Rebuilding Medieval Heritage in France: A Conversation with Kate Masters
Kate Masters is a British ex-pat who moved to northern France almost two decades ago to renovate a 16th-century hamlet from the ground up. She and her parents have turned their refurbished cottages into holiday homes–La Cret–and I chatted with her about her vision behind the long-term project, as well as the struggles she’s faced.
Where is your property located?
It’s a very rural area, deep in the rolling green Normandy countryside of Northern France. The main industry there is dairy, and because the soil there is exceptionally fertile, this area has become known as the food basket of France, producing many cheeses and meats, and a rather potent apple brandy called ‘Calvados’. The towns are generally quite small, and built next to rivers, the main river being the Mayenne, and further south the Loire. The villages are quiet and pretty, often with their own chateaux. The population is the same now as it was in Roman times, which I think is pretty interesting.
Why did you and your parents buy the property in this area?
Primarily because it was cheap! And for a lot of other reasons. In the late ‘90s, the housing boom in Britain meant that for my generation, it was almost impossible to get your foot on even the first rung of the property ladder, so for me it was a no-brainer. My parents had grown disillusioned with Britain after the economic recession, the lack of work for my Dad—who is a very talented architect, carpenter and builder—the post-‘80s money-grabbing ethos, and the sheer number of people crammed onto one tiny island. They saw it as an opportunity to start fresh, and you could get a lot more for your money in France.
The same year we came to France—that was in 1996—a friend of mine from college got a mortgage in Britain. For a one bedroom flat on the outskirts of town, with a fold-out bed in her living room, she paid the same price that parents did for their entire 16th century hamlet here in France! They have always been adventurous, wanting to break out and do something a bit different, having built a house in the Welsh Borders in the ‘70s. My dad was always itching to work on buildings too, so it fulfilled his need to have an ongoing project.
Tell me about the condition of the property when you bought it.
When we came here the properties were in a pretty dilapidated state. The large, main house was habitable downstairs but the upstairs was just a barn. All the other buildings ranged from barn spaces suitable for farm animals to crumbling walls. The house that’s mine—I’ve called it Maison Kayte—was literally three walls with no roof, and even the walls were held together with mud. We had to put the roof on and rebuild the whole place: we put in septic tanks, electricity and water. The yard was just mud where the cows had been kept.
What have you done to the properties?
We have since renovated every building on site. This involved a great deal of work, more than just building from scratch, ironically. My dad’s skills as an architect and carpenter have made this possible and I have effectively acted as ‘builders labourer!’ All the buildings now have slate roofs, functioning fire-places, kitchens, bathrooms, et cetera. The yard is now a garden with trees and shrubs and vegetables.
Do you have any specific design principles or goals?
When we started we didn’t really have specific design principles and goals, the whole project was so overwhelming that it just sort of grew organically! Both my dad and I have a life ethos of reduce-reuse-recycle, so this came into play without any thought, and also out of necessity because we had limited finances. It manifested in myriad ways, such as recycling polished mica from a gravestone manufacturer as material from which to build a fireplace, to using discarded, broken tiles to mosaic the kitchen. More things seem possible now that there is less actual building work to be done, so future aims for myself include getting off-grid as much as possible. This will involve wind-turbines and solar energy. I am concentrating on the garden this summer, as I also want to produce as much of my own food as possible.
How long before it was up-and-running as holiday homes?
We started this project in 1996 and the work has been ongoing. Two of the holiday homes were up and running within a year. It was only really last year that the last building was finished, although this is partly because we cannot stop getting enthused over new projects. We are now working on a small art studio space in the garden, for my ceramic projects.
What kinds of challenges have you faced in moving to France from the UK, renovating the buildings and setting up the business?
The first challenge was getting the Gites ready and functioning before the daily bread and butter ran out. Luckily, my parents were ahead of the wave of Brits running to the continent, so it worked out well initially. This business has gradually waned though, and the second recession, after the bank bail-outs, has been harder to withstand. Holiday trends have changed, and people have less money. Fluctuations in ferry prices affect us a lot, and it seems many Brits are only able to get the odd weekend off work now, which means they go for local getaways. I have recently got our business up on Air BnB, to try to keep up with trends, and this has resulted in enquiries, mostly French people from cities looking for weekend breaks.
The other main challenge has been adjusting to a completely different culture. This manifests in all sorts of ways, from not speaking the language well enough (and resulting misunderstandings, particularly in ‘official’ situations) to craving certain foods that are simply not available in France.
This sounds like a lot of hard work—any regrets?
Being in another country takes a lot of getting used to, but I love it!
(This interview originally appeared on Wilderness, Metropolis).