NORMANDY’S oldest manor house has been named the best restoration in France after 10 years of work that transformed the Manoir du Catel from a fire-damaged broken shell into a magnificent Middle Ages building that the Abbés de Fécamp would easily recognise.
The restoration is the work of Frédéric Toussaint who bought the ruin in 2000 after fire had destroyed an annexe and the ravages of time had seen one of the four towers collapse, the fortified gate fallen in ruins and many of the internal structures in bad disrepair.
His years of work and investment at Ecretteville-lès-Baons in Seine-Maritime have been rewarded with a €30,000 prize and the Grand Trophée from the Propriétés de France and the Fondation pour les Monuments Historiques.
Mr Toussaint, who took on the project after selling his communications business in Paris, said: “I wanted to give it back its authenticity by restoring its beauty.”
The work has cost Mr Toussaint nearly €1.4million, including €161,000 for the enclosure walls, €154,000 for the roof, €152,000 for the fortified gate and the south-west tower, €151,000 for the firstfloor windows and €93,000 for the wooden framework and the facades.
He was both helped and hindered by the building being made a Monument Historique in 2010 as it meant he had to use highly-experienced tradesmen for the work – at prices about 30% above other artisans – but it also allowed him public aid from the Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles and the conseil général that amounted to €620,000 plus tax allowances on his spending.
Speaking to Le Figaro, one of the Grand Trophée sponsors, he said: “France has one of the best thought-out aid programmes in the world for protecting its heritage. It is the only way that private owners can possibly save such buildings.
“Believe me, you end up counting the sous! I have not had a holiday in 10 years!
“I know that if I can save €1,000 the state will match it – and with €2,000 I can restore a door!”
Now the manor house is open for visits all year round and is used by school students to learn about medieval masonry and woodworking techniques.
Some of its most cherished objects are not immediately on view as former occupants of the vaults – thousands of prisoners – have left their mark in the form of around 3,000 pieces of graffiti.
After the property was built in 1270 by Richard de Treigots, Abbé de Fécamp, the house was the main court of justice in the area and remained in use as a prison until the Revolution.
Prisoners carved graffiti into the walls of the ground-floor vaults with many featuring their main fear: death. Skeletons, death figures, Satan with horns and hanged men feature heavily. There are also ships, churches and coats of arms.
Photo: ©Amand Berteigne