Fiona Jones from London fell for a 12th century chateau in the Limousin region. Undaunted at taking on a massive project on her own, she moved to France in 2014 to bring the neglected Chateau du Masgelier back to life. Featured on the superhit reality TV series “Escape to the Chateau DIY” Fiona talks to Janine Marsh about life as a castle renovator…
What made you decide to give up life in the UK and move to France to renovate an ancient chateau?
I bought my first property 32 years ago and each time I completed a restoration I was on the lookout for another one, I’m a serial renovator! Architectural, period and historic buildings are my passion. I enjoy the challenge, I’m not scared of taking on huge renovation jobs – it excites and motivates me, it is really is as simple as that.
Do you recall the moment you first saw the Chateau Du Masgelier – what did you think?
I sort of stumbled on the castle really. It was pure luck that I found it. I saw a grainy photograph on the internet with a few details and printed them off. Shoved them in my desk draw, I forgot about them while I sorted out the requirements for moving to France.
When I think about it now, it seems like pure madness, it was such a chance find. I had very definite ideas of exactly what I was looking for in a property. Pre-18th century, something different from the norm. I loved the idea of an ancient medieval defence castle with dungeons, secret tunnels and lots of history. That one photo I had labelled “Chateau Du Masgelier” was so enticing, that I decided to go to France to see it. At 800 years old, it was a rare find.
It was an instant decision from the very first moment I stepped inside. I stood entranced, looking up at the stunning architectural medieval stone staircase. That was the moment that sealed my commitment to buy and restore the castle.
What sort of state was it in?
The castle had major problems! It had been abandoned for years and had fallen into disrepair. The electric wiring was, the pipes had burst in many areas during harsh winters and there was no functioning water supply in the building. Many original features such as ornate fireplaces, panelled walls, beautiful chateau doors and wooden floors had been plundered during the 1980’s. Most rooms had carpet glued to the walls – not only was it hideous but it had prevented the stone from breathing for a number of years, trapping and retaining moisture.
Where did you start?
The first step was to make the castle habitable – get clean running water first then hot water. Until you go without these basics you just don’t realise how important they are. It felt like the most momentous day when it happened – I cried, danced round the kitchen and was really overwhelmed.
It was always freezing cold, I wore jumpers and a woolly hat to bed that first winter because there was no proper form of heating.
Even daily living tasks required some form of improvisation, carrying icy water from an outside tap in two large heavy buckets There was an infestation of mice, flies, wasps and bats, you name it, I had it living alongside me at the castle.
Do you know any of its history?
There is such a vast amount of history it’s hard to know where to begin. 844 years of history dating back to the Knights Templar who built the castle in 1174 as a defence fort. The foundations are from the original 10th Century wood construction. There have been many historic owners including Louis XIV, hence the stone carving of the Fleur des Lys on the south defence turret. He gave it to his first mistress, Louise de la Valliere. The local French Resistance group and OSE were based here and rescued many people and saved the lives of hundreds of French Jewish children, who were hidden at the castle and smuggled over the border to safety.
How do you cope and what drives and motivates you to keep going on the dark days when nothing goes right?
Everyone has those days. Anyone developing a property, not just chateau restorers, know this very well. I’ve learnt that stress is the enemy and generally will make the situation a hundred times worse. I’ve learned to condition myself to accept the ups and downs and to always expect the unexpected, whether it is in the form of uncovering extensive dry rot, materials are delayed or the cement mixer breaks down.
It is incredibly rewarding and enjoyable seeing it develop, meeting people, seeing the castle come alive. For me, it’s been worth every minute and every euro… I love my chateau and my life in France.
Read our interview with Dick and Angel Strawbridge of Escape to the Chateau
The Abandoned Chateau de Gudanes bought by a woman who fell in love with its photo on the internet – an incredible restoration
Rescued from ruin, the ancient castle renovated by a family, a sleeping beauty bought back to life