Inspired

Couple Buys and Renovates Crumbling 15th-Century French Chateau, Here’s How It Looks Now

BY Louise Chambers TIMEJanuary 18, 2022 PRINT

Sharing a mutual dream of one day restoring a historic property to its former glory, a hospital doctor and an engineer uprooted from their life in Scotland to start a brand-new adventure in France. They single-handedly took on the restoration of a dilapidated 15th-century château. Three years on, the building is by no means finished but is radically transformed.

Erin Choa and Jean-Baptiste “JB” Gois, both 34, met at a university in Edinburgh and gradually their friendship blossomed into a relationship. JB, who is originally from Burgundy in France, fell in love with the city of Edinburgh and spent nine years, instead of one, perfecting his English while Erin developed her career.

When JB decided to return to France in 2018, Erin joined him too. That’s when the couple found Château de Bourneau in Vendée, western France.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

“We realized that for the price of a one-bedroom apartment in London, we could buy a 1,000-square-meter château with 16 hectares of land,” London-born Erin explained to The Epoch Times. “The château was in fact built by a lady, Jaquette de la Ramée, who asked permission from the French King, Louis XI, to build a fortified château at Bourneau protected by a moat.”

The original château fell into ruin in the 18th century, during the French Revolution, so it was not until 1860 that the current Château de Bourneau was built on the foundations of the original château as the marital home of a local aristocratic family,” Erin added.

Describing the property, which is in the heart of the medieval village of Bourneau, Erin said it is set in a park of 16 hectares of meadows and woodland, comprising five large outer buildings, four of which have been converted into holiday cottages with four private swimming pools.

She further added that a romantic ruined orangery where exotic fruit and flowers used to be grown for the château in the 19th century has now been restored and the couple uses it as a rustic wedding venue.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

Sitting on its own private island, the château’s exterior is grand and in the 16th-century style.  However, the interior is in a simpler 19th-century taste. The château comprises approximately 55 rooms, including 30 bedrooms, some of which are “very tiny servants’ rooms” in the second-floor attics, said Erin. It boasts turrets and spiral staircases, and the salons, with their duck-egg green paneling, oak parquet, patterned tiles, and chandeliers that were conceived in traditional French Napoleon III style.

There are also four large holiday cottages on the estate, which were converted by the previous owners from stables and a coach house.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

When the couple moved, Erin’s medical qualifications were recognized in France, but her spoken French was not at a professional level when the couple moved. In order to work on a stop-gap project alongside improving her French and a return to medicine, the couple decided to push their retirement plans of restoring a historical monument to its former glory.

“It suddenly struck us that looking after a project on this scale required energy and the overwhelming piece of advice we received from other château owners was “start young!” Erin said. “We wondered if this was our window of opportunity to restore a historical building and create a business alongside it.”

As the running cost and restoration of the magnificent project were huge, the couple decided to start a business to fund the maintenance and the expenses.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

Being at the Château de Bourneau for the past three years and tirelessly looking after the estate, Erin said: “From day one, we rolled up our sleeves and started our maintenance and restoration process. We do everything ourselves from plumbing, plastering, gardening, painting to accounting, marketing, and managing our business.

“Days are long and we work hard, but it is a real privilege seeing the château come back to life.”

When the couple first bought the château, the exterior always had the “wow factor,” said Erin. However, it did require maintenance. In the process of restoring the property, Erin and JB replaced and repainted windows, hand-cleaned the façade, and fixed and repainted the grand doors and moat bridge. They also planted new roses, hydrangeas, and new trees so the château could appeal to couples who want to get married.

Meanwhile, the “south wing ground floor was in a reasonable state and just required maintenance,” Erin said. “However, the central marble staircase and the west wing is another story! Years of unchecked water ingress from the moat into the medieval cellars means that the château has experienced rising damp.”

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

After unblocking a combination of medieval and 19th-century plumbing to help drain the cellars, Erin and JB set to work restoring the Versailles parquet floor in the Red Salon, the marble staircase, and the 4-meter-high walls that had been engulfed by mold.

They spent two weeks sanding and repainting the staircase handrails and metalwork with help from friends, while uncovering a treasure trove of original furniture and decor left behind by the previous owners, including original portraits of the château ancestors, 19th-century marble sinks, bookcases, French beds and dressing tables, and two original 19th-century mirrors.

“One was made for the château and bears the initials of the original two families, which we found under a dust sheet. We restored it and it now hangs in the marble staircase, pride of place,” said Erin. “It is so important to us to respect the château story and its past.”

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

Restoring such a massive project didn’t come without challenges. When the pandemic hit, the couple lost their expected annual income from weddings, events, and holiday bookings and this impacted their ability to make faster progress on their restorations.

During this period of time, five chimneys were in desperate need of repair, thus the couple launched a fund. Generous donations allowed them to save the first chimney, which was at risk of crashing the roof, in the nick of time.

“People often say we live in a fairytale,” said Erin, “but the true fairytale was the goodness of strangers who, like us, believe the château deserves to be looked after and saved.”

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

As the quiet period progressed, Erin and JB turned their attention to the first floor where massive renovation was required, as the château functioned as a military institute in the 1960s and many of the original 19th-century features were ripped out.

The couple renovated one bedroom—the honeymoon suite—and its adjoining solarium, restoring the French paneling and ceiling roses, and adding a period-appropriate luxury en suite bathroom. Their next project is to fix up more “château-chic” bedrooms in the south wing for guests.

As they go, the couple is upcycling and restoring as much original furniture as possible, keen to return these relics of history to their rightful places.

“We sew cushions and curtains, make picture frames and gold-leaf, rewire chandeliers,” said Erin. “There really is very little we won’t try ourselves. Most of the tools we use are bought in local DIY stores; we aren’t trade professionals, just pragmatic people with a willingness to learn, work hard, and try our best.”

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

Currently, Château de Bourneau is not complete, according to the couple, and it is still their private home. They plan to open suites to guests within the next few years, and their four large holiday cottages sleep 44 people in total. Friends and family, while unable to visit the site during the early months of the pandemic, have since journeyed to Vendée to see in person the couple’s immense progress.

“We are so lucky to have their support, and even thought they think we are a bit eccentric at times to take on such a project, they understand our passion … châteaux were built to be shared,” said Erin.

After three years of working and living in the château, Erin said: “Château de Bourneau, today, still takes my breath away as it did the very first day I saw it over the wildflower meadow. It’s looking neater, more loved, and all the public rooms are back to the 19th-century charm they so deserve.

Epoch Times Photo
(Courtesy of Château de Bourneau and The Intrepid Chatelaine)

“Behind the scenes, we still have a way to go to restore the rest … but we’re still smiling and working hard to bring this fairytale castle back to life. Although the hours are long and the task is not always easy, we absolutely love what we do.”

Erin and JB’s restoration has been followed by the UK-based television series “Château: DIY.” The couple share their progress on Instagram, and on their website.

Share your stories with us at emg.inspired@epochtimes.com, and continue to get your daily dose of inspiration by signing up for the Epoch Inspired Newsletter at: https://www.theepochtimes.com/newsletter

Louise Chambers is a writer, born and raised in London, England. She covers inspiring news and human interest stories.
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