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Fireplaces fired our imagination

Creative couple Peter Woodcock and Debrah Smith carved themselves out a stunning, home in Carcassonne. LOUISE HURREN

PETER Woodcock and Debrah Smith had been toying with the idea of purchasing a holiday home in France, as an escape from their busy, somewhat stressful London lives (he worked as an accountant for an advertising agency; Debrah was the creative director of a brand design consultancy). So in 2005 they bought three shabby apartments, running across the entire first floor of an 18th century townhouse, two minutes’ walk from Carcassonne’s main square.

Their plan was to create a classy, contemporary-style bolt-hole to be used while they pursued their careers in the UK, working towards a time when they could move across to France.

The transformation of their Languedoc property from crumbling wreck to luxury pad took quite some doing. As Peter explains: “When we bought them, the apartments were habitable – but only just.

“What caught our eye were the fabulous period fireplaces, parquet flooring, plaster mouldings and panelling: the ceilings were four metres high. At around 300m2 this was a huge property and it gave us some wonderful material to start with, but there was no kitchen to speak of and the solitary bathroom was downright disgusting.”

An initial post-purchase burst of activity saw some rapid changes: a brand-new kitchen was installed (Peter is a very keen cook), and a bedroom and living room were given a new lease of life, but it was only when Peter resigned from his full-time job in the UK that the renovation work really started in earnest.

From summer 2006 until the end of 2007 he combined a part-time job in London with the entire renovation of the three apartments: this included complete re-wiring and plumbing, installation of no less than five bathrooms and three kitchens, and top-to-toe redecoration throughout.

Peter did the lion’s share of the hard graft, with help from some local builder-decorator contacts and friends.

Floors were sanded, waxed and painted; false ceilings were removed to reveal the original dimensions. Walls were knocked down and the space was carefully reconfigured to create an office and utility room, living room, dining room, a spacious kitchen and two en-suite bedrooms.

A designer by training, Debrah was responsible for the interiors. “I was not too bothered by the crumbling structure or peeling paintwork,” she laughs.

“What I could see was the vast amount of space and potential: the period features, high ceilings, double doors, oak floorboards, marble fireplaces – these really fired my imagination.

“I had a vision of walls painted in a mixture of bold and calm hues, for maximum dramatic effect; this was my opportunity to carve out a really stylish, ancient-meetsmodern interior.”

With the building work complete, Debrah set about transforming the long-neglected townhouse into the chic French home of her dreams.

“My style is somewhere between glamorous and casual,” she says, admitting to spending many happy hours scouring local brocante junk shops and flea markets to find the eclectic mix that makes 42 Rue Victor Hugo so distinctive.

“I spent a lot of time online too,” she adds, explaining her philosophy of combining the cheap and cheerful, sourced from high street stores (think built-it-yourself shelving and MDF work surfaces), with characterful, authentic pieces to create a classic yet contemporary look.

The dramatic dining room is the perfect illustration of how Debrah combines designer pieces with bargain buys: the curtains are made from recycled taffeta, but the lamp and chairs are “splurge” purchases from very well-known names.

Expensive paint was bought from high end supplier Farrow & Ball, but savings were made on modest dressmaking fabrics found on eBay; the highly original “horse” picture on the wall is one of Debrah’s own, made from an enlarged photograph cut into pieces and reassembled; it contrasts sharply with a 17th century Basque-style painting that also hangs in the room.

“Cooking is a real passion of mine, so we made an extra effort to get the kitchen right,” says Peter.

An expert fitter had to be called in because the original tiled floor was so uneven, and the black walls add a certain drama to the space – although the lofty ceilings ensure that the room never feels cramped.

The main bathroom does not have any windows, but Peter and Debrah made the decision to turn a potential problem into a positive feature: “We embraced the lack of natural light, and made it dark and dramatic,” says Peter, who painted the walls in a shade reminiscent of espresso coffee.

“Oddly, the space does seem enhanced, because you lose the edges, and anything that gleams – like taps, basins and the shower head – really stands out.”

A maze of small rooms was done away with to create an open plan, loft-style space that serves as a study.

Made-to-measure book shelves were beyond the budget, so a high street shelving system was given a make-over instead, while the original floor tiles were restored to their former glory with large amounts of elbow grease.

In total, the couple spent around £60,000 on their French home.

They had never taken on a major renovation project, and as they continued living in London until most of the work was done, it took them a good two years to complete the process.

However, with canny vision, they sold their terraced house in the UK and used some of the proceeds to fund two selfcontained studios within their Carcassonne home, realising that an urban oasis in the south of France had lots of potential to generate some income that way.

In 2008, they opened their doors to paying guests and launched a boutique B&B business.

“The admin is minimal because I can keep my own accounts and we are a very small operation – it’s just two suites, contained within our own home,” says Peter.

“I offer cookery holidays and oversee the suite rentals, and Debrah continues to work as a design consultant, flying back to the UK for client meetings when necessary. Life is good.”

Indeed it must be: the couple have recently embarked upon another Languedoc renovation project, but this time in a rural setting.

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