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From chateau to treehouse: How Covid changed our French B&B business

Andy and Natalie Solomon share their story of how the pandemic transformed their hospitality business

A family affair: the €800,000 chateau in Limousin owned by Andy and Natalie Solomon Pic: Andy and Natalie Solomon / supplied by interviewees

Many people who manage to buy a chateau often spend years dreaming about it before taking the plunge – but for Andy and Natalie Solomon,buying such a lavish property was not top of their wish list.

Instead, when they began house hunting in France, their criteria were fairly modest: a home suitable for running a hospitality business that could also comfortably accommodate their two children – Finn, now nine, and Robyn, seven – with a separate building for Natalie’s parents, Geoff and Pam, who made the move to France with them. When they came across Château Memanat for sale for €800,000 in Limousin in 2016, however, it ticked all the boxes.

“We had viewed a few properties in the Dordogne, but nothing seemed quite right,” says Natalie, 36.

“Then this place in Limousin came up on the internet and we decided to take a look.”

The chateau came with an attached farmhouse, providing the separate living spaces the two couples craved, as well as outbuildings and a whopping 20 hectares of land – plenty for Pam’s three horses, three donkeys, two goats and flock of chickens.

Solomon family: Andy, Natalie, their children and her parents Pic: Andy and Natalie Solomon / supplied by interviwee

The previous owners had taken care of the property, and it was in good condition. However, the new family had ambitious plans for it.

“We redecorated, going for a classic look with vintage and antique furniture, and neutral tones on the walls,” says Natalie. “And we created guest rooms furnished with king-size beds with upholstered frames.”

Natalie and Andy, 40, also wanted to create additional guest accommodation in the grounds and looked into options including tipis, a purpose built ‘hobbit hut’ and treehouses.

In the end, the treehouse idea won out and they employed a company from Dordogne to build one complete with a king-size bedroom, a children’s room in a turret accessed by a ladder, and a hot-tub on the terrace, overlooking rolling countryside.

Privacy is guaranteed for guests, with breakfast delivered to the 4m-high terrace via a winch.

The family opened their doors to B&B guests within the chateau in 2017, and launched the treehouse as an additional space in 2018.

“We had plenty of bookings and, although it was hard work looking after guests while caring for the children, business was going well.”

“Then the pandemic hit and everything changed,” says Natalie.

“At first, like everyone, we had to close. Then, when we were able to open again, the rules were really strict. We decided to just concentrate on letting the treehouse accommodation, rather than having to wear masks in our own home.”

The strategy has proved so successful that the family have now decided not to reopen the chambres d’hôtes in the chateau, but rather to keep it as a family space.

“It is difficult having people in your home when you have children. You constantly worry about noise and it means you cannot really relax,” says Natalie.

Instead, they have obtained planning permission for two further treehouses.

A treehouse in the grounds Pic: Andy and Natalie Solomon / supplied by interviewees

The realities of ‘chateau life’

So, what are the realities of ‘chateau life’? For Natalie, the biggest shock has been the cost of running such a sprawling property. “Everything you want to do has an enormous price tag,” she says.

“We had a quote for replacing the front door and it was over €7,000.”

Staying warm also proved challenging: “We did not have heating for a couple of years – just an open fire and one wood burner. It was freezing – especially as the chateau did not have any insulation.

“But we have now got new log burners, a granular heater and have also invested in wood-fired central heating.

“It is still expensive – we get through about 10 cord (1,280 cubic feet) of wood a year – but because of where we are, we do have fallen trees that we can chop up, and a farmer who will sell us wood at a reasonable cost.” The size and scope of the chateau and its grounds also makes it difficult to leave for too long.

Antique interior furnishing Natalie has chosen for the treehouse Pic: Andy and Natalie Solomon / supplied by interviewees

“In our UK property, we could lock up and leave and be fairly confident everything would be okay when we got back,” says Natalie.

“Here, I get anxious if we are away for more than three or four days – if there is going to be a problem, it is going to be a big one.”

Despite the hard work and extra expense, the family has no regrets.

“When we signed for the chateau, we were jumping around,” says Natalie. “We could not believe we owned such an amazing building. And it still feels amazing every day.”

Related stories:

We bought a hotel in France: From ‘go home’ graffiti to Michelin star

Dordogne, Brittany: Eight French châteaux for sale for under €700,000

Chateau an hour from Paris available to part-own for less than €60

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