Life, love and liberty: Living the dream in France
We've all dreamed of upping sticks and moving to a new life abroad, says Mary O'Sullivan, but Nell Stewart-Liberty, of the Liberty of London family, was steamrollered by her husband into doing just that, and she's never regretted it
During the good old days --the Celtic Tiger years -- we were always hearing/reading/ watching programmes about people who upped sticks and began a whole new life abroad. And many of us sighed with envy and yearned to do the same thing. We're still here, as to go and buy a home elsewhere you do have to be able to sell up in Ireland first.
Nell Stewart-Liberty and her husband Joe Beattie were among those who sighed and yearned but also did something about it, though Nell herself was initially dubious. "We had been going back and forth to France on holidays. I remember one time we were stuck behind a removals van and Joe said, 'That'll be us soon'. I thought, 'He's mad, but I'll go along with it'." she recalls with a laugh. Joe steamrollered ahead, and soon it was his and Nell's effects in the removals van.
Of course, it helped that they sold up in 2005 and were among the last people in Ireland to get a good price for their home, enabling them to buy a real, live chateau in one of the most picturesque parts of France. Now Nell, formerly a publisher, and Joe, a former IT company owner, make a highly regarded wine, and entertain paying guests during the balmy summer months. It's a popular spot as it's surrounded by charming villages and the legendary St Emilion, while it's only a stone's throw from the historic city of Bordeaux. Both cook, serving up delicious meals, while Joe also oversees the vendange, or harvest, and the winemaking.
Chateau Soussac has everything you'd expect of a French chateau -- gorgeous grounds complete with swimming pool, which they swim in daily from March 17 to the end of October, a spectacular entrance hall, lofty reception rooms and bedrooms, a sweeping staircase and lovely antique furnishings. The only unexpected features are the many Irish paintings by old friends of the couple, including works by Mick Mulcahy and John Keating.
Nell and Joe are a bit different to your usual chatelain and chatelaine -- and it's not just that they're Irish; they are warmer and more welcoming than typical French hosts. Nell, however, with her cut-glass accent, sounds as if she hails from, if not a chateau, then somewhere else fairly grand. The name is also a bit of a giveaway and, yes, she is one of the Libertys of London -- paintings of her Liberty relations abound in the dining room. She actually harboured an ambition when she was a child to work in Liberty, but her uncle refused to allow her. "He thought it wouldn't be good for me, as a Stewart-Liberty, to be seen to be working as a subordinate," says Nell. Instead, she embarked on a series of careers, none of which point in the direction of French chateau owner -- these include stints as a university secretary, a china mender, an antique adviser at Sotheby's and, finally, as a magazine publisher, which was her longest-lasting job.
Born and brought up on the shores of Lough Swilly in Donegal, Nell hated school. She left at 16 and did a secretarial course in Oxford -- which led to a job in Oxford itself, where she met some very impressive characters, including JRR Tolkien -- then, suddenly, she suffered a burst appendix that nearly killed her. "I was in hospital for six months and I couldn't work for a few years," Nell recalls.
When she finally recovered, she went back to secretarial work, this time in London, but when her father died she moved back to Donegal to live with her mother before doing a course in china-mending with the famous Desiree Shortt of North Great George's Street.
This led to five years with Sotheby's in London, but Nell wanted to return to Dublin. She answered an ad for a personal assistant and it turned out that the formidable Noelle Campbell Sharp, then a magazine publisher, now an arts patron, was the person looking for a PA.
"I started as PA and ended up as managing editor. She was amazing to work for. She was difficult, but she taught me everything about magazines. I threatened to leave three times. One time when I did, she wrote to my mother saying I was impetuous, strong-willed and that I making a bad mistake. She's such a good saleswoman that my mother took her side," Nell recalls with a laugh, adding: "Every time I asked for more money she gave me more but she made me do more work to justify it, so I ended up writing articles." Doing everything, including selling advertising, Nell gradually became the managing editor of the group, which published 12 magazines, and then when Noelle Campbell Sharp sold the group to Robert Maxwell, Nell continued working for him. When he died and the company went into liquidation, she took over Social & Personal. S&P's popular lists -- the top 100 men, sexy legs, stylish bottoms and so on, which continue to this day -- were started by Nell "to cheer everyone up one February".
"It used to be just me and Jonathan Philbin Bowman picking the people, and he'd write the funny comments. We used to have such fun, but then everyone started taking it seriously, ringing up to give out if they weren't on it, so we got together a selection panel to divert the flak," she reminisces with a laugh.
Nell was in magazines for 20 years, and when she sold up she thought she'd get loads of gardening done and would write freelance. However, the weather here was too bad to garden and there was very little freelance work about, so when Joe -- whom she met at Molly Cusack's hunt ball," It was pretty much love at first sight," she says fondly -- said, "Let's move somewhere sunny", she was ripe for a change and they put their Wicklow home up for sale.
That was in 2005. A buyer immediately emerged and wanted to move in straight away, so they rented for a year in the Auvergne with a possible view to buying there. "Thank God we didn't buy there; it was freezing in winter," Noelle recalls. "But we used Auvergne to travel and we looked at about 50 possible places before we saw this." When they took over in 2006, they had to do phenomenal work, including the installation of en suite bathrooms in all six bedrooms; they also redecorated the bedrooms. They put in the swimming pool and make a point of always having the first swim of the year on St Patrick's Day.
Apart from structural work, they've had to face a lot of other challenges including learning French -- Nell had O-level French, Joe very little, but they both manage well now. And then there was the small matter of cooking. "We entertained quite a bit in Wicklow but it's completely different when you're charging people," Nell maintains. Her answer was to do some cooking courses with the chef in the local restaurant -- he, like many others in the locality, has become a good friend and he runs courses Chateau Soussac's guests can participate in. Nell cooks the starters and desserts while Joe does the mains and, very sensibly, they maintain two kitchens and work separately. While breakfast is eaten at little tables on the terrace, dinner is served in the library for those who wish to eat alone. Much more fun, though, is the communal table in the dining room where guests mingle. The communal meals make for interesting conversation. Guests come from all over Europe as well as Ireland -- recent guests included a Russian oligarch on his honeymoon, and a filmmaker and his family from Belgium. "Continental children are so polite and very easy -- they eat what the grown ups eat," Nell remarks.
The wine served is, of course, made in Chateau Soussac -- when Joe and Nell took over it already had a good reputation and, keen to maintain that, they got an award-winning expert to keep them on the right track; under Joe's stewardship, it has been voted among the top 80 in Bordeaux -- no mean feat given that thousands of wines are fermented there annually. An interesting part of any stay is the tour of the vineyard and the winery. It certainly makes a difference to get the whole process explained by the affable Joe instead, who knows our pre-conceptions about wine and has all sorts of fascinating anecdotes about the history and process. Needless to mention, a lot of wine is imbibed as part of the tour -- after all, he has to illustrate his points.
And, thanks to Chateau Soussac, Nell realised her lifelong ambition to work in her family's firm. "I read an article about the CEO, a French man called Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye, and I rang his PA, said who I was and told her about our wine. She conferred with him, came back to me and said the next time I'm in England I was to call in. I said 'as it happens, I'll be there next week'. It wasn't true but I went. And now I go over regularly to do tastings.
"Geoffroy bought the wine for himself, and we make a special Bordeaux Superieur called Liberty for Liberty," she says, also adding proudly: "We sell to many of the restaurants around here. I do the selling. I couldn't do it if I hadn't sold advertising all those years ago."
So maybe she was heading to the chateau all her life, after all?
Chateau Soussac, 33790 Soussac, Gironde, France, tel: (00335) 56 61 31 54 or mobile: (00336) 27 27 63 88
Rates from €62 per person sharing, per night, breakfast included.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine