French manoir restoration could win ‘historic’ status

A single-handed restoration of a 14th-century manoir has been done to such a standard that the building and the complex around it are heading for monument historique status.

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Olivier Thomas has been working on the building in Brittany since 2008 after hours from his job ensuring the maintenance of schools and has taught himself the techniques used by the original constructors.

Unlike them, though, he has had to learn a whole range of skills, becoming, in turn, a stonemason, carpenter, roofer and blacksmith.

“This is actually my second restoration project – I had to sell the first when I was divorced – and I decided that this time I would do it as close to the original techniques as possible,” he said.

“I was very lucky to find the manoir in the state it was, with the original buildings and outbuildings and so I decided the restoration will be as thorough as possible.”

Many of Brittany’s manoirs, which range from fortified farms through to chateaux, were lost during the building boom along the coast which started in the 1850s and continues today.

They were often left in a dilapidated state, and demand for Brittany stone was so great that they were razed and the precious stone carted away.

Mr Thomas’s home, the Manoir de Locmaria in the commune of Carnoët, was spared because of its isolated position and because it was owned by a rich butcher’s family, who left it as part of a larger parcel of land they rented out.

The last nobles in the manoir stopped living in it before the revolution, during which it was confiscated and declared a national property.

Later it was sold at a candle auction, and passed through a couple of owners before the butcher bought it, just as his business was taking off.

Mr Thomas, who has been passionate about history since he was a teenager, has been able to trace the history of the buildings, and even settlements on the site long before they were built.

During his work he has found stone tools from Neolithic times, Roman coins, and marbles and other toys from the medieval period.

The manoir and its land were bought for €130,000 in 2008 and Mr Thomas has financed the restoration himself. “I have had to buy in slates, for example, but for much of the building materials, I have been able to use what I have found stacked away on the site,” he said.

“That way I was able to do most of the roof using old oak, which matched the original parts still in place. Whenever I find a nice building stone, it is carefully put in a pile to be used later.”

The roof and the tower were all done mainly single-handed, with a system of two chain pulleys used to lift the timbers into place.

Inside the manoir, visitors “step back six or seven centuries”, said Mr Thomas. “I have electricity and running water, but it is all hidden away as much as possible, and there is no plasterboard and no tiles.

“The kitchen had a beaten earth floor when I came, and it was only by chance that I discovered the original flagstones underneath.

“Now they are the floor, even if it does make it a bit uneven to walk on and not so easy to clean.”

Mr Thomas started his interest in history by working on his family tree as a teenager, discovering that his “ordinary Brittany family” had a mixed heritage which included nobles as well as beggars.

“I quickly found that things became hazy after my great-grandparents and so started following trails through old records. My father encouraged me and we visited some of the places where our ancestors probably lived.”

This interest led him to do a degree in civil engineering at Limoges after school, specialising in historic roads and bridges – something which came in useful when working on old buildings, “where you have to be aware of where the loads are”.

Right from the start of his work on Manoir de Locmaria, Mr Thomas built up an archive, both of the history of the building and of the work he carried out, and it was largely because of this archive that he was taken seriously when he began the monument historique application,.

“They prefer work to be carried out by verified artisans, but when they came to inspect, they said the work was as good as, if not better than, most artisans,” he said.

The application has been approved at a regional level, but national approval has been blocked because the commune does not want to sell a bit of communal road in part of the manoir complex, in spite of the regional council recommending it.

Mr Thomas is hopeful things will change after this month’s municipal elections.

Guided visits to the Manoir started last year and will continue this year, probably at weekends from July 14, and cost €10 for adults and €5 for children.

Details will be posted on the website