The couple who set Umbria alight

Christopher Middleton meets two developers who really care about the locals
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The Independent Online

"After seven years, the itch to move somewhere warmer became unbearable. You see, where I grew up, in Montevideo, there are beaches everywhere. And sunshine, of course."

The search for a place in the sun led them to an overseas property exhibition in London. "We went up to a stand where a man was sitting next to a sign saying Northumbria," says Liliana. "Out of curiosity, we asked him what he was doing at a foreign property show, and he explained that, in fact, his sign should read North Umbria."

A quarter of a century ago, this was somewhere few Britons had ever considered living. But when John and Liliana went out there in the early Seventies, they instantly fell in love with the area, the people - and the property potential. Their first house, purchased 23 years ago, had goats grazing on the loggia and a tree growing through the roof; since then, they have bought and sold an astonishing 227 houses. Most are within a 10- to 20-mile radius of the two main towns in the area - Umbertide and Citta di Castello.

Whereas a more timid couple might have bought one or two places, just to test the water, the Tunstills bought in bulk. It's the kind of impetuous behaviour that helped John to woo and win Liliana. "We met on an aeroplane back in the days when there were still duty-free limits," recalls Liliana. "He had four bottles of gin, and asked me if I'd mind taking two through customs. Afterwards, he bought me a cup of coffee as a thank you, and found out I lived in North London. He then set out to find me, asking round the pubs of Islington if anyone knew of a Uruguayan girl."

Having overcome the statistical unlikelihood of finding one young South American woman in a city of six million people, John viewed the task of buying and rebuilding Italian ruins as child's play. The Tunstills have also, unusually, managed not to incur the unpopularity associated with most foreign property developers.

They've done this not just by becoming part of the local community, but by employing half of it, too. They have no less than seven local companies working almost full-time on Tunstill houses. Then there's the jobs that each newly restored house creates - gardeners, cleaners, pool maintenance staff.

"The local people are very in favour of us, because they say we have lit up the countryside," says Liliana. "Thirty years ago, they tell us the valleys of the Upper Tiber were dark, but now there are speckles of electric light shining out at night."

In recognition of their contribution to the local economy over the past two decades, John has recently been made an honorary citizen of Montone, one of several lovely medieval hill-towns in the area.

And the work continues: the Tunstills' latest project has been to take a disused 12th-century monastery and turn it into country-house retreat, called La Preghiera (The Prayer). "When we first saw it, the ground floor was 12ft deep in mud, and the roof was little more than a colander," says John. "Our buying it confirmed what the locals had always suspected - that we were mad."

In which case, the lunatics now run a very lovely asylum, with a library, a billiard room and 10 bedrooms with views across the unspoilt countryside. It even has its own museum of model soldiers. (Before moving to Umbria, John ran the Soldier Shop in Lambeth, just down the road from the Imperial War Museum in London.)

At La Preghiera, John has installed a military force comprising some 30,000 lead figures, alongside his star exhibit, a box of lavatory paper bought specifically for the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on the occasion of his visit to a palazzo at nearby Pierantonio, during the 1930s. Il Duce and pals may have used some of the paper during their three-day stay, but the rest - still preserved in its vivid orange wrapping (brand name Universal) - now takes pride of place in John's military museum.

"The owners of the palazzo obviously felt Il Duce deserved royal treatment and ordered in the box of toilet paper specially for his visit," says John (the wrapping is emblazoned with a crown motif). "It is not recorded how many [of the rolls] were actually used, but I'm delighted to have acquired the ones that were left."

In between dusting his armies, John, now 65, keeps busy with the continuing business of rescuing and redesigning the local ruins - usually in conjunction with the Britons who buy them. The going rate for a rural North Umbrian retreat (without roof or mains electricity) is about €550 per square metre (ie £65,000 for a place 40ft by 40ft square), and four times that much to do it up. It's about two-thirds what it would cost you in better-known Tuscany, say the Tunstills.

As well as money, though, you need patience. From decision-to-buy to date-of-occupation can be anything up to three years. And even when you're over the threshold, you still need one more thing to make your new home a success: good manners. "The other day, we sent a couple of our ladies over to clean the house of an Englishman who had just arrived," says Liliana. "To welcome him, they brought a bag of peaches and a bag of tomatoes, yet all the time they were there, he didn't offer them so much as a glass of water.

"What you have to realise when you come out here is that you can't just take all the time. Give something back to the people who live here, and you will be met by friendliness, openness and generosity."

So she doesn't miss Britain, then? "Not at all!" Liliana laughs. "When we wake up here in the morning, we look out over a lovely field of maize, and up the hill to a house we have restored that is surrounded by cypress trees. We can see bees and butterflies, we can hear nothing but birds singing. Why would I ever want to leave?"

You can ring the Tunstills on 0039 075 930 2428, view their properties on , or book a stay at La Preghiera on .The nearest airports are Perugia (a 35-minute drive), Ancona and Forli (two hours away by car)