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February 2011 | Castles, castles everywhere



They say architecture is an old man's game. Not sure who 'they' are, or whether they mean you get better at it as you get older, or that architecture renders you senile before your time. Probably the latter.

Later this week I have to drive north an hour to Ribérac to check out a château, but today I've a less exalted site visit east to Belvès to see some clients I disappointed deeply last summer. Back in June, Colin and Fran had asked me to look at a part-converted watermill in the Dordogne, a property they were hoping to buy, ideally suited to a restaurant and chambres d'hôte, close to a busy road and straddling its mill stream. They had travelled 300km to see it, but it soon became clear to me that the cost of finishing the conversion was way outside their budget, and I had had to break the unwelcome news to them as sensitively as I could.

Well, today I'm off to see them again, they've bought a cottage on the edge of a village and are looking to extend it.

The rolling landscape round Belvès is dotted with large stone houses dominating the walnut groves, but Colin and Fran's cottage is on a much smaller scale. They invite me in with an obviously unfeigned warmth and then embarrass me by saying how grateful they are for my honesty in the summer. They are snug as the proverbial bugs in their new home and want to build on a guest bedroom so they can share their joy (for such it is) with their friends and family. We talk through the options and it's pretty clear to all of us how best to do it, and I leave promising them a fee proposal by email tomorrow.

On the way back I stop to take a photo of a water tower, not something I often do, it has to be said. Known here as châteaux d'eau, water castles, they dot the skyline in their myriad forms, from the most utilitarian to the most graceful. This one is still under construction and has a generosity of form, offering the water up to the gods for blessing, coupled with elegance created by the simple gesture of an understated curved cutoff to the rim rather than a flat one. It's eyecatching and the match for any Olympic flame I've seen.


Show my château d'eau photo (can you have alliteration at the ends of words?) to the guys at the office. Michaël, who is French, says it's normal for French design to be superior to any other. The laughter takes some time to die down and he is of course unable to call on Pierre our project manager to support him, as Pierre is out on site actually working and uncontactable.


Treat myself to lunch at the delightfully pink and well-named Dolce Vita restaurant around the corner from the office. I invite Michaël to join me but he's still sulking and says "Merci mais il faut que je fais du progrès sur ce dossier-ci" (translation: thanks but even a free lunch isn't worth having to listen to you banging on about cricket for an hour and a half.") The menu offers, amongst more conventional offerings, three mystery courses, so I order them. I trust the chef and am not disappointed, despite the appearance of cooked carrots at one point: in my book, an abomination against nature. The dessert, a soufflé glacé au poire et caramel aux noix de macadamia, transports me back to my childhood and my mum's toffee apples and I'm left pretty well whimpering with gratitude and nostalgia.

When I get back, Michaël tells me Pierre's been in and is on his side about French design being best, but there's a shifty look in his eye that tells me he is perhaps fibbing. I lock myself in my office, crawl under the desk and ring Pierre to check. Voicemail, dang!



And so to the château in the Dordogne. Warm honey-coloured stone, views over chestnut-treed hills, a formal box-hedge garden, a shattered and uncomprehending French couple forced to sell. The place has been in their family since 1579, and bears their surname. They are too old and ill to stay and need to find sheltered accommodation, but it's a buyer's market and their asking price is way too high. My English client loves the place, but I can immediately see it needs a lot of work, it's large (it is a château after all) and bringing it up to scratch won't be cheap. And there's a lot of other delightful properties on the market, less pricy than this. Even the estate agent whispers to me to stress how much work needs doing: seems it's not just the sellers who are desperate. I spend most of the afternoon scheduling delapidations and sketching improvements that respect the building and its setting, all the time trying to reassure the châtelaine that my client doesn't want to turn her family home into a nightclub or worse.

Back now after a long and draining phone call to the client. I need to sleep.


Get to work, still jangling from yesterday's tension. It's been a week for castles. Water castles, a castle in the Dordogne, castles in the air or, as the French have it, castles in Spain. It's not been an entirely comfortable week but the good news today is the French couple whose castle has been their family home for half a millennium have agreed terms with my client. They shall have their dignity in retirement, and my Englishman's castle will be his home.

 Neil Vesma’s Architect’s practice is at Villeréal near Bergerac. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or tel 0033 675 847 176, or visit his website www.neilvesma.com