A B&B like no other
The following account is one that I never expected to write, it was never planned, but not much I ever do is. It is an account of one of the most astonishing but equally enjoyable discoveries I have made in my life so far. I hope it excites the reader as much as it did me.
Finding ourselves with a day to kill on our return journey (see previous post) through Brittany and Basse-Normandie, I had to find a camp for the night. We could have stayed in Cherbourg, but I thought why not stay within striking distance thus giving ourselves an easy journey to the port and another chance to explore a bit more of this previously unvisited part of France.
Out of the blue I found Chateau de Pont-Rilly, reasonably priced, looked nice, but I thought well the pics are going to look nice anyway, but I expect we will get a converted stable or such. Who cares it’s just for the night.
What we actually got was jaw droppingly fantastic! We found our way to where we thought it might be as the chateau wasn’t marked on our Michelin road map and the sat nav thought it was somewhere entirely different. We’d sacked the useless English fool the day before anyway for his terrible pronunciation of French. I mean come on, at least try. It’s Fougeres not four gears for God’s sake!
Luckily the owners had installed small direction signs on all the approaches so we just followed them until we came to a very modest looking gate with a small sign declaring Chateau de Pont-Rilly.
We entered the small, unmade drive and stopped to be amazed. There in the distance almost a kilometre away along this dead straight narrow track was the Chateau in all its splendour. We approached at the speed of a horse drawn carriage taking in the beautiful vista.
Nearing the building the road changes to large cobblestones flanked by decorative canals and faced with a grander but still modest iron gateway.
As we came even nearer I could see a man painting a window frame in the house and from around the side a woman walked towards us. The lady turned out to be one of the owners, a couple Madame and Monsieur Roucheray, and they directed us to the rear of the building and asked us to park anywhere, before greeting us with an offer of drinks. Introductions were completed over pots of tea and coffee, as I sat amazed at the scene before us.
Madame Annick generously told us that we were allowed to roam as we wished and practically nowhere was out of bounds, before offering a tour of her magnificent palace for the next morning after breakfast, which we hurriedly accepted.
In 1982 Annick and Jean-Jacques had discovered the place in virtual ruin whilst looking for somewhere in the region to live. They were living and working in Paris and wanted to move away from the madness of city living. Successful in the field of furniture design and interior decoration their skills were to be put to good use in the restoration of Chateau de Pont-Rilly.
Having seen photos of the Chateau when they found it, I thought “what a huge task”. Only a fool or someone with a bottomless pit of money would take that on. Clearly neither of this pleasant French couple are fools and I don’t know how much money they have left now, but the job is done and they are still smiling!
The story of the restoration of the Chateau is as remarkable as the Roucherays themselves. A large manor house existed here from at least the middle of the 16th century but it was in the 18th century that the Marquis d’Ourville was to have the place transformed into the grand house that exists today.
When Annick and Jean-Jacques stumbled on this crumbling wreck of a building a dream was born. Could they possibly have had any clue as to the enormity of the task they had set themselves? Anyone that has seen the current glut of restoration projects on TV recently would be left in no doubt as to the enormity of the task. The walls were crumbling, plaster had fallen off, leaking pipes caused water to run through the floors and generally the whole place looked like the set of a Hollywood horror movie. I can imagine standing looking at the huge grey edifice with only the wind and the cawing of crows disturbing the silence. The ghosts of ancient nobles and their servants of long ago and the noisy chatter of American troops as they sat around the grounds, smoking and playing cards as they waited for action during the second World War. Undaunted, the Roucherays took the challenge on, bought the property and set about the biggest job of their lives.
Now I like a challenge , but the enormity of this task cannot adequately be described. Not only is there the size of the project, but the time involved in historic research, sourcing authentic materials, rebuilding the roof, the floors, the windows, the plasterwork, the electrics, the plumbing and the myriad small details that had to be right. Imagine all of that and you might begin to get an idea.
Not only did they have to contend with all of this but also the wishes of their close neighbours one of whom wanted to construct a large dairy facility very close to their land. If that person had had their way the beautiful valley and decorative canals would have been filled in to create the dairy complex.
Luckily for Pont-Rilly the Roucherays found an ally in officialdom. Regional Protection Services librarian Hervé Pelvillain took an interest and set to work constructing the case to convince the Minister of Culture to make the Chateau a classified Historical Monument, which secured its future.
First the job of stopping the commercial development had to be undertaken. Ancient trees had been felled and the building of the dairy complex was already underway, but thanks to the efforts of Monsieur Pelvillain the building permit was reversed and work stopped. Now, over 30 years later the growing vegetation has disguised much of the un-demolished building work and has left no lasting damage.
Work could now resume on the Chateau and the work of restoration could go ahead apace. Jean-Jacques found traces of the original paint on the panelling and would match the colours to recreate the past. His talents would be put to much greater use as the work progressed.
I am certainly no expert, but Jean-Jacques’ talents as an artist must surely rate up there with the best. His work is now on display everywhere you look in this great house. From the authentic colours matched, to the murals painted onto those panels, his skills beam out their talent to the world. The faux marble fireplaces and columns painted to look like real marble are reminiscent of Wren’s Hampton Court Palace and Barry’s Reform Club, having the desired effect without the undesirable cost. The period furniture blended with the genuine article and magnificent drapery pay testimony to the skills of Annick. The curtains are hand sewn. She proudly showed a complete 12 place cutlery set contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte along with period French bracket clocks and paintings of characters that seemed to belong there.
On one wall hangs a great naval scene of Cherbourg in August 1858 with Britain’s Queen Victoria’s Royal yacht “Victoria and Albert” centre stage flanked by great French ships like the then new Bretagne, herself a curiosity. She was laid down as a sailing ship and fitted with a steam engine as she was being built.
The scene commemorates Napoleon III receiving Victoria and Albert to show off his impressive navy. It is the work of an artist, himself a native of Normandy, Colonel Jean-Charles Langlois. Langlois was born in Beaumont-en-Auge in 1789 at the outbreak of the French Revolution. He must have been a good school student because he was sent to the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris. It was and remains one of the four Grandes Ecoles set up by the revolution as an elite college for exceptional students. After leaving college he embarked on a military career and fought with Napoleon at the battles of Wagram and Genoa in 1809 and in 1815 took part in the Battle of Waterloo. He fought with such bravery and ferocity that he was made a colonel at the age of 26.
Retiring on half pay from the army due to the injuries he received, he then took up art as a career. For the most part he would paint battle scenes on enormous canvasses to be used in dioramas, a kind of forerunner to the cinema. These would consist of a large two-sided theatre in which these large paintings along with mirrors and magic lanterns would recreate famous scenes and transport amazed audiences to the centre of battle or on a trip to the pyramids of Egypt or any fantastic place that most people could never see. Unfortunately most of these large works were destroyed by fire.
Napoleon III’s PR exercise rebounded on him. Victoria returned home fuming and summoned the Prime Minister Lord Derby to rebuke him at the state of her navy. Within a year Derby had been replaced.
Since Waterloo in 1815 peace had broken out and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Britain had lapsed into a false sense of security. British politics, it could be said was suffering a period of turmoil and indecision during the 1850s and 60s. The office of Prime Minister changed hands no less than six times in the period 1852 to 1868, not a time for stable decisions. Budgets for war had been reigned in and the navy was a casualty. It was also a time when new technologies, not armies were marching forward. The last great wooden battleship, ironically the biggest, was launched in 1844 although it would never be used in battle. Wood had given way to iron cladding leading to all iron vessels and sail was giving way to steam.
Napoleon’s new navy took the wind from Victoria’s sails and put it straight up her government. His new steamships looked impressive but Her Majesty was not amused. In 1859 the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdom was formed and by 1860 under the stewardship of Lord Palmerston a series of forts were begun around Portsmouth at first and added to around the south coast. They were criticised as “Palmerston’s Follies” as they appeared to be built facing the wrong way round. In fact they were built to defend Portsmouth from a land based attack rather than from the sea, but in truth before they were finished their guns were outdated and they only ever served as a curiosity, which remains the case today.
Every part of this great house displays something of great interest, a work of art or an intriguing antique. The furnishings and finished decor are exquisite. Relics of the 18th century bearing the marks of Louis XVI hang as reminders of the house’s heritage.
Outside the house, the stables look ready to house a new generation of horses should they arrive at any time. The chapel is ready to welcome a small congregation or a happy wedding party. The old mill house with its chiming clock has an elaborate wooden staircase that would look more at home in the grand house. The beautifully restored greenhouse is a tranquil and evocative repose for Jean-Jacques to listen to his favourite French composers in the company of its lush vegetation. At the opposite end of the gardens which are stocked with beautiful herbaceous borders with their wild flowers blending with the manicured lawns and flanked with decorative canals is a modern pergola built to complement the greenhouse. Peacocks roam with the wildfowl to complete the stunning scene.
Chateau de Pont-Rilly is a gem that thanks to this lovely couple is available to be enjoyed by the rest of the world or at least those lucky enough to spend a short but tranquil time here. It’s not a place to be spoiled by families with young children, you won’t even find a TV here, but in truth you wouldn’t want to waste a minute of your time here other than just enjoying it.
Ray Coggin is both a Taxi Tour Guide and a City of Westminster Guide and leads both walking tours and taxi tours (both highlights and themed) around Central London and further afield. Details of his taxi tours can be found here or sign up to be kept informed of upcoming events, tours and special offers here.