Interview: Ellen Bosque, Chateau Renovation (Part 1)
Ellen Bosque
Ellen Bosque • Apr 21

Interview: Ellen Bosque, Chateau Renovation (Part 1)

by Ellen Bosque and Taryn Ward

Many of us have dreams of restoring an old home or undertaking a DIY project that will fill our time. But very few of us do so on the scale that Ellen has done, working through a full renovation of a long neglected French château. To say that it’s been an undertaking would be to put it mildly. From the normal headaches of every renovation project to the unique and uniquely difficult consequences of going viral in the wrong way, sticking with this has been a labor of love. In an exclusive interview with bright, Ellen lays out the reasons for her journey and why she stuck to it.

Taryn: Good afternoon. Just to start, I'm interested in how you decided to take on a project like this. Did it just come to you one day? Have you been thinking about it for a long time? What really inspired you?

Ellen: I don't think it was really driven by me so much as Mathew. Both my husband and I at the time, we really suffered with Brexit. I think when I came to this country from America, I was in love with the idea of being European. And so, I think it was such a shock to us that that could happen. It put us into a little bit of a midlife crisis, probably a bit earlier than it would normally have happened. It was at the same time we started watching these home design programs and one of them was about a couple who had sold up and moved France, and they bought a chateau after years and years of looking.

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And so, my husband started sending me links to these websites with these crumbled down buildings. It was just something that I didn't have the imagination to even contemplate. Every time he would send me one, I'd laugh and I'd try to be the supportive wife in terms of, "Oh, this is just you having a bit of fun." Then it got frustrating because he became relentless, he just kept sending them and sending them and sending them.

I think it was April 2017 when I said, "You need to go see them in real life. And then although you're an amazing DIY-er and you really enjoy it, this is not our life. You have to see what kind of task you'd be undertaking. And then you can think about how you would do that when you know that our life is in England." He was completely undaunted by that, and this is not my husband at all. I'm usually the one that's coming up with the blue sky thinking, like, "We could do anything," and all of this. But it really scared me because none of it was within my skill set. Usually, when we do things or when I suggest things that sound crazy, it's because I know I can do it. And here was something that I wasn't good at, that he was good at, and that I guess I, at the time, couldn't contemplate trusting him to be good at, to the end, finishing something like that - that I had little to no involvement in because I didn't understand it at all.

He set up a road trip for my birthday which was in April. And he planned to go see five different properties, starting with the one that we have now, and ending up very near to Toulouse. He was just going to put myself, my son, and a tent in the car. And then we were going to not plan and book anything which is, again, not something I would ever contemplate doing, or him, really. He's not that kind of person. But he was so enthusiastic about it that he just plotted the trip out. The only thing he booked was a campsite at the very first stop.

I begged my friend, Paul, to come with me because [my husband] was a person that I didn't recognize because of how passionate he was about this. This wasn't my husband, he is very structured in his thought processes. He's very linear in his thoughts. And this was so outside of that, that I felt as though I didn't know him and I didn't want to go alone with him. So, I said to my friend, "Paul, you have to come because he's nuts." Paul was going through his own mid life crisis at the time and was like, "Yeah. I'll come." He put his tent in the car, and we started driving.

The first stop we went to was this campsite that was owned by this amazing couple. They had sold up in the UK and bought this piece of land that was completely derelict. They had been camping, I guess, a few months beforehand, around that site, and they saw it. They just dropped a note through the person's door saying, "If you'd ever be interested in selling up, please call us." And within, a couple of months, they got a call. They just blindly went out there and bought it. But it was the perfect place for us to stop and stay because it was almost like an affirmation to my husband that this is something that people do, and that this is something that is possible.

For me, it was seeing two people who were business people who kind of gave all of that up and did something that was bigger than them. And all of a sudden, I had a little bit of a spark. Not a big one, but a little one.

The next day, we'd pitched up and stayed there. My son loved it. I was taking pictures of all of their ideas, thinking, "Oh, we can open a campsite." And it was brilliant and lovely. We had family style dinner with other guests. And it just made me see the one thing that I finally connected with, something that I'm very good at, which was the idea of communal living, and the idea of bringing people together. The idea of having a whole bunch of different, disparate kinds of people coming together in a group and finding commonality, that's something I love. I absolutely love it, but I always did it from a dinner party perspective. Never anything bigger than that.

So, it was like, okay, he got his spark. I got my very little spark. The next morning, we got up early, and drove to the chateau. We left the tent there because we were going back to the campsite afterwards. We drove down, and it was absolutely beautiful, breathtaking in terms of the scenery on the drive there. And we tried to find the chateau; we couldn't really find the drive, it was a bit hidden.

When we finally found the driveway we drove along and there were  these beautiful trees lining it. It kind of was like Jane Eyre, you know? Like, this is, like, holy crap. Like, oh my god. Look at that. But I was thinking, "Don't be excited. Don't be excited because this is nothing. Nothing's going to happen about this. This is mad." So, we drove up and saw the most beautiful building. And I thought, "It's a building. It's just a building. There's nothing in this."

When you go to the front of the chateau, the view is just unbelievable. I still can't believe we have that view and it's so many years later.

Then my husband got out and the estate agent was there to greet us. I think the first thing he did was to take us around the front. When you go to the front of the chateau, the view is just unbelievable. I still can't believe we have that view and it's so many years later. I just looked at the view, thinking, this feels like a holiday. It doesn't feel real. It feels like you're just on holiday, because this can't be ours. This is just a place you visit.

The agent took us around again to the back of the chateau. And he opened the door, and we walked  into the ballroom. I was like, "What the hell is this?" Like, you don't see this. I grew up seeing, Mcmansions in New Jersey or I grew up with, you know, just don't see this. Even in London, when I came to London, I remember breaking out in hives as I was walking around the city, seeing things I only studied in books. And you kind of get overwhelmed by it. It was the same in the Louvre. You walk into the Louvre and you see the Mona Lisa and you kind of feel overtaken because it's things that you only looked at in books, and it's right there in front of your face.

All of a sudden, you're in a room like that. I started turning around like I was Belle from Beauty and the Beast. I was singing, "Look at the baker with his tray like always..." I felt like this was not real. It was so beautiful. Then he opened up all of the shutters, and we saw the view from that room. And it was so beautiful. He then took us around the rest of it, and the rest of it was a horror. But I couldn't get rid of that one beautiful room. I just kept saying, "No, this isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real. This isn't real."

He started taking us around to all these other buildings. I was like, "Well, this is crazy." There are too many buildings. How could we even contemplate this? This is not just a project. This is a life of dedication that we would have to give. And I thought again, "This isn't happening." Then there was a brief moment where I saw my son, who was standing on a rock, pretending to be an airplane. He looked so happy. I saw my husband walking around with his hands on his head, completely overwhelmed. I have never seen him like that. I've always seen him as a sensible, linear, kind of guy who was amazing and supportive, but was always about my dreams. I had another spark, and I thought, "If I could ever do anything for him, this would be it." And that was it.

They took us around. The woods were so overgrown, we couldn't go in. We had no idea what was there. They kept telling us, "You have seven hectares." I didn't even understand what that meant because, I barely understand the metric system, and this was yet another measuring system; another way of looking at things. And they took us into these other buildings. To be honest, I don't even remember them. All I remember was the ballroom and my husband walking around with his hands on his head. And then we left.

And they took us into these other buildings. To be honest, I don't even remember them. All I remember was the ballroom and my husband walking around with his hands on his head.

We went back to the campsite and were talking it over at dinner, in a communal way with the other guests that were still there. I was hoping, I was just hoping that there'd be one person to tell us that it was unrealistic, that it was insane, that we couldn't do it - so that I could grab on to just one person and use that to challenge and get rid of that spark, or at least dampen it a bit. But everybody just was like, "You need to do it! Was there a fishing lake? Oh my God. Could you imagine what you can do with that?" It was a moment in time that you rarely ever get where just everything in the universe kept saying, "Just do it. Do it."

I pushed it to the back of my mind. We had four other places that we were going to see. We went and we saw them all. We traveled all the way down to Toulouse, and we saw a few more chateaux that were just horrific. I mean there was nothing about them that was inspiring. It was just horrific. But it was a good thing to do because every single time we went and we saw another one, Mathew would say, "This is nothing compared to what we've just seen." And then I'd be like, "Completely agree. Completely agree." And then we go to the next one, "This is nothing compared to what we've just seen."

I'm a trained lawyer, my husband's a lawyer. I've always been in a conservative field in terms of what I do for a living. And I'm all about risk. This was something that was so outside of my risk profile. Well, at least I thought it was. And if I thought about it properly at that time as I am just thinking about it now, it probably wasn't so outside my risk profile, because I left my whole life to come to the UK to marry him. It wasn't outside of my risk profile. I guess it was outside of my talent profile. And I think when I came over to the UK, I knew that I'd be able to find a job. I knew that I'd be able to make a life for myself. And I knew that I'd be able to fix and make up for everything I lost. But for this, again, I had no way of helping him. This was going to be all him. And I think that was probably more of the issue; this was outside of my control profile.

We went and we had an amazing time going down and seeing all of these places. There was only one other place that appealed to me and it totally did not appeal to him. And it was an old, beautiful French farmhouse. But it was an equestrian property. Although I've ridden, I've never owned a horse. I don't even know what to do with that. So, it was very easy for him to get me to agree that, this was not within our expertise.

And so, we came back to the UK with Paul , the whole way just talking about it and talking about it. As I do with everything that I'm uncomfortable with, I laugh. And I laugh, and I joke, and I make jokes, and I laugh. And then we got home. And the estate agent called us and said, "Do you want to make an offer? Someone else is going to put one in." And I thought, "This is crap. This is a scam. Nobody put in any bid. It's been on the market forever." And the guy was like, "I know this seems like a scam, but somebody else went to see it the same day as you. And I think, actually, they are going to put an offer in."

My husband,  Mathew, just looked at me and said, "If there's anything that we do that is ever for ME, this would be it."

My husband,  Mathew, just looked at me and said, "If there's anything that we do that is ever for ME, this would be it." And I just thought, "I don't know how we're going to pay for it, but let's just do it. Go ahead. Do it." Because I didn't think we would get it. And I think it was that second offer or potential for a second offer, that made it less likely. I remember telling him, "Yeah, just do it, but we will not enter into a bidding war." And he said, "Absolutely fine."

And so, we put in an offer. The estate agent called us back and said, "They put in an offer as well." And then he said, "But if you only went up by another ten grand, it would be done." I was like, "This is so stupid. What's he talking about just put in another 10 grand and this will be done?" And  Mathew just asked, "Please, can we do that?" And I said, "Well, yeah. We can't even afford this! So, let's just put another ten grand. What's the difference?"

So, we went back and we told them, "Yeah, okay. You could go up ten grand." And the agent came back a couple of days later and said, "It's yours." We thought, "We've been hoodwinked. Oh my god. This is terrible." And I asked, "But did they come back with another offer?" And the agent said, "Yes, they did. They beat your second offer. But the seller liked the idea that it was a family coming. And the other people wanted to turn it into a hotel. So, they picked you." And I said, "But that doesn't even make sense if they were going to get more money for it. Why would they pick us?" And my husband was like, "Because it was always meant to be ours." And I said, "You never say this crap. I'm the one that believes in God. You don't believe in God. You don't believe in mystical things. I'm the one with magical thinking. You don't have magical thinking. And now you're telling me we now own this thing “because it was always meant to be ours."

And it was kind of hysterical. It was just a complete reversal of our personalities. And then the next few months…It's a long process buying one of these buildings. So, it probably took around 8 to 10 months. There were ups and downs with it because nobody would give us a mortgage because it was so illiquid, it was on the market forever. They just wouldn't give us a mortgage. So, we had to figure out different ways of raising finance for it. It was a nightmare.

But finally, end of December 2017, Mathew went with his mother to go sign all the paperwork. I didn’t go because there was no heat or running water. There was no way for me to bring my little kid there and stay, there was nothing. So, yeah. I took my son to Lapland to meet Santa. We had an amazing holiday, which was probably my last real holiday,  now that I think about it. And Mathew went with his mom to go open the gates to his project.

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Ellen Bosque
Ellen Bosque

I’m a mum. Trying to figure out how to make the best of my time here on earth. Looking to leave something that’s enduring so that people will know that we cared. Working with my husband to lovingly restore a derelict chateau in France.

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