Hôtel des Rêves: Lady Hamlyn and the selling of a £17m dream

It took more than £10m, 400 craftsmen and years of devotion to turn a derelict French chateau into a hotel with a client list of the world's glossiest stars. Now its proud parent has passed her baby on to complete the next stage of its 800-year life

It wasn't the end of A Year in Provence, so much as the closing chapter of two decades in Beaujolais. On Thursday, Lady Hamlyn, the widow of publishing magnate Paul, sold a 13th century French chateau for £17 million.

The Chateau de Bagnols, a honey-coloured pile amid vineyards, forests and rolling hills an hour from Lyon, was bought by Von Essen, the luxury hotel group that owns some of Britain's swankiest properties, including Cliveden in Berkshire, setting of the Profumo affair.

Behind the scenes, this was no ordinary, multi-million pound property deal, though. The chateau, one of the world's most famous and exclusive hotels, was previously the subject of perhaps the most ambitious and detailed restoration project attempted.

Bought with her husband, a self-made philanthropist and Labour donor, during the late 1980s, it took Lady Hamlyn four years to convert the crumbling medieval building into a five-star retreat, with a regular guest-list that reads like a Who's Who of global celebrity.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman used to rent the entire property for weeks on end during the 1990s. More recently, should you stroll through its landscaped gardens, you might have bumped into Barbara Streisand, Naomi Campbell, or Bill and Hilary Clinton enjoying a sundowner.

Yesterday, as Lady Hamlyn showed the new owners around the Chateau's 22 comfortable bedrooms, she recalled the extraordinary and painstaking care that returned a once-ruined building to its former glory.

"I've done what I can here," she said. "I've restored it and I'm proud of the fact that its been on the Best Hotels in the World list ever since it opened. It's my baby, really, but now it's time to hand over to a pro."

When Lady Hamlyn first set eyes on the Chateau de Bagnols, it was little more than a rotting shell, with cracked walls, and a roof like a sieve. The moat was a muddy ditch, and more than a hundred rooks lived in one of its derelict towers.

It had been built between 1217 and 1221 by Guichard d'Oingt, an ally of the Archbishop of Lyon, and improved by subsequent owners, who included Geoffroy de Balzac, chamberlain to the French king Charles VIII.

However, after the Second World War, the building was left to crumble by its owners, a large aristocratic family called the Bouchoux-Chavannes. It was put up for sale following the death of a maiden aunt, who resided there in what Lady Hamlyn describes as "the most appalling conditions".

By the time the Hamlyns arrived rainwater could cascade inside, wrecking Renaissance frescoes and rotting its ornate carvings, wall-paintings and historic fireplaces.The cobbled courtyard looked like a bomb-site. In fact, it was a bomb site: dynamited by a previous owner searching for treasure looted by the Nazis. "It wasn't safe even to go inside," Lady Hamlyn discovered on her first visit. "I thought 'this is too much, even for me'."

Yet the place continued to haunt her, and a year later Lady Hamlyn returned with husband in tow. "We could see the wonderful view, and its golden stone glowing, and I knew it deserved to be saved. In a weak moment, my husband agreed, and that's where our problems began."

The resulting project is said to have cost more than £10m, and saw 400 specialist builders and craftsmen working day and night to return the building to its Gothic and Renaissance glory.

Lady Hamlyn, now 74, studied at the Royal College of Art, and worked as head designer for Cresta Silks, part of Debenhams, prior to her marriage in 1970. She had a passion for old buildings, and had previously carried out extensive projects on her properties in the UK.

"I don't think you could do the same thing today," she said. "These were people who were not young. They had been working for Monuments Historiques, mostly restoring old churches. For a private house, things were different and they learned a lot."

Unlike other restoration projects, the craftsmen working on Bagnols were required to use historic materials at all times. "The roof was repaired using old wood, and all the tiles are period tiles," she said.

Rotting beams were stripped out to give rooms their original proportions, and all the soft-furnishings were made with antique fabrics. Outside, a formal garden was created, with avenues of limes and cherry trees replacing what had been a wilderness.

The process sparked a running battle with Monuments Historiques, the French version of English Heritage. "We had a ghastly time with them. They had classified it as a 19th century interior, and didn't know that all these incredible older paintings and frescoes were hidden behind the newer facades.

"I wanted to take the building back as far as we could, but they just didn't understand it. It was a fight, because they said 'you can't touch anything'. They were threatening to stop the works, and it turned into a bit of a battle royal."

Finally, the building opened as a private hotel in 1992, run by Lady Hamlyn, who was swiftly lauded for her work on it by the French government, appointing her Chevalier de l'Ordre des Artes et Lettres.

"We'd always intended it to be a hotel. We didn't want another home for us, but I am keen on restoring broken down homes, and there wasn't another luxury hotel in the area."

Every detail of the interior was either created from Lady Hamlyn's collection of antiques, tapestries and objets d'art, or commissioned from specialist suppliers. "I made sure I designed everything, from the napkins to the towels to the silver. Nothing came off a shelf," she says.

Such was the level of the outlay on the luxurious chateau that guests would joke that her Ladyship would lose £50 for every person that stayed. Staff knew every guest's name; the restaurant was Michelin-starred; it became the ne plus autre of boutique hotels.

Then, in 2001, Lord Hamlyn died. As one of Britain's most generous philanthropists, who had built a £350m business empire from a bookshop started in Camden with £350, he left a string of charitable trusts for his widow to manage.

Two years later, Rocco Forte Hotels were bought in to help run the chateau. It came as only a slight surprise when news emerged this week that it had finally been sold.

"Lord and Lady Hamlyn were very, very close," says a friend. "They were one of those couples who were friends as well as husband and wife. This was their project, their dream, and I think when he died quite young from cancer she felt that the chateau became a bit of a tie."

Richard Power, the Managing Director of Rocco Forte, was offered the chance to bid for the chateau, but instead recommended Von Essen as a more suitable buyer. "It's just not the right scale for us, but a very good fit for them," he says. "They signalled to the Stock Exchange that they want to move out of the UK, and this is their first step."

The deal between Lady Hamlyn and Von Essen's colourful owner, the entrepreneur Andrew Davis, was brokered last week by Farrer's, the Queen's solicitor. Lady Hamlyn will retain a role as an informal consultant to the firm.

"She has immense affection for the place, but wants to concentrate on other things," says Anthony Edwards, at Farrer's. "She's very philanthropic, her charity is extremely active and takes up a hell of a lot of time.

"I think it's rather sensible of Davis to keep her on. She knows everything about the chateau. Like exactly why a bath is in a certain place, for instance, because if it wasn't the ceiling would collapse."

Yesterday, Lady Hamlyn took Mr Davis and his Creative Director, Andrew Onraet, on an in-depth tour of the property, detailing ongoing restoration projects that still need to be completed. "Some of the 18th Century fabrics used in upholstery need to be replaced. A lot of its in stores around the chateau, though," said Mr Onraet. "She bought a lot of antique fabrics at auctions over the years."

Von Essen intends to maintain the building largely as it is, though a major restoration of the cellars is due to take place in the coming years. They will be converted into a health spa.

Lady Hamlyn, meanwhile, will carry on searching for new restoration projects. Her Helen Hamlyn Trust carries out a variety of such projects, and also funds medicine, the arts and culture. It recently helped with the restoration of the Naguar fort in India, winning a UNESCO prize.

"I told the Maharaja of Jodhpur that we'd match the Paul Getty Foundation's grant, but only if he'd let me play an active part," she says. "I hope to carry on doing up buildings. I'm not a hotelier, really, but I am very good at restoration."

The plutocrats and A-listers relaxing at Chateau de Bagnols next summer will no doubt be inclined to agree.

Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
News
i100
Travel
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect