It is mid-winter here at Chateau de la Boutiniere. We are huddled around a roaring fire heaped with wood from our own forest, which smells divine! We have slowly de-camped down to 2 rooms (out of the chateau’s 47 rooms!), to stay warm and save on fuel, so I am writing this blog in the room we call our ‘the study ‘. It’s the smallest room on the raised ground floor of Chateau de la Boutiniere, just off the service kitchen, with double doors into the formal dining room. The study has 5 pairs of elegantly proportioned windows with traditional external, wooden shutters. It overlooks the driveway and our hunting lodge to the east and the wedding garden to the south. In days of old, it would have been called the ‘morning’ room because it captures the morning sun and possibly the original chateau owners would have been served breakfast in this room, around the fire, just as we do now. As I write this, the sun is pouring in through the windows, illuminating the parquet floor and marble fireplace, it’s just magical!
Sunshine, no matter how wintery, is a relief because the weather has recently been cold, grey and very damp. Despite this, we are busy outside every day. There is an urgency to our work because our first wedding at our Chateau is in July, and our hunting lodge has been requested as the venue. We need to make sure the grounds around the hunting lodge are cleared of dead trees and old wire fencing, which surrounded the estate when the chateau was owned by a religious order. Chopping down the dead and leaning trees and then pulling up their roots with our digger really churns up the ground, so our priority is to finish the work as quickly as possible, to allow the ground to recover its green carpet of ivy and little pink and white cyclamen, in time for the wedding.
The hunting lodge is a small building like a folly, nestling in our woods just off the driveway to the chateau. We love it because to us, it resembles the ‘gingerbread’ cottage written about in the children’s fable Hansel & Gretel. Its stone exterior is decorated with geometric patterns made from little terracotta bricks which reflect the colour of the tiled roof, and the cast iron entry doors are almost too grand for such a small building. We painted the doors in a copper Verdigris and their decorative scrollwork we burnished with an angle-grinder. As I write this, the low winter sun illuminates the façade of the hunting lodge, turning it a beautiful golden colour and the metal scrollwork on the doors is glinting through the trees.
This building was the centre piece of our ‘Christmas Special’ for ‘Chateau DIY’ but, what we thought would be a simple and quick project, ended up taking 6 weeks as we battled with a blocked chimney, doors which wouldn’t open because the floor had become swollen, holes in the fire hearth and a huge crack in the stonework, which spanned one of the walls. With the help of our local friends (Emma, Ian and John to name but a few!). Ian helped Zion to climb onto the hunting lodge roof to remove a zinc cover blocking the chimney. This was a major achievement, because the tiled roof is some 5 meters high and seriously slippery, but without a working, chimney our Christmas party plans would have been thwarted! All the men then stepped up to help remove the heavy iron entrance doors, which I proceeded to strip of paint (using Zion’s secret recipe – a mixture of citric acid and wallpaper paste), as Zion lifted and re-laid the traditional French tomette floor tiles (traditional French clay tiles).
Our friend Emma and I went on a hunt through the chateau grounds to find two suitably large Christmas trees with which to decorate the lodge, but these proved rather elusive. Instead, Emma had the completely mad, but utterly brilliant idea of bringing into the lodge, two huge cast iron, garden urns which we planned to decorate with branches and greenery from the garden and Christmas baubles. When we suggested the idea to Zion, he thought we were mad because lifting the urns from their garden site was one thing but lifting them into the hunting lodge was quite another! Initially Zion created a ‘mad professor’ lifting device, which looked like giant chopsticks, that he welded onto the bucket of our tractor. But it became apparent quite quickly that this idea was doomed, and the only answer was to use sheer force from the combined muscle of Zion, Ian and John. There was a lot of muttering and expletives as they rolled, pushed and dragged the massively heavy urns into the hunting lodge and heaved them up onto their equally heavy bases, but the result was spectacular! The urns look majestic next to the huge hunting lodge fireplace. In fact, we like the result so much we are considering keeping the urns in their new home, while we source two new urns for the garden!
We wanted to create a ‘medieval’ feel to the hunting lodge interior for our Christmas celebration, which turned out to be a great fun plan. Over several months Zion and I had searched through several, large brocantes (second-hand furniture warehouses), in search of old, ‘brown wood’ tables. This was quite an easy search because this old furniture is often shunned by the French who, overall, prefer modern interiors. We managed to acquire 4 tables in varying states of repair, which Zion and John cleverly cobbled together to form one, 4.5-meter-long table. We also acquired a batch of 15 old wooden chairs, with embossed leather seats and backs for 10EU each. They look perfect in the space, not too smart, not too tatty. I had planned to cover the table with a bottle green cloth, with a splash of red down the centre, but my plans were dashed when the UK Royal Mail messed up my delivery, returning my package to the UK fabric house, so I found a substitute red table cloth, which Emma helped me to make look Christmassy, by adding strips of an old, white lace curtain as a centre piece, upon which we entwined holly and garden greenery. Vintage tapestries we had picked up at another brocante, were mounted on the walls and Emma made a large Christmas wreath for the fireplace using greenery and huge cones from our glorious Cedar of Lebanon tree in the chateau grounds. The ‘stage’ was all set for our ‘Medieval’ style Christmas banquet, befitting of an ancient ‘Maison de Chase’, to which we invited all our helpers and local friends and neighbours.
With Christmas over, we have settled back into our winter tasks, clearing the garden and bringing in logs for the fire. A cup of tea around the fire is one of our daily treats – a delicious reward for another day of physically challenging work in the grounds here at Chateau de la Boutiniere.