A British couple have told of a “roller coaster” few years in which they moved from renting a static caravan in England to becoming the owners of an entire hamlet of houses in Normandy.
Landscape gardeners Paul Mappley and Yip Ward, 48, had never owned property in the UK, and were looking at prices of around £300,000 in their area of Kent, when a friend offered them the opportunity to buy a cottage in La Buslière (Manche) for €12,000 (£10,000) in 2019.
They took the chance and soon discovered that their new end-of-terrace house formed part of an uninhabited hamlet with a total of six cottages, two barns, a workshop, well, hay loft, functioning cider press, communal bread oven, pig shed and two acres of land.
La Buslière had once been home to workers farming the surrounding land, who lived 40 minutes’ walk from the nearest village and so had to become largely self-sufficient.
However, depopulation in the latter half of the twentieth century meant that most of the cottages have been empty for the past 30 years.
Saddened by the crumbling state of the other buildings, Paul and Yip wondered whether there might be a way to save them.
Entire hamlet cost them €26,000
They managed to contact the owners and found they could buy the rest of La Buslière for €14,000 (around £12,000), bringing the total price of the whole hamlet to €26,000.
Faced with an offer they could not refuse, they went ahead with the purchase and set about restoring their new home, in a project which is now being featured in a Channel 4 series.
“We moved in July, and then the autumn was fine, because we were working so hard to do everything,” they told The Connexion.
“Then – I think it could be similar for any country really – but the winter felt very long. January and February were quite dark months, and we struggled adjusting to our lack of language, and to owning a hamlet after living in a rented caravan,” Yip said.
“It was very overwhelming.
“We were really happy some days but then we did wonder whether we could pull it off,” Paul added. “It was a roller coaster.
“And we feel a certain sense of responsibility. We bought the rest of the buildings because we feel passionate about saving them, and so then there’s a pressure. But never ever did we think we had made a mistake moving to France; it’s the best thing we have ever done.
“Even if we didn’t do anything else with the other cottages, we have got our house and the other buildings for €26,000, which is less than a deposit on a house in the UK!”
“We will never pay rent again and that’s a huge thing for us.”
Yip and Paul working on their hamlet after sandblasting oak beams. Credit: Yip Ward and Paul Mappley
From derelict village to holiday destination
Their plan is now to restore the other buildings to create a holiday destination with a gîte and ‘glamping’ facilities. “We want to share this lovely space with people,” Yip said.
“We’ve removed all of the vegetation from the buildings now” they said. “We’ve uncovered buildings and pig sheds and all sorts.”
While the cottages still require a good deal of work, Paul and Yip hope to welcome their first guests in a matter of weeks, and will be offering stays in a “vintage horse box-lorry” which they first converted into a living space in the UK.
“We’re really proud of the work we have done on that lorry,” they said. “In the morning, when the sun is shining and we put both doors down, it is just lovely. We want to share it with others.”
The lorry will be serviced by a utility building, which Paul has just finished re-roofing with the help of “a few YouTube clips” and advice from a friend.
“It’s not a small task; we’ve never ever touched a roof before,” the couple said. “Laying the last tile really brought out some emotion for us.
Across the whole site, “we have done 98% of all the work ourselves.
“When we have the lorry up and running, I’m going to move over to the bread oven and have it done out as a kitchen area,” Paul added. I could do pizza nights or the guests can hire it, and I think that will be integral to the business.”
The project will require funding beyond Paul and Yip’s savings, so the couple have started a GoFundMe page for anyone wishing to contribute.
Uncovering traces of the past
One of the most important aspects of Paul and Yip’s work on the village has been making room for the past while simultaneously opening the way for a new era in the hamlet’s history.
Paul said: “It’s very important for us to put things back as they are,” with Yip adding: “When we’ve been clearing out the loft spaces and going right into the eaves, clearing out hay and animal droppings, we have on a couple of occasions found a child’s shoe.
“We have been told that it had been a tradition to put a shoe in the wall to ward away evil spirits, so we have made sure to put them back.
“A lot of our work here is not about reinstating but about deconstruction, ripping things off to uncover lovely original features.
“The best thing that we have found was when we took off some awful wet plaster to find some amazing stonework going up our staircase. We saw this huge stone right in the middle of it, and wondered where this Stonehenge type slab had come from!
“We have a fireplace in the cottage next door which our cameraman – who is an archaeology and history buff – has said has Norman carvings on it, over 950 years old.
“We haven’t found any old gold or anything like that but we’re still keeping our fingers crossed for something that would help the roof fund!”
Memories of local people revived
The couple’s presence in the hamlet also appears to be bringing back memories for local people, many of whom have “only ever known this place as a place ravaged by nature for the past 30 years.
“We were visited here by a lady who still lives in the nearby village. She came with her daughter and grandson and they had a wander around to see how we were getting on. She used to live in one of the cottages and was married in our barn.
“The history here is amazing. We’re just a blip in these buildings’ history and we feel privileged to be part of that.”
Feeling constantly like they are walking in the footsteps of past generations, Paul and Yip are eager to hear from any local historians or people with knowledge of the area, who may be able to give them some more information on or show them photographs of the hamlet’s history.
‘Grateful’ for the opportunities France has provided
“In England, we lived on a friend’s farm and rented a static mobile home,” Paul and Yip said, adding that they wanted to start a small business with their converted horse box, but were “dependent on other people’s land, which often didn’t have water or electricity.
“It was a frustration of ours for many years. France has not just made the dream of owning our own home come true but also the dream of starting a small business.
“We haven’t come here to make loads of money; we would just be happy if people could come here and enjoy it, and that we can have an income.
“We came to France for a better quality of life, and just to enjoy things more. We’re really grateful that France gave us an opportunity that England couldn’t.
The couple have also been touched by the welcome they have received from their new neighbours, Paul saying: “There is a French family who farm all around us and they have been so helpful. They have invited us into their home; we’re always up there having dinner. It’s an honour.
“A lot of people will ask us: ‘How have you been received by the French?’ but right from day dot our French neighbours have been offering help, so we feel really really grateful to them.”
The biggest challenge for both of them has been picking up the language.
“When we first came here we could probably say two words in French, so it has been really difficult, because we’re both used to communicating very effectively in the UK,” Yip said.
A restoration brought to life on screen
Paul and Yip’s move and ongoing project has been featured in the Channel 4 series Help! We Bought a Village, which also follows several other couples dotted around Europe.
“People are seeing the journey in quite an immediate way,” Yip said, “from the day we moved here to the point we are at now. Hopefully it will follow us through right to the end.
“Trying to adjust to someone following you around and having to talk through what you’re doing is a bit odd, but it has been fun.
“We were worried about how we would come across, but [the programme] is absolutely brilliant and a true representation of us. And that’s a lot to do with the people behind the camera, who made it very easy for us.”