new items in stock mailed out each week to customers. The French House has never advertised.

One of their top clients is a celebrity who lives close to the London store and there’s a window frame with a label bearing his name awaiting collection.

“He likes what we do,” says Stephen, who clearly loves what he does.

“If you find a job you love they say you’ll never work again,” he says.