Have you ever thought about owning a French chambre d’hôte … or “B&B” as we non-French speakers call it? I certainly have.
For years I could see myself entertaining guests in an antebellum mansion. Or in a sprawling Victorian farmhouse. I’d serve a breakfast stacked high with crispy bacon and fluffy pancakes — “your choice of banana, berry, or chocolate chip for the children.” Every afternoon there would be tea at 4 o’clock — just like in the Orangery in London. Aperitifs would be served at seven, just before guests left for their dinner reservations at some fabulous restaurant nearby.
My dream bubble popped one day when someone asked: “Who’s going to make up the beds? Who’s going to clean the toilets?” POP! There went that idea. Until recently, that is.
Jane and Gary Langton are living my dream. They are an English couple who own a French-style B&B — actually a “Chambres d’Hôtes” — Mas d’Augustine in La Bruguière, a charming village just outside Uzes. I met Jane and Gary a couple of years ago and they invited me to visit them at Mas d’Augustine. When I ran into them recently in the marketplace in Uzes, they extended the invitation again. This time I wasn’t going to miss it!
OMG! What a place! what a day! what a life! Every bit of brown-eyed envy that I have inside of me was stirred up again.
The French chambre d’hôte, Mas d’Augustine, is everything you’d want in a luxury B&B. The location in the south of France; the stone buildings that have been around for centuries; the tasteful and beautiful room design and decorating; the food! Should I go on?
According to Gary, the Mas was built in the last part of the eighteenth century as a silk mill.
(Note: Did you know France was one of the major producers of fine silks from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries? Check out the links at the bottom of the post to learn more and to find out where to view the silks from this region of France.)
After the property was no longer a silk mill, there were only a few owners. One that Gary knows of was “Madame Augustine,” a beloved citizen of her community for whom the Mas was named. Through the years Mas d’Augustine fell into bad, then worse, condition. Spaces that are now guest suites were dirty caves. Gary says animals were kept there, as was customary for the times.
Today the caves, the house and the grounds are immaculately and carefully restored. Original stonework in one of the former caves frames what is a guest suite. Another cave is a ground-level kitchen
Each room is filled with history, yet designed for twenty-first century comfort.
Not an opportunity was wasted to reveal the highlights of the original dwelling and property when renovating the French chambre d’hôte Not a detail was missed — from keeping original doors and windows, to plantings in the garden around hand-laid stone walls.
Turning a dream into reality
To satisfy my curiosity during my visit, I had to ask questions. Millions. I had to know how you turn the dream of owning and running a B&B into a reality. The story was best told by Gary who retired from an investment career in London to start the next chapter in his life.
When did you decide you wanted to “chuck it all, move from UK and open a French chambre d’hôte?
“We decided to stop “proper work” in late 2008 and we choose France as a potential place to live. We love France and it’s easy for our children to visit us here. House-hunting began when we came to France over long weekends through 2009 into 2010. The idea of the B&B was Jane’s. She’d always wanted to open a B&B or boutique hotel and I bought into it. I will say, in my defense, we looked at properties where we would just retire, too. We wanted to keep our minds open on what we would do once we were here.”
How many properties did you look at before deciding on Mas d’Augustine and where were they?
“In total we looked at over a hundred properties during a fifteen-month period. Before deciding to focus on the Uzes area (i.e. within a 15 min maximum drive of Uzes) in early 2010, we started our hunt in Provence and moved (left) across the bottom of the country towards Spain. Getting as far as Carcassonne, we realised that properties were becoming too Spanish for our taste so we headed back towards Provence. We happened upon Uzes by accident, having stopped there once on our earlier travels for a quick lunch.”
When did you buy the property?
“We closed on the purchase of the Mas in August 2010.”
What was the condition of the house when you bought it? How much of the structure was habitable?
The house was extremely run down and all the ground level rooms had earth floors. It was obvious they had been used in the past to keep animals. The first floor was partly habitable, but the “useable” rooms were in bad shape. The house originally had about 200m2 of habitable space when we acquired it. It now has almost 400m2.”
What was the condition of the exterior of the house? The yard? The garden?
“The exterior of the house was in similar condition to the inside. There was very little grass in the yard, just lots of weeds and undesirable plants. Now the garden has been completely replanted and grassed, It’s just beginning to mature. In another couple of years, it will look great.”
“The courtyard, where we have breakfast, did not exist.”
“The pool and the surrounding area were expanded and renovated. We wanted to create separate areas to give our guests as much privacy as possible. Walls were knocked down and rebuilt in slightly different locations so that we could make better use of the space. Old stones were always used to re-build new walls.”
How long did it take you to make the renovations to your French chambre d’hôte?
“From the time we closed on the purchase of the house, until the workers left, it was close to eighteen months.”
How many people helped you with the restoration? What were the trade specialties of the workers?
“We used a local builder who specialises in redoing old stone properties, meaning he had real stone masons working for him. Depending on the day and the project, we had as few as six workmen on site daily and as many as twelve or fourteen. Jane and I were right alongside them. We fixed some of the external walls and we did all of the interior ourselves — styling, finishing and decorating.”
What was the most difficult project that you tackled?
“The whole project was tough, as neither of us spoke fluent French. In fact, I spoke no French. But as we were here all the time while the work was being done, there were no real difficulties. We addressed each issue as it arose in a relatively calm and common-sense manner.”
What was your biggest surprise?
“The biggest surprise was discovering how good our French workers were. They were, by far, the best people we have ever worked with, in any country. This wasn’t our first project. We’ve taken on major renovations to properties in the UK and in the USA. The guys working on Mas d’Augustine turned up when they said they would; they did what they said they would do; and they agreed upon fixed price contracts. They stuck to their word through to the end.”
What was your biggest headache?
No problems, really. Aside from the purchase process — which is a pain and not cheap — everything went along remarkably well.
When are you open for guests at Mas d’ Augustine?
“We’re open from Easter through the end of October.”
Anything else you want to add?
“No regrets !”
After my visit with Jane and Gary at their French chambre d’hôte, Mas d’Augustine, I can vouch they are both happy with their choice of a new lifestyle. Jane’s move from a career of interior design in London richly prepared her for challenges of remodelling the Mas. Her love of gardening and her talents imagining and preparing delightful, fresh meals for guests are now her life. Gary is happy “working the front” of the house. Together they are a perfect team and gracious hosts.
About the bed making and toilets? A femme de ménage comes in once a week to tidy up the main house. Jane takes care of the guest rooms herself. She’d have it no other way.
Thanks to Jane and Gary at Mas d’Augustine, I have some new things to dream about.
#1 Return to Mas d’Augustine for “Table d’Höte”
#2 I want his life!
Mas d’Augustine, a former silk farm built in the latter part of the 18th Century, retains many of its original features and has been restored with respect for the original architecture. For information about a visit with Jane and Gary at Mas d’Augustine in the village outside Uzes, La Bruguière, check out the website: masdaugustine.com
To see examples of silk stockings made in the Languedoc region of France, see information about the V&A Museum’s new exhibit “The history of underwear.”