March serendipity has shone upon the first project to be completed on French soil by The Landmark Trust, the British charity that restores historic buildings and rents them out for weekends and short breaks.
Shortly after Landmark opened the doors of Le Moulin de la Tuilerie – the weekend retreat of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on the rural edge of Gif-sur-Yvette, in the south-western suburbs of Paris – Colin Firth captivated cinema audiences as the Duke's stammering sibling, King George VI, in this year's runaway Oscar-winner, The King's Speech. Interest in King Edward VIII, who gave up his throne in 1936 to marry the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson, was rekindled.
The flames were fanned when Britain's newest royal couple announced plans to marry in April, and Channel 4 chimed in with a television adaptation of William Boyd's novel, Any Human Heart, in which the Windsors are portrayed. This renewed interest in the controversial couple is set to peak this summer when W.E. (Wallis and Edward), a biopic written and directed by Madonna, is due for release.
Certainly, anyone tempted to take the 40-minute trip down the RER B commuter line from the Gare du Nord to stay at the Windsors' refuge will find themselves burrowing deeper and deeper into their little-known private life. From the moment you set foot inside the 26-acre estate, with its collection of pretty 18th-century stone buildings set by a stream, beyond which lie abandoned tennis courts and the remains of a swimming pool (complete with his-and-hers changing hut), the urge to find out more becomes irresistible.
The Windsors bought Le Moulin de la Tuilerie in 1952, turning the mill into their "only real home", and a large stone barn into two cottages for guests, who included Cecil Beaton, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor and Diana Mosley (née Mitford). Another barn, with an enormous pitched roof, was converted into what they called the museum. It was filled with mementos of the Duke's official tours of the British Empire when he was Prince of Wales. An enormous map, almost covering one wall, showed where he'd been, while hunting trophies on the other walls showed what he'd shot on his travels. Regimental drums were used as coffee tables and some of these are now to be found inside Le Moulin, still serving the same purpose.
Newly refurbished by Landmark, Le Moulin sleeps 11, while the two cottages, named La Célibataire and La Maison des Amis by Wallis, sleep two and four respectively. In contrast to the Duchess's busy, garish and even perplexing décor, Landmark's approach has been to give the interiors a smart, modern feel while retaining some period features and furniture where appropriate. The ground-floor bathroom in La Célibataire, for example, has its original 1950s half bath and taps, and the panelling in La Maison des Amis is also from the Windsors' day. The museum, meanwhile, has been renamed The Orangerie and stripped bare, making it an ideal space for conferences and social gatherings.
The most remarkable original feature on site is a mural painted on the wall above the door to Le Moulin's reception room, now a breakfast/dining room. Commissioned by Wallis, it depicts a water-mill wheel, around which are inscribed the words: "I am not the miller's daughter, but I've been through the mill." Almost every room of Le Moulin, La Célibataire and La Maison des Amis has large framed photographic prints of Wallis and "David" (as Edward was known to his friends and family) posing for the camera in a range of often bizarre clothing. Many were taken by Cecil Beaton who regularly stayed at La Célibataire. As you return their stares and peer into the backgrounds, you get a feeling of life at the mill between 1952 and the late Sixties. You see Edward up to his eyes in blue delphiniums, indulging his passion for gardening, and some of Wallis's staggeringly awful interior design schemes. There are plenty of books about the Windsors on hand in each building to fill in the details.
Le Moulin de la Tuilerie signals Landmark's expansion into France and will help to fund its new division, Landmark France, but it is not typical of the type of buildings the organisation will offer in the coming years. Though it may take on projects such as Le Moulin with other property owners, Landmark France is essentially a partnership with the Conservatoire du Littoral, a public body, founded by the French State in 1975 to restore historic buildings along the French coast.
Its first two projects with the Conservatoire are La Maison de Maître (the Master's House) on Ile Tristan at the port of Douarnenez in Brittany, and Le Fort Ile Madame at the mouth of the Charente near La Rochelle. Both properties are due to open in 2013.
La Maison de Maître belonged to the master of the sardine-packing stations on Ile Tristan until 1910, when the island was bought by the family of the French poet Jean Richepin and the house was extended to accommodate their Bohemian friends from Paris. Landmark is working with the Conservatoire to improve access to the island and restore the house for hire to parties of eight. Part of the ground floor will be reserved for use as an exhibition room by the town.
Ironically, the main function of the imposing fort on Ile Madame, off the coast from La Rochelle and Rochefort, was to keep the British out in the 1860s when Anglo-French relations were unusually tense. Now Landmark is transforming its large and beautifully constructed stone barracks into two properties for eight people to stay in.
How to get there
Landmark Trust (01628; landmark trust.org.uk) offers La Célibataire at Le Moulin de la Tuilerie, sleeping two, from £381 for a three-night weekend; La Maison des Amis, sleeping four, from £741 for a three-night weekend; and Le Moulin, sleeping 11, from £1,403 for a three-night weekend. Ian White travelled to Paris with Eurostar (08432 186186; eurostar.com), which has return fares to Paris Gare du Nord from £69.