For six seasons now, viewers have been charmed by the Channel 4 programme Escape to the Château, which follows the adventures of Dick Strawbridge and Angel Adoree as they restore a fairytale 19th century château in Martigne-sur-Mayenne, in the Pays-de-la-Loire region of north-western France.
Formerly a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Army, Dick Strawbridge is a TV veteran whose engineering expertise is put to the test as he renovates the château and its out-buildings. Determined to be self-sufficient, he does most of the work himself and is a knowledgable gardener. For him, the idea of moving to France ‘allows you to have all the things you dream of, decent wine, decent food and a really nice place to live.’
Angel Adoree adds her unique sense of style and interior design skills to the château, with her extraordinary ability to transform junk shop bargains into stunning decorative items. With a background in events, she knew that owning a larger property was key to running a successful vintage wedding business. A visionary who’s not known for compromising, she says ‘If I’ve got an idea I want to see it through and I want to execute it the best I can’.
It took the couple four years of house-hunting to find the Château de la Motte-Husson, built in 1874 as a summer residence for the wealthy de Baglion family. On discovering this breathtaking but dilapidated 45-bedroom property, with a 2000 m² walled garden, surrounded by its own moat and set in twelve acres of parkland, it was love at first sight.
Dick was deeply conscious of the work needed to restore it, however, and with their two young children, they rented a cottage nearby while installing the basics, such as running water, electricity and heating. Some of Dick’s friends, doubtless happy for a break in France, helped out. ‘You need mates, mates who are plumbers and electricians who understand what’s going on,’ he admits.
The couple are incredibly resourceful, and their good natured humour and indomitable spirit quickly won over viewers. The first season saw them working to an important deadline – their own wedding – but since then each season they’ve incorporated new ideas into their stunning wedding and event venue, from the quirky Van de Vin to a cylindrical turret lift and luxury glamping accommodation.
They focused initially on getting twenty rooms into shape, leaving the rest to do over time, including their own bedrooms and bathroom. Transforming the honeymoon suite was Angel’s initial objective, as with one suite, she felt, they could start their wedding business.
One of the programme’s greatest attractions is her extraordinary creativity and ability to transform any room with romance, wit and originality. She wanted the honeymoon suite to comprise a bedroom, bathroom and dressing room, with a sitting room large enough to host plenty of bridesmaids and friends, even though this meant knocking through the thickest wall of the château. On discovering rolls of 19th century wallpaper in the attic, she transformed the turret dressing room walls by cutting diamond-shaped pieces and mis-matching them into a stunning, flamboyant harlequin pattern.
With wedding romance in mind, she filled the entrance hall with hundreds of hand-made butterflies that sweep up the stair case, and added witty touches such as faux unicorn heads. For Christmas she created and hung beautiful larger-than-life Christmas baubles from the château’s high ceilings.
To Dick’s dismay, she bought a large van with a view to supplying cold drinks for wedding receptions held in the orangerie. While he saw little more than a pile of scrap metal, Angel saw a quirky but beautiful mobile bar that would greatly simplify life. She, of course, was right, and the Van de Vin has proved a huge success.
Dick’s own passion was for restoring the walled garden, the size of eight tennis courts, to grow his fresh produce. Today, their business not only comprises weddings, events and food lovers’ weekends, customers can even pay to help out with the gardening!
Major Structural Changes
One of the most ambitious projects was transforming a 90 m high turret into a lift, which involved clearing the basement and cutting through three floors above it, which had to be perfectly aligned and 100% accurate. While Dick focused on the practicalities of installing the cylindrical, transparent lift, Angel created a botanical and circus-themed Tower of Curiosity all around it, hiring artists to to draw whimsical frescos on every floor.
Another project involved transforming an old stable into a delightful flat for Angel’s parents, which involved having to correct a sloping stone floor. With Dick’s know-how and Angel’s extraordinary eye, the stable became a stunning home.
If The Dream Becomes A Nightmare
Yet the programme serves to illustrate the financial risks of buying such a large property. Dick feared for the condition of the roof after a huge storm, knowing that to replace it would cost in the region of £150,000, as well as a lost season of business. He decided to put in an additional window for easier access to avoid the scaffolding costs, which he estimated at £30-40,000. This also meant they could work on the roof in stages over several years, and avoid disrupting business.
Part of the programme’s enduring appeal, and undoubtedly the secret of their success, is the couple’s good-natured rapport and their ability to work together, despite their differences. When Dick laughs about Angel wearing lipstick to help him on a building project, she responds, ‘When we work together it’s like a date, so I like to make an effort’.
They manage to retain a sense of fun. ‘You don’t do patience and you don’t do compromise,’ Dick jokes. ‘Apart from that, she’s perfect.’
A Château Of Your Own
If you are considering embarking on your own French fairytale project, you don’t have to make the leap from a 2-bedroom flat to a 45 room landmark as they did. There are still plenty of smaller châteaux to be found, of between 5 – 10 bedrooms, for between €370,000 – €500,000, which don’t need anything like the work of Dick and Angel’s. At the upper scale you could expect to pay around €3 – 4 million for anything between 8 and 45 bedrooms in the Dordogne, Seine-et-Marne or Deux-Sevres. Alternatively, if you fancy smaller scale château life without the hassle, some châteaux have been divided into apartments, giving you a very fancy address at a fraction of the price. See Châteaux we have for sale.
Up For A Challenge
As Angel puts it, ‘life is boring without challenges’. If you are prepared to take on a château as challenging as Dick and Angel’s, here are the five takeaways from their experiences:
- Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help: both Dick and Angel relied on willing friends coming over from the UK to help them on specific projects
- Be Prepared To Put Yourselves Last: the couple waited two years before sorting out their own family accommodation, choosing to put the business first while they effectively camped in two rooms
- Keep Calm And Become A Problem-Solver: things will inevitably go wrong, and rather than getting stressed-out or depressed, look for alternative ways that don’t compromise your business
- Have A Sense Of Humour: the key to the couple’s success is undoubtedly their good nature, clear affection for each other and sense of humour, making the process seem like an adventure rather than a chore
- Take Bite-Sized Pieces: prioritise your restoration project and tackle tasks step by step. As Dick says: ‘It’s a massive job, but with anything you need a bit of logic. It’s like you eat an elephant a bite at a time, and you have to work out where you’re going to start and where you’re going to finish…and bring enough mayonnaise.’
Restoring a château is not for the faint-hearted. It requires stamina, know-how, determination and, of course deep pockets. But once you have a château of your own, you can never look back.
‘The only downside to owning a property like this’, explains Dick, ‘Is that you could never sell it and downsize to a bungalow.’ With their now-flourishing business, they doubtless will never have to.
Browse our list of Châteaux for sale in France and begin your very own Escape to the Château today.