Nell's Niche: peek inside beautifully restored house with riverside setting in France
It's funny how, when people fall in love with one aspect of a house, they can ignore all of the evident horrors. For Nell Stewart-Liberty, that key element was the riverside setting in France, albeit in a derelict property.
Few can boast of a successful house sale in 2012: the world had gone into financial meltdown, and the property market was in utter turmoil.
Nobody was buying or selling, and it didn't matter how wonderful the house was. Indeed, many superb homes lay idle and empty in that stagnant market.
So you can imagine the surprise of Nell Stewart-Liberty and her husband, Joe Beattie, when they got an offer they absolutely couldn't refuse.
Admittedly, their home was different to most. For a start, it was a chateau in the French countryside, yet within striking distance of Bordeaux. Dating from the 17th Century, Chateau Soussac had everything you'd expect of a French big house - gorgeous grounds, reception rooms and bedrooms, a sweeping staircase and antique furnishings.
However, none of these mattered to the buyer. The attraction for him was the accompanying vineyard. The couple's wine label, Chateau Soussac, has been voted among the top 80 in Bordeaux - quite an achievement considering the vast number of wines made in the area.
But it seems even their wine's pedigree wasn't particularly relevant; the buyer just wanted vineyards, and their attached residences. "The offer came completely out of the blue. The house wasn't even on the market; we were quite happy and had no plans to move," Nell notes, going on to explain the bizarre circumstances of the sale. "I'll never forget the day we got involved. I had been out to lunch with a friend and, when I came back, Joe said the estate agent, from whom we had bought Chateau Soussac in 2006, had been on the phone. She said she had a client who wanted to view 20 wine chateaux in one day," Nell recalls, adding, "The estate agent's problem was she didn't have 20 on her books - so she asked could she come around with him to our place to make up the numbers. He arrived in an enormous black Bentley, followed by three black Range Rovers. He himself never came into the house, I just showed two of his aides around inside. The next day he put in an offer."
Another couple might have been happy to enjoy the madness of the experience and leave it at that. Joe and Nell had a lovely business between the wine and their paying guests; they had six bedrooms en suite, and people came from all over Ireland, England and Europe to stay. However, Joe tended to see life as an adventure and he dragged Nell along, often kicking and screaming.
That's how they ended up in France in the first place. Nell - who hails from Donegal, and is a great-grandniece of Sir Arthur Lasenby Liberty, the founder of the iconic Liberty store in London - had spent 20 years as a magazine publisher here in Ireland, while Joe, who's from Down, had his own IT company. They both sold their businesses in 2005 and while Nell would have been happy to tend their garden in Co Wicklow, Joe gently pestered and cajoled her about moving to France until, almost without realising what she'd agreed to, they had sold their Irish home and were set up in France. "Joe was always the one with the big notions, the wild plans, but he did always carry them through, so I suppose, in the end of the day, I was always happy to go along for the ride," Nell says fondly. Joe may have been willing to take risks, but he wasn't a pushover: when the property developer put in the offer, canny Joe upped it, and Joe and the developer agreed a price. And to Joe's delight, the purchaser didn't want to buy the stock of Chateau Soussac wine.
Then the couple set about finding another property to renovate; when they originally bought Chateau Soussac, it was a ruin. They had found a great team to renovate it and were thrilled with the result, so they knew that with the same team, they would be able to do a renovation again. The problem was finding the right place - they wanted, at that stage, to downsize.
Then their interest was piqued for the first time by a 'for sale' sign, which had been there for years, on a nearby road. The property - Le Manoir de la Riviere - was neglected, practically derelict and only people like the ever resourceful Joe and Nell would have spotted its potential. "It dates from around 1860, and it was most likely two houses," Nell says. "Because it's on the river, which is very unusual, it was probably used by fishermen. In recent years, it had been turned into four social-housing apartments. It was unlived in and unloved and it was all tiny rooms. But we knew with the great team we had lined up, we could make it into something beautiful. Its grounds all face directly onto the river. Nothing is allowed to be built there anymore, so being on the river makes it very special."
Under the couple's direction, their building team tore out most of the partition walls and made the various rooms bigger. They also raised the ceilings, giving a lovely period feel to the reception rooms, while the French doors open directly onto the river. They made the three bedrooms en suite - they had really enjoyed having paying guests to stay, and wanted to do it again, but on a smaller scale.
The result is a light-filled home full of atmosphere, and there's a lovely feeling of being close to nature. "The river is so calming and majestic, and with the huge double doors opening out onto the terrace with views over the river, it all makes you feel almost as if you are living part indoors, part outdoors," says Nell. "It's very relaxing to sit having breakfast by the river, just watching the wildlife. The river is also very popular with kayakers, and I love watching them go up and down."
Nell and Joe also put in a swimming pool - since then the local authorities have clamped down on pools by the river, so Nell feels particularly lucky. Then the house was ready for guests.
Sadly, Joe got ill in the summer of 2015 and died last January. It was a tough time, but Joe dealt with the illness in his usual ebullient, positive way. "He always kept his spirits and sense of humour up; he was very, very brave. The nurses all commented on how incredibly blue his eyes were; he liked that," Nell recalls, her voice slightly breaking as she relives those months.
The plan was always to do bed and breakfast because it had been a very happy experience at Chateau Soussac, and Nell has continued with the plan at Le Manoir de la Riviere. And she's delighted - she loves sharing her home and introducing people to the area, and, by staying, she's also honouring Joe's memory. "He just loved it here. My friends at home in Ireland have all been fabulous, but I've made great friends here, too, and many of my guests become friends," she says, "so I'm staying put."
There is much to enjoy at Le Manoir De La Rivere - gorgeous furnishings, friends and a stock of French wine. And Joe would be proud of her ballsy spirit.
See le-manoir-de-la-riviere.com or facebook.com/LeManoirdelaRiviere1
Email email@example.com, or tel: (00336) 0234-0437/(0033553)230-401 The rate per room per night is €120 for two people, breakfast included
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Stanislas Ledoux
Sunday Indo Living