They captured the castle

It's been tough, but one British family has turned a derelict château into a B&B
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The Independent Online

Back then, they were both in their early thirties. Nicholas was working as an international food security consultant, while Philippa was in the middle of a PhD.

They both loved the rugged pastoral countryside of mid-western France and were keen for their three young daughters to become bilingual.

At first sight, the sprawling and barely habitable 14th-century Château de Tennessus in the Poitou-Charentes region was not an enticing prospect.

It was in a terrible state - the walls were blackened and clogged with ivy, the amenities were limited and parts of it were derelict.

It was no wonder that it had been on the market for a long time, and that the Freelands had difficulty luring the sceptical estate agent all the way from Paris to show them round it.

The state of the place didn't bother them too much, though, as they were used to roughing it - Nicholas's job had meant that they spent quite a lot of time in the Third World. "Our youngest daughter Lucy was only one-and-a-half when we first moved here, and literally lived out of a suitcase for the first few weeks," remembers Philippa. But both of them saw the potential in the castle's medieval splendour, with its arrow-slit windows, battlements, ramparts, drawbridge and moat.

So, while Nicholas continued working, Philippa gave up her academic studies and started work on the restoration. It was basic at first - sandblasting the walls and clearing the ivy - and it was only later that she enlisted the help of local builders to help with the heavier jobs.

Initially, she concentrated on the East Tower, which gradually took shape as the five-bedroom family dwelling. Restoration of other sections of the chateau evolved more slowly. When work on the East Tower was under way, Philippa turned her attention to the keep, the oldest part of the building. "That was just a hobby at first," she says. She designed pieces of chunky oak furniture with which to furnish the renovated rooms. "Progress was painfully slow. The castle is constructed of heavy granite stones and, because of the narrow doorways and windows, we often had to hire cranes to move and replace chunks of masonry."

The bed-and-breakfast idea cropped up much later. "About 12 years ago, we were approached by the regional tourist authority who suggested we might consider starting a B&B business and offered us a free listing in a new guide to French chateaux that was being launched," Nicholas says.

The Freelands decided to take them up on the offer, and applied for a number of grants to help with the restoration. French building regulations proved a nightmare, but their persistence paid off and the financial help arrived. "There's a lot more bureaucracy in France than there is in England," Philippa says, "and you have to learn to play the game. However, if you are patient and prepared to write a lot of letters, you usually end up getting what you want."

The castle keep is now home to three en-suite bedrooms, while an extra self-contained apartment sleeping up to five has been installed in the West Tower. Lovingly restored original features include vast granite fireplaces, spiral staircases, bare stone walls and beamed ceilings. Guests can potter among the castle's rose gardens and croquet lawns, swim in its outdoor pool or fish for tench or carp in its moat.

The Freelands concede that it has been hard work establishing a new life for themselves in France, but say that it has ultimately paid off. All four of their daughters - the last born since the move to France - have done well at local schools and are now thoroughly bilingual.

The bed-and-breakfast business is thriving. "We are nearly always fully booked during the summer months," says Philippa, "and even in the off season we regularly achieve 25 per cent occupancy."

Visitors come from all over the world, but most of them are French or British. "The Brits really started arriving in this area about five years ago," says Philippa, "and many of them have ended up buying their own properties over here." Philippa puts a large part of the chateau's success down to the fact that it caters so well to this passing trade. "Many of our guests are just looking for a pleasant place to stay for one night on the way to their own homes," she explains.

Don't the Freelands ever get homesick for England? "Not really," says Philippa. "We love being here, surrounded by the moat, and I wake up every morning feeling like I'm living in an island paradise."

The lowdown

* Learn fluent French and don't mix exclusively with expats.

* Budget for repairs and upkeep.

* Always make sure that you have enough in the kitty to cover your general living expenses until the business takes off.

* Always be polite but persistent when dealing with local officials

* Make a point of putting everything in writing.

* Try to differentiate yourself from other rental accommodation in the area by offering something unique.

* Always employ local people.

Château de Tennessus: www.tennessus.com. To book, telephone 00 33 549 95 50 60 or e-mail: tennessus@wfi.fr. Prices start at €115 (£80) a night for bed and breakfast, rising to €1,250 for weekly rental of the five-bedroom self-contained apartment in the West Tower.

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