With their spectacular French home closed to wedding parties because of Covid, Dick and Angel Strawbridge had to find ever more inventive ways of getting by (and to deal with ugly rumours). Sophie Heawood wonders if they ever thought of packing it all in…
All right, I’ll admit it. I wanted to interview Dick and Angel, stars of the hit Channel 4 reality show Escape to the Chateau, to find out how lockdown had been for them.
Their idyllic 19th-century castle in France is the sort of place many of us were dreaming about when we were stuck in our semis – fantasising about floating around the 45 rooms, which include three kitchens and an art studio, or cooking gastronomic delights with produce plucked from one’s own walled garden, going for long, rambling walks in the private 12-acre estate or perhaps just boating around your own moat. Having visited them two years previously for YOU magazine, I certainly found myself doing a fair bit of daydreaming about what their life was like while I was trapped in my terraced house with its dingy patio.
But maybe, just maybe, the Strawbridges went bonkers in all that isolation? Got sick of la vie en France? Perhaps, with their wedding business put on hold while the pandemic raged, the château – already a substantial money pit – had fallen into rack and ruin and they had had to cancel the TV series? Or had all that cleaning got to them? Did I mention they have 45 rooms?!
I put this all to Angel when we meet, and she goes perfectly pink. She’s already a rosy-cheeked sort, but she’s blushing up a storm. And that’s when I realise – darn it – these irrepressible Strawbridges, with their massive lust for life, even loved lockdown. ‘I didn’t want to say yes because I feel guilty. But yes. Yes!’ she exclaims, before drifting off into a further reverie about how ‘lovely it was doing all that deep cleaning’, as well as ‘having time to get into all the decluttering…’
Of course, after five years living in an actual castle, the clutter has started to add up – Dick says proudly ‘we have filled the château’ – and when they say it’s their forever home, what I think they mean is that they won’t ever be able to leave. Dick says they sometimes jest about retiring to a bungalow, trying to fit in all their possessions ‘like a giant game of Tetris’.
Dick does concede that, ‘We did have an advantage at the scale of our isolation. I had a daughter down in Spain and she had a tiny terrace and that was it. We were quite fortunate to have this space around us.’
Dick is referring to his daughter Charlotte, 35, from his first marriage, to environmental activist Brigit Weiner – the pair wed in 1982 and divorced in 2010 after 28 years. They also have a son – James, 37 – a chef who has appeared on Escape to the Chateau. Dick, 62, a former lieutenant colonel and engineer, met second wife Angel, 43, in 2010 at a mutual friend’s 40th birthday party. They had two children – Arthur (eight) and Dorothy (seven) – before marrying in 2015.
Almost immediately the pair decided to uproot their young family for a new adventure in Northwest France– spending £280,000 on the dilapidated Château de la Motte Husson– and bringing it painstakingly back to life. The resulting documentary – Escape to the Chateau, which first aired in 2016 – enraptured the nation, with viewers falling not only for the stunning transformation of the property (the château had neither electricity nor running water) but also the sweet, romantic relationship between the husband-and-wife team.
The show established itself as one of the network’s most popular, and has been extremely fruitful for the Strawbridges – the château is now worth an estimated £2 million and the couple charge tens of thousands of pounds a day to use it as a wedding venue. The pair also have a merchandising empire comprising ranges of fragrances, soft furnishings and flowers.
With the house being so quiet during lockdown they decided to tackle some – as Dick puts it – ‘big projects. We did battle with our roof.’ Angel has a different take on it: ‘It was messy, dirty, dust everywhere. The place was like a building site.’ But for the Strawbridges it wasn’t just about continuing to improve their home but also keeping in employment those whose livelihoods are intertwined with the château. ‘You have to keep your team working – because this is everybody’s life and wellbeing.’
Weren’t they worried – with the wedding business on hold and the château needing constant attention – that they wouldn’t have the money to pay the staff? ‘Our biggest revenue is the weddings without a shadow of a doubt,’ says Angel. ‘They supplement everything, including the TV work,’ agrees Dick. So with that source of income shut down, the Strawbridges did what they always do – came up with a new plan and put their hearts and souls into it.
And so it was that last year they embarked on their first-ever tour, Dare To Do It, which traversed the UK and saw Dick, Angel and their children sharing stories and tips from their adventures in France. ‘It was a short tour because we were taking the kids with us. It sold out and, honestly, it was one of the best things we’d ever done’, says Angel. Not that she found public speaking easy. ‘Dick’s amazing at it – doesn’t get butterflies or anything – whereas I…’
Dick picks up the story. ‘Do you know how the tour worked for Angel? How she became so brave and so wonderful? Because Arthur led her out on to the stage the very first time. He was protecting her. It was so humbling.’ Angel agrees: ‘My heart was going so fast and my head was dizzy, and if I hadn’t had Arthur leading me… I thought, “I can’t fumble in front of the children.”’
The tour was hugely popular. ‘At every theatre, we stayed until they chucked us out and we did photos and selfies with hundreds of people every night,’ says Angel. The money they made helped keep their business above water. ‘The success meant we didn’t go into complete panic mode,’ she says.
Returning to France after the tour, there were clearly worse places to ‘work from home’ than a 19th-century palace, but surely such stately surroundings couldn’t save them from the horrors of homeschooling? Their children both attend the local primary in normal times, so presumably they had their hands full – as so many of us did – trying to educate them? ‘I had three people in my Daddy’s School,’ says Dick. ‘Arthur, Dorothy and Angel. Angel got detention twice at the first morning session – and never came back!’
‘I’m too much of a rebel,’ Angel demurs, admitting that formal education is not her favourite thing: ‘Let’s hope we never have to do that again, as I thought Daddy’s School was too strict.’ Here, I think, at last, I have found a chink in their armour… except it transpires that this strictness, which Dick gleaned from a childhood in Northern Ireland and a career in the military, has really paid off with the kids. Daddy’s School went so well that Arthur went back to his primary with a higher level of maths than he left it with.
‘You can ask Arthur what is the square root of 49 and he’ll give it to you,’ says Dick, really getting into his stride now – anyone who has watched the show will know how much he loves using trigonometry to calculate the dimensions of curved bookshelves in turrets. ‘What’s 25 cubed? All stuff that eight-year-olds shouldn’t know.’
When they weren’t teaching algebra to their children, the pair resisted the chance to rest on their laurels by penning a new book together. Called Living the Château Dream, it chronicles the years they’ve spent building their French paradise. Dick’s entries include all his adventures such as fitting a plumbing system into the crumbling house, trying to put a lift shaft into a turret, learning to pick non-poisonous mushrooms, and killing the family’s cockerel for food.
From Angel, we learn how she built up the wedding business ‒ including how she really feels about the couples who come to stay ‒ and what it felt like to host their very first guests. With all this extra time spent working together – the two wrote great chunks of the book side by side while lying in bed, typing away on separate laptops – I can’t help but wonder if it didn’t lead to some spectacular rows? ‘No! This is the nice thing,’ states Angel, ‘We definitely have disagreements…’
Dick interjects, ‘…and then Angel goes and gets an email that proves she was right!’
‘I do,’ laughs Angel, ‘There’s no limit to what I’ll do to prove I’m right about something.’
Of course, never doing things by half, the pair also filmed a new series of Escape to the Chateau, in which we will see them uncover whole new rooms they didn’t even know existed. ‘It’s the gospel truth,’ says Dick. ‘There’s a quarter of our attic in the main château we’d never looked into. I had a little peek and pulled out a musket from one corner of it, which is very exciting – and that’s now hanging up in another room.’
Since we’re talking about the TV show, I have to ask if rumours about them falling-out with some former staff are true. It was reported that the independent production company that filmed the first four series of Escape to the Chateau had accused Dick and Angel of bullying – that Dick had had a physical altercation with one crew member, threatening to throw him out of the window. Both were also said to have sworn at TV staff.
‘It’s not even worth investigating,’ says Dick, shaking his head at what he claims to be nonsense. ‘We don’t talk about it because it’s not worth worrying about.’ He points out that they have a very low turnover of crew, most of whom have stayed for years and were so annoyed about the gossip that ‘they were all saying they wanted to sell their happy story, as it were, to put the truth across’.
‘I would say that we are loving and open – what you see is what you get. If you come into our home – and it’s our home, not a TV set – and maybe treat us in a certain way, then we may reciprocate,’ adds Angel, firmly (if not a little cryptically). ‘We have so many people coming through, and we always like having selfies and everything like that. There is a line, though, and if you cross it… end of.’
Did they not consider, I wonder, with all the hard work that goes into their business, just disappearing from public view and never doing another series of the show? ‘We consider it every year,’ Dick says. ‘It’s always a choice.’ Angel adds, ‘It’s because we feel genuinely humbled that there’s still an incredible warmth and interest in us out there. Also, I don’t really have any memories of the first ten years of my life. There aren’t really any photos. So I think how amazing it’s going to be for Dorothy and Arthur to look back [at the TV shows] and see what we did together, this whole magical childhood.’
Talking of magic, so otherworldly is it that she realised recently she has raised children who find themselves startled when they hear an emergency siren. ‘We were in the local town – they were wondering what’s going on and didn’t know what it was!’ As for iPads and games consoles? No chance – the family’s entertainment is a little more celestial. ‘One beautiful clear Friday night and we were all sitting outside,’ says Dick, ‘chatting about our day and looking up at the stars and I realised, in my time in London, I don’t think I ever saw the stars at all.’ Angel picks up the topic: ‘It’s been nice to have time as a family. We had lots of firsts – Arthur had his first coffee [laughs]. What this year has done for us is to solidify that you just have to embrace the moment.’ Dick agrees: ‘One of the things that sticks in my mind most is the family breakfasts. Arthur makes a guacamole, Angel does the scrambled eggs and bits and pieces and I wash up. It’s lovely.’
As lovely as it was though to enjoy that downtime, the irrepressible Strawbridges aren’t stopping – there is more to work on, more to show, more to share. ‘Next year is going to be huge,’ declares Angel, referring to the restart proper of the château hosting weddings. ‘It’s the year of celebrations. It is going to be incredible and so emotional when everyone can get together again.’
Of course, paradise has not been entirely reached yet, as one of Dick’s main motivations for moving to France was so he could enjoy the nation’s famous two-hour lunch break. ‘Five years later,’ he says, grimacing and grinning at the same time, ‘we’re still waiting to get one.’ With all that the Strawbridges want to achieve, I think its going to be a while yet before they get to enjoy such a déjeuner.
Living The Château Dream by Dick and Angel Strawbridge will be published on 28 October by Seven Dials, price £20*. To read an exclusive extract, click here. The new series of Escape to the Chateau begins tonight on Channel 4, and then via catch-up on All 4.
TO ORDER A COPY FOR £17 UNTIL 7 NOVEMBER, GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3308 9193. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £20.