Sharing the dream


Sharing the dream

Date of Activity: 16 Aug 2011

WHEN Paul Solomons took friend Sarah Griffith on a surprise trip to France she assumed it was to show her the house of his dreams, the rural retreat where he hoped to retire.

Little did she know that Chateau Charly, a rundown, 32-acre property in France’s Loire Valley, was destined for so much more. Aid-worker Sarah, who founded Guernsey charities Bridge 2 Sri Lanka and Bridge 2 Haiti, had just got back from a traumatic trip to Haiti and was shell-shocked, but intrigued by the mystery tour.

En route, Paul had arranged accommodation at two lovely chateaux. ‘Make a note of everything you like in the rooms,’ he told Sarah. That’s when she knew he was up to something. The destination was 19th-century Chateau Charly – picture perfect from a distance, in a clear state of decline close-up. Dazed and confused, Sarah followed her friend around the property and the pair left having agreed that although it would be a fantastic location for a bed and breakfast, the place needed too much work. ‘That was in March last year. In July, Soli [Paul] phoned me and said, ‘I’m buying it’,’ she said. When the keys swapped hands in October, the enormity of the project dawned. But Paul had a plan for the chateau – and the penny still hadn’t dropped for Sarah. ‘He said, ‘You’ve got to help me.’ ‘’Soli, I’m going out to Sri Lanka, I’ve got fundraising to do,’ I said.’ But fund-raising was exactly what the wealthy businessman had in mind. Paul planned to use his money – and Sarah’s help – to transform Chateau Charly into a luxury B&B. But here’s the thing. Instead of making it a business, they would make it a not-for-profit organisation, with 100% of the proceeds going directly to Sarah’s two charities. Even more ingenious was that guests would be invited to decide the value of the stay themselves. ‘We think it’s a world first. We don’t think anybody has ever opened a B&B, given all the proceeds to charity and allowed guests to choose how much they want to pay,’ said Sarah, who was amazed and elated by Paul’s idea.

Work on the property began in February and it was a mad dash to complete it before its opening, two days ago. The chateau starred in the Channel Five series Build a New Life in the Country when it was owned by the Park family, who had ambitions of starting a new life in the French countryside. They bit off more than they could chew, but Paul and Sarah were determined their attempt would not meet a similar fate. ‘It’s the most gorgeous place, out of this world, but I’ve seen it looking the pits, with dirty water springing out of the ground. A lot of the place had to be stripped and cleaned, we had to paint most of it, we put wireless lighting in and we’ve taken a lot of effort to ensure it’s as green as possible,’ Sarah explained. The chateau is heated and air conditioned using the latest in green renewable technology – geothermal and aerothermal energy. A 10-metre outdoor swimming pool (pictured above), heated using the latter, has been installed near the coach house and has views of the orchards. A kitchen garden is also planned. The deal was that Paul would stay at the chateau during renovations to oversee the project. Sarah was tasked with furnishing the place. ‘I asked him to give me a budget, but he wouldn’t, so if I found something I liked, I’d send him a photo,’she said. ‘We very rarely disagree.’ She was like a kid in sweetshop, picking out antiques, hand-woven rugs and furniture from India, Afghanistan and other countries as well as sourcing furniture from France, the UK and Guernsey. There’s a Sri Lankan and Haitian presence too, with Buddha heads from the former and handmade wooden bowls. ‘I didn’t want to go berserk and make it too fussy. It’s such a beautiful house, you’ve got to let it speak for itself and preserving its character was very much our aim,’Sarah said. ‘But Guernsey had to be represented. That was quite impor tant to me, because islanders have been so supportive. Four of the suites are named Beaucette, Fermain, Bordeaux and Torteval and we’re getting in some Guernsey teddy bears.’ Paul and Sarah are keen to forge links with local villagers and plan to throw a party, inviting them to look around the finished product. They have also struck up a partnership with boutique wine producer Philippe Raimbault, from the nearby hilltop town of Sancerre. They will sell and promote his wine at the chateau and arrange private tours of his vineyards and he will produce a Chateau Charly wine, with proceeds going to the charities. ‘Because I’ve been so busy, Soli’s just had to get on with it but it’s been great, we’ve not had one cross word,’Sarah said.

She and Paul first met in 2005. He was moving to Guernsey, had read about her aid work and told a mutual acquaintance that he needed to meet her. ‘He’d been living in Malaysia, where he had set up his own fund-raiser which had raised £8,000. He’s very charitably minded and we just became really good friends. His energy is exhausting, actually, but I love him. He’s so quirky,’ said Sarah. ‘He calls me Maj. He says it stands for Queen of Guernsey, which is a bit embarrassing. But he’s so thoughtful. I knew he wanted to retire to France, but I didn’t register what he was planning. It’s amazing and hopefully it can keep the charities ticking over.’ To make the enterprise a success, Sarah said it was vital the project stays vibrant and keeps evolving. The plan is for the chateau to stay open 11 months of the year. It will be a winter wonderland at Christmas and it’s hoped that it will also attract skiers, as there are slopes nearby. ‘We’d love for a whole family to rent it out, or a group of friends, or have it used for corporate functions. We really hope we can encourage islanders to visit.’  Guests who want to see where their money goes can see the chateau’s accounts online. ‘A big part of Bridge 2 Sri Lanka and Bridge 2 Haiti is that people can see exactly where their money is going and it’s going to be exactly the same for Chateau Charly. I want people to see how much their money helps.’

BUILT in 1839, it is near the city of Bourges in the Cher region of central France, a five-hour drive from St Malo. The chateau has five bedroom suites, available on a bed and breakfast basis. Set in 32 acres, it boasts an enormous walled garden, a heated outdoor swimming pool, orchards and woods. Although a rate of 140 euros per night is suggested, guests are invited to pay what they think their stay was worth, all of which will go directly to Bridge 2 Sri Lanka and Bridge 2 Haiti. Evening meals and luxury picnic hampers are available by arrangement and funds raised from these will go towards the chateau’s upkeep.