Renovating a French townhouse

'We transformed a crumbling French townhouse into a home from home': Carole and Christopher Nell mixed traditional style with new ideas to bring their 18th-century property in the south of France into the 21st century

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Tucked away in the lush hills, an easy drive from the Mediterranean and Cap d’Agde, yet far from the crowded resorts of the Riviera, Soubès in France’s Languedoc region is a picturesque peaceful, village. So it’s easy to see why Carole and Christopher Nell decided this would be the perfect place to buy their second home.

‘We had often camped in France and love the country,’ explains Carole, ‘but we really fell in love with Soubès when we holidayed here with friends. We felt it would make an ideal location for a second home, particularly because our children, Charlotte, Ben and Adam, were very young at the time and we didn’t want to be miles from shops, restaurants and other activities.’

Fact file

The owners: Carole Nell, a former librarian, and her husband Christopher, a former designer and brand manager, both now retired. Their UK home is near Richmond upon Thames

After consulting local estate agents, Carole and Christopher found their Soubès townhouse during an autumn house-hunt and both immediately loved the traditional look of the exterior. ‘We wanted a home that was very different from our house in England, which is modern with glass walls, and this one seemed pretty and hadn’t been modernised at all,’ remembers Christopher.

However, Carole had to return to the UK before they could make an appointment to view the whole property. Christopher went alone in her absence, then placed an offer and had it quickly accepted. So when Carole returned, it was a step into the unknown. ‘I was shocked,’ she admits. ‘It was in a really bad state and in urgent need of renovation.’

The house, which had been rented before, belonged to a seamstress who had decided to sell. ‘We were left with all her furniture, including her papers,’ says Carole. ‘The place hadn’t been touched since the 1950s and included layers of flowery paper on the walls, her bed and an unused toilet left standing in the corner of the sitting room. We paid a local firm to clear the place of all the clutter but, fortunately, some items – including the old lady’s dresser and some leather chairs – were too good to throw away.’

Christopher got to work, drawing up plans to redesign the space and then contacted an English builder friend of the couple, who lived and worked locally, to oversee the renovations.

While the ground floor comprises an entrance hall, garage and two cellars, the three rooms on the first floor were converted into one open-plan kitchen-diner/ living area. The three second-floor bedrooms were reconfigured into two, with the third room becoming a family bathroom. The third floor, which was simply one large attic room with no proper floor, was transformed into two more bedrooms with an en suite shower room. Several new rooflights were installed to provide more light.

The lovely old beams throughout the house had been covered in cement, which was painstakingly removed to expose the ancient wood beneath. The whole place was also rewired and re-plumbed, while the roof – luckily, in reasonably sound condition – was repaired by replacing the missing and broken tiles, and the flashings.

The floors in the living area were a mixture of lino and tiles, but were damaged beyond repair, so the Nells replaced them with wooden boards. The second-floor bedrooms already had terracotta tiled floors, so more were sourced locally and laid in the converted loft to maintain the rustic French look. Finally, painted pine units were installed in the kitchen area and all the walls were painted white.

All the structural work was carried out by French workmen, which is where the couple’s builder came in very useful. ‘We speak a little French,’ says Carole, ‘but luckily our builder friend acted as our interpreter.’

The Nells decided to spend as much of the UK school holidays as possible in France, but their first summer in the house was not enjoyable. ‘It was terrible!’ says Carole. ‘The house smelt musty and Christopher and I had to strip walls and paint while the children just wanted to go windsurfing, fishing and swimming. Over the winter, though, we had more work done so that, by the time we spent out second summer here, the place was more habitable.’

Their only mistake was not to install any heating. ‘The first time we visited the house in November, we realised how cold it can get in France,’ says Carole. ‘We now keep our visits to spring, summer and autumn, and use electric fires on cool evenings.’

These days, the house is used by the couple, their now grown-up children and their grandchildren. The rest of the time it is rented out. Squeezed down a narrow alley, with a winding stone staircase inside and only an enclosed terrace for a garden, it doesn’t have that villa-with-pool luxury that many Brits seek when abroad; but for the Nells, their home-from-home is perfect.

Each year, small improvements are made – currently, the 60-year-old shutters are undergoing a facelift, with the terrace to follow. But the attractions of France will never change and the Nells are delighted that a new generation of their family now enjoys the quaint hillside town they fell in love with 20 years ago.