Château des Lys
Tim and Margreeth
Tim and Margreeth live together in the Château des Lys, or the “Castle of Lillies” set in the Somme valley. Before they came here, they’d never experienced anything remotely like the topsy-turvy life that they lead now. And even though they’ve been here for almost a decade, they say that theirs is a life of surprises.
Château des Lys, From Holland to France
Just under 10 years ago, they were happily living in Holland.
Dutch-born Margreeth was an English and remedial teacher and translator, and Essex-born Tim was busy organising and playing gigs with a highly successful band called Fragment who had improbably arrived in Europe as buskers and somehow never left.
Then in the summer of 2012, while holidaying with friends in Picardy, Northern France, everything changed.
Catching the château bug
They fell in love with another property in France and decided they wanted to buy.
The deal fell through, but although neither of them are Francophiles, and were both perfectly content living in Holland, it left the couple feeling restless. So, they started to look around to see if anything else was on the market.
Margreeth found the château
She also found it, in her words “stupidly huge”.
It was so big it was a hard idea to grasp, that they could buy a château that size in France and run it, just the two of them.
But their daughter Donna had entered university and son Joe was about to join junior school. There was never going to be a better time to have that carpe diem moment, and that’s when they made a decision to buy.
Zero bookings and zero experience
Tim and Margeeth took over an existing business that was in such a bad way, people would refuse to stay in some of the rooms because they were so dilapidated. They spent the first months just cleaning and making it habitable.
With almost no bookings and no experience of the business either they were usually just too busy to be scared, although they did rearrange the first ever breakfast setting about 27 times.
However, from the very beginning Margreeth saw exactly how to arrange the business, the layout, the business, the décor and so on.
Tim says the place is so big it took him months just to figure out the shortest route from A to B. And although they’ve modified things as they go along, in hindsight he finds it amazing how much his wife got correct right at the start.
He thinks that perhaps he married a witch.
Keeping in contact
At first the couple were worried about staying in contact with everyone. But that’s not been a problem. In fact, they’ve seen more of their friends living in France than they used to. Plus running the château meant they’re always meeting new people too.
Joe has coped well with the change
They were worried about how their son Joe would be affected by the change – a change of school, a new language to learn, having to make friends. But it’s worked out fine. Although Margreeth says hide and seek takes about a week to play in their new home.
Working as a team
Renovating the château was the first time Tim and Margreeth had worked together. And although they are very different, their skill sets complement each other perfectly.
Tim is happiest in the kitchen or behind a piano or up a ladder and Margreeth is the homemaker who runs the place. The couple found out that they had to have their own space, as well as support one another, and that way they get somewhere together in the end.
The origins of the château
The records differ but probably the first phase of the château started in 1850 with a Parisian railway magnate called Sangnier. He built the main house as a hunting retreat in the town of his birth. Originally it had been part of the Forest of Crecy and the land had been reserved as payment for Napoleon’s soldiers who never claimed it.
Châteaux grow on you
Most châteaux are built so they can expand over time and the Château des Lys grew slightly with each owner. When the Jesuits from St Omer moved in, they added wings to turn it into a school, by all accounts a strict centre of excellence. The pious Sangniers then gifted it to God as thanks for their grandson surviving the Great War.
Owners at last
It took five months of negotiations and organising before Tim and Margreeth were finally given the keys to their new home. At one point they were almost ready to give up – they’d even loaded their van and were about to go off on their travels. But it finally all went through, and they’re now only the fifth owners of the château since it was built.
The WW2 German HQ that hid an allied airman
During the Second World War the property was converted into a headquarters for the occupying German army. The Jesuit priests were working here for the resistance and were later decorated for bravery. At incredible risk they managed to hide an injured English pilot from the Nazis in what is now Margreeth and Tim’s bedroom.
Part of history
He had been on a mission to stop the V1 flying bombs and took almost a year to recuperate. The pupils feigned illness to enable life-saving visits from the doctor, one of whom passed on this story to the current owners. It’s something they want to discover more about.Tim and Margreeth find it humbling to know that they are part of a place with history like this. The pilot story is one of many others and now they are adding theirs too.
As it used to be – but better
Tim and Margreeth both realise that the château renovation will never be finished. It’s an ongoing, never-ending project. But they’re still trying to get it back to how it once was.
The couple have found that you can actually do a lot on very little. It’s satisfying to make something, or to create a space, that other people enjoy. They love scouring brocantes and markets for items and want to leave the place better than they found it.
Their top tips for would-be château owners are interesting
Always underestimate every task you’re considering- otherwise, you’ll never even attempt to do it.
Even if you don’t get what you want done, you’ll have learned something.
If you see something you like for sale and it’s cheap – then buy it.
They also recommend that a Japanese saw is a much better tool than a normal one.
And their final piece of advice is rather more obvious.
If you want to do something, do it.
Learning to do it the French way
Like many other château owners, one of their biggest challenges has been negotiating their way around French bureaucracy. They’ve found the system here immensely difficult to comprehend.
They say you get there eventually but France can be frustrating and surprising in equal measure. And the mind-set is very different to Northern European countries, so you just have to be patient and not take anything personally.
Plumbing the depths
In Tim and Margreeth’s experience there was an enormous difference in the attitude and ability of plumbers that they employed- some were brilliant, others less so. One plumber kept not turning up in spite of his wife’s assurances that he would. When the couple visited his workplace, she’d say he was out although they could see him hiding under a table in another room. In the end they did the job themselves.
You can do it too
Minor episodes like this aside, Tim and Margreeth are making steady progress and are proud of what they’ve achieved so far, people are complimentary about the property when they stay.
What’s more they both feel incredibly lucky to have been able to follow their dream and say the château has given them experiences that they’ll treasure forever.
They’re modest about their accomplishments and claim that if they can make running a château work, then anybody can.
The future is unwritten-
Owning the château has given the couple a life that Tim and Margreeth never anticipated.
No two days have ever been the same, and they never run out of plans. At the moment they’re putting together a Yoga retreat and designing a meditation space under the 250-year-old Linden tree. Simultaneously they’re restoring the wine cellar and planning Cooking & Wine weekends for guests.
But although it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen next at the Château des Lys, one thing is easy to predict. Tim and Margreeth are going to have fun renovating their property for quite a few years yet.
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