Restoring a rundown French château is not for the faint-hearted, but for Australian Francophiles Tim Holding and Felicity Selkirk it has been the gateway to a life-changing adventure.
We love France and our Paris apartment had proved the perfect base to explore this extraordinary country. Sharing a passion for French architecture, art and interior design, we dreamed of a bold project that would occupy the next phase of our lives together. France is home to more than 40,000 châteaux, the vast majority of which are in private hands. Many are in peril – the victims of complex French inheritance laws and the expense of protecting and restoring their incredible beauty.
We inspected 15 diverse and fascinating properties before our agent Guillaume Denniel suggested Château de Purnon. When we first laid eyes on Purnon in Haut-Poitou just south of the Loire Valley, we knew we would be taking on an enormous challenge. Her massive slate roof needed a complete restoration. Water infiltration from the leaky roof had damaged much of the second floor and the soft tuffeau stone was slowly crumbling. The vast estate of over 20 hectares was overgrown after decades of neglect.
But Purnon is an unpolished gem. One of our region’s most extraordinary châteaux, it sits majestically over the Scévolles forest with an amazing 3km-long grand allée that extends towards the horizon. It’s a view that takes your breath away.
Back to life
Château de Purnon was completed in 1788, just before the Revolution. Its owner fled during the ensuing chaos, and when he returned in 1797, he found his home had miraculously survived. It changed hands again in 1893. When we purchased Purnon in 2020, it had remained largely unchanged since its construction.
The château and surrounding buildings are entirely classé or inscrit with the Monuments Historiques. This national system of heritage protection means that we must work on her restoration with a registered heritage architect. Selecting an architect to lead the project was the most important single decision that we have made. Frederic Didier – architecte-en-chef at Versailles – brought the experience and enthusiasm to drive our project.
The restoration works must be carried out by traditional artisans with experience in patrimoine protection. None of this is cheap! But with the support of the French government (Ministry of Culture), we are slowly bringing Purnon back to life. The first stage of works will restore her extraordinary slate roof and its original frame, the stone work on the facades and much of the wood around the shutters and windows.
We have protected some of her original furnishings, which had laid hidden in the attic for more than a century. Using the château archives, our architect discovered old floor plans and even information about the source of the materials used to construct Purnon.
Cupboards that had remained unopened for decades revealed some of the château‘s original fabrics. Hidden graffiti unlocked the names and dates of those who worked on her construction. From family portraits and photos, and the stories of local people, we have started to document the lives of the people who have lived here over more than two centuries.
Despite the requirement to use suitably qualified patrimoine artisans, there remains much work that we can do ourselves both inside and outside the château. Every day we discover new things about our home – hidden wells and water reservoirs, stone gutters and even stone busts of French kings that once graced the château‘s roof.
Our project has also connected us to other château owners in our region and we have gained insights from their many experiences.
We have carefully documented our journey on social media, which has unlocked more photos and stories from our many followers. It has also allowed family and friends in Australia to share our journey during Covid travel restrictions. Our network of supporters is slowly growing and we’ve conducted several volunteer days to assist with the enormous work of clearing the grounds of the estate.
For the last two years we have opened the château gates to the public for the Journées du Patrimoine. To our surprise and delight, each year more than 1,000 people have come to sneak a glimpse of Purnon before our major works commence.
Although Purnon will be our home, we plan to use the grounds of the château to host weddings and other events. The revenue we generate will help fund future stages of renovation works. Our journey so far has been incredible, filled with exhausting yet inspiring work.
We know that we are part of an endeavour that will leave a legacy long after we are gone. When we walk around Purnon we admire the epic trees planted by people who would never live to sit in their shade. We give thanks that people of vision had the generosity to build something for those who would come after them. We hope that, by protecting something precious from the past, we too can leave something for future generations.
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Follow the story of the château’s renovation or donate to the restoration fund at chateaupurnon.com
From French Property News magazine
Experience the passion and dedication of Tim and Felicity in rescuing Château de Purnon during our live event. Discover the challenges they faced, the triumphs they celebrated, and the ongoing restoration efforts that breathe new life into this historic Louis XVI chateau. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to be a part of history in the making.
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