Escape to the Chateau DIY 2020: how creative Londoners Tim and Sasha overcame a renovation nightmare to create a successful wedding venue and hotel
After a disastrous holiday home renovation left them so scarred they had to watch DIY programmes from behind their hands, horror film-style, you might expect Londoners Tim and Sasha never to embark on another building project.
But they went even further, upgrading from the house they’d bought in the south of France to a nearby chateau.
The intrepid couple feature today in the first episode of a new series of Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau: DIY.
The series follows the trials and tribulations of Brits seduced by France’s spectacular historic castles and manor houses which often boast dozens of rooms — yet sell for less than the price of one-bedroom London flat.
The trade-off for the proud new owners of these magnificent landmark buildings is the extensive and expensive work that often needs to be done to make them habitable — as Tim, 73, and wife Sasha, 69, have discovered twice over.
Once bitten, twice shy?
Having worked in London for 30 years, photographer Tim and Sasha, a trained chef and artist who had run a couture fashion business, initially bought a “total wreck” to renovate as a holiday home. It turned into a “nightmare project”.
“That experience is one of the reasons we can never look at programmes like Escape to the Chateau,” says Tim. “We were let down very badly by two lots of builders and never stayed a night in that property. We just about broke even when we sold it.”
But by then, the couple had fallen in love with the area. When they heard about a wine chateau for sale nearby, they sold Tim’s photography studio and flat in Gloucester Road.
In 2002 they spent €450,000 on the Chateau du Puits Es Pratx, dating back to 1840, in the Languedoc, south of France. The remaining sum of about £300,000 from the sale of their London property, as well as a significant bank loan, went into renovating the outbuildings on the estate.
“The beauty of the chateau completely sucked us in, we had a vision of what it could be and a vision of what it would have been in its history,” says Tim.
“When we bought it the place was dead. It belonged to a retired arms dealer who used it as his summer pad and had done nothing to it for 16 years and we were excited about bringing it back to life.”
Masters of reinvention
Tim and Sasha planned to run courses at the chateau in photography, painting and cooking. “We made peanuts,” says Tim. “We had to reinvent ourselves. We had a lot of outhouses and cottages where employees of the vineyard had lived and a huge building which had been the old wine hall. So we converted the cottages into self-catering holiday homes.”
In 2007 the couple were forced to reinvent themselves yet again when the euro shot up in value against the pound, making holidays in France much more expensive for Brits. At the same time they started to get requests from British couples to host their weddings at the chateau.
“Sasha’s work as a couturier meant she had a lot of experience in the wedding business so in November 2007 we said yes to five weddings the following year,” says Tim.
“We asked the bank for a lot of money and I designed the whole thing because it was a bit of a blank canvas. We started on January 7, 2008 and finished the day before our first wedding, four months later on May 5.”
To tide them over outside the summer wedding season, the couple also created a restaurant and hotel, catering mostly for French locals.
An ongoing project
In common with their fellow escapees to the chateau, the couple find maintaining and upgrading their historic property is a constant project requiring regular cash injections.
Says Tim: “Projects recur every year, we have to invest a certain amount of money, from 12,000 euros resurfacing the swimming pool to 14,000 euros doing up the cottage roofs, which were all put together with limestone and mortar.”
The latest series of Escape to the Chateau: DIY sees the couple hosting a New Year’s Eve party to bring in extra winter income and trying to host successful weddings during the summer heatwave. They are also filmed installing a Jacuzzi and revamping the original bathing pool as part of a new spa and “wellness garden”.
The couple’s youngest daughter, Lily, 25, now works with them running the kitchen, along with her boyfriend, Luke, a trained plasterer who oversees the wedding parties. Tim does a lot of the wedding photography for their guests, while Sasha has built up the restaurant’s reputation as executive chef.
Despite the couple’s now-successful history of renovating a French property, they still find it tricky watching themselves on the programme.
“It can all be excruciatingly embarrassing,” says Tim. “We had a couple of whiskies before we watched our first episode last year.”
See Tim and Sasha on Escape to the Chateau: DIY every weekday from today at 4pm on Channel 4.