They’re the adorably eccentric couple whose transformation of a 45-room derelict pile became a must-watch TV phenomenon. And now Dick and Angel Strawbridge have opened their home to Sophie Heawood for an exclusive peek at a typical family Christmas, château-style.
If ever there was a way, on entering a grand château in deepest France, of being made to feel instantly at home, it’s having a young man called Arthur Strawbridge, six, come barrelling at you, and hug you so hard that you topple over. His sister Dorothy, five, seems a little shy, but she’s soon squealing with excitement at having visitors too, as I dust myself down and take in the grand, artistic residence that to them is just home.
None of this is a surprise if you’ve ever watched Escape to the Château on Channel 4, and seen the world created by the eccentric, inventive and downright adorable Dick and Angel, their parents and our hosts for the day. ‘Welcome!’ they say, with smiles almost as wide as the house – which has 45 rooms – before ushering the YOU team into the salon, which looks so rarefied on telly and yet feels surprisingly cosy in real life, and giving us tea and cakes and insisting we eat them all.
‘When it comes to the winter it’s a snuggle-down place in here, with the fire and the telly we’ve got hidden in a cupboard,’ explains Dick, 60, who is as cheery in the flesh as he has seemed on telly since we first saw him on Scrapheap Challenge, It’s Not Easy Being Green and Celebrity Masterchef, all programmes he’s made since retiring from being a lieutenant colonel in the British army and turning his natural charm and interest in ecology and engineering into being ‘a telly tart’.
One corner of the room is full of the handcrafted château merchandise that Angel, 41, who trained in fashion and was a successful contestant on Dragons’ Den, has been making for their fans. ‘I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit,’ she says, something that was enhanced by her not being able to read until the age of 11. She says her dyslexia made her overcompensate in other areas, not just art but also in maths, and she ended up qualifying as a chartered accountant, which has helped in running their house as a business. She constantly makes things out of unwanted objects, furnishing the château with flea-market finds that she repurposes in her attic art studio, and adds that she is now even more driven to leave ‘this gorgeous legacy for the children – I want them to be proud of us!’
Such is the popularity of the weddings that they hold here and the telly series that has followed their restoration trials and tribulations ever since they paid £280,000 for the building and its 12 acres in January 2015, that it is now broadcast worldwide. (I beg Dick to tell me how much more they’ve spent on it – he thinks probably the same amount again but isn’t sure; they simply plough in all the profits from holding events.) There are Facebook fanclubs devoted to discussion of the latest episode, and I can see why: it’s the nicest yet most addictive reality TV I’ve ever seen. Nobody is in competition, nobody is humiliated, everyone seems to genuinely love one another. You want to be jealous of Dick and Angel for upping sticks from England and having this dreamy life in France, but you can’t, because you see how much graft and skill has gone into making it work. Right from the time they moved in, when the bedrooms were inhabited by families of bats, wind rattled through the cracks in the peeling walls, and the loo was flushing into the moat.
At Christmas, though, all their work is rewarded, when they hang out in the family kitchen in the basement, where Dorothy has her toy kitchen in the corner, ‘and Arthur helps chop things up and we’ll cook together. Then the bird’s in the oven – in France they have capons because it’s hard to get a big turkey, and the capons tend to be even bigger,’ explains Dick, who is also an extremely keen chef. Of course, the kids will have already had one Christmas dinner in their French village state primary, of oysters and foie gras, or ‘brown butter’, as Arthur the junior gastronome calls it. In fact, the kids are going native, while Angel admits that she hasn’t got as far with the language as her husband, and that, for her, ‘going out and ordering something simple feels like an achievement. We live in a bit of a bubble, because the guests who come here for the weddings are all English-speaking. But the kids are in a local school and speak with a French accent – you wouldn’t even know that Dorothy was English. There’s quite a ritual when you go into the school – you kiss all the mums and dads hello. Then our kids come home and watch British TV.’
Dick has two grown-up children from his previous marriage and Angel’s parents live in a converted outhouse at the château, yet last Christmas the Strawbridges had the unusual experience of celebrating with just the four of them at home. They went for a Christmas Day walk – on their own land, of course – ‘and Arthur was rolling around in mud in his brand new white shirt,’ says his amused mother. She was just glad of the break, because ‘normally we’re working right up until Christmas Eve, and it can take a few days to switch off. It’s not that you’re on duty, but you’re making sure that Nan’s all right, checking if everyone has a cup of tea, and then those cups have to be washed.’
All year long, fans of the show turn up at the château, seemingly not understanding that it is actually a private family home. Last Christmas, someone even turned up on the day itself, ‘which was quite funny,’ says Angel. Was it really, I ask – it sounds pretty intrusive? Angel explains: ‘It was quite funny because I was wearing Dorothy’s unicorn hat and bouncing on the trampoline.’ Ah! Given that the telly cameras are there all year round, with the crew actually living in the local town now, she has grown extremely used to the attention.
Up in the loft, Angel has a whole Christmas section organised, and it’s not just boxes of homemade decorations. There are Christmas scrapbooks the family has made, with photos, including one from their former rented home in Southend, ‘and Christmas teddies that the kids aren’t allowed to have during the year. So the boxes come out and it feels like it’s the start of Christmas. We’re at the time in the children’s lives where Christmas is beyond magical.’
Naturally, the couple who never stop do have further plans. Having got her waterside geodesic domes (glamorous, permanent tents) as well as her barge, Angel wants a swimming pool next. She also admits that she has been quietly redoing some of the decorating she’s already done, sneakily breaking Dick’s rule that they can only tackle new problems, while also wondering whether the children will eventually take over the château – ‘all the time, it’s all I think about!’
Fortunately, Dorothy says that when she has children she’s moving into the domes with them, and Arthur’s taking over the honeymoon suite, so that’s all sorted. Dick, meanwhile, is more aware that Angel will be taking over from him, because she’s 20 years younger, ‘so I’m going to be the old fart,’ he says jovially. ‘She says she’s going to keep me. I think she’s ready for me to get a bit senile and dribbly so she can boss me around.
‘But the mindset of being here, living in the château, evolving what we do – we don’t know the future,’ he adds, more seriously. ‘I was over 50 when I met Angel, and I didn’t ask her age because that was a scary thing to do. Our agent had introduced us because we had a similar work ethic.’ While there has been online speculation about whether he was still married when he met Angel, the boring truth is that he’d been separated for six years and was ready to meet someone. ‘So Angel and I had our fun, then I told her it was time for her find a young man, have children, because I felt I shouldn’t keep her from that. And what she said, bloody woman, was that she actually wanted me.’ He mused on this, deciding that ‘you’re a long time dead. Why wouldn’t you just jump in and live life?’
Of course, there are arguments. ‘We have… passionate discussions every day,’ says Angel, perhaps diplomatically. ‘But doesn’t everybody? Because if you’re madly in love, in the core, then the passionate discussions are just the fluff around the outside. We’re not arguing about values – just the little details.’
As for the question of whether their children will be spoiled growing up like this, especially when Angel herself was raised without much money, she is adamant they are not. ‘I’ve seen friends that live in a small rented flat with spoiled children. Having spoiled children is not defined by the size of your house,’ she insists, adding that hers share their toys with others who come to the weddings. ‘They are open, nice kids and we’re proud of that.’
‘We haven’t come here with a big wedge of cash,’ Dick explains. ‘In the past, anybody who owned a château didn’t work at all, because they had money and staff. It’s evolving now, because people just don’t have that luxury of owning a family pile somewhere.’ In fact, the château had been sitting there, not properly lived in, for about 40 years by the time the Strawbridges bought it from the descendants who had inherited it. And as for the British couple’s standing in the local village: ‘We’re the only people who were silly enough to buy the old château that none of them wanted,’ Dick laughs.
But he is keen to explain the gulf in attitudes between the French and the British towards home ownership. ‘In the UK, if anybody has an opportunity to buy somewhere they think they can invest in, they do it. The French market isn’t like that. They don’t have this aspiration to own property. So many more people rent here, and they are content renting all their life. The French do not actually do much DIY. The idea of buying a château, doing it up and selling it – it’s an alien concept here. People don’t want châteaux. They don’t want to pay the bills.’
As for the other Brits who look on in envy, former army man Dick doesn’t take kindly to that passive way of thinking. ‘We have people saying, “It’s all right for you, you’ve done it.” Anybody can do it!’ He points out that if you own even a modest home in the Greater London area if you sold it, ‘you could have a mansion’ in France. The key is to know what you’re getting yourself into and to be prepared to work. ‘If you say, “I’m going to go across to France and I can get a lovely house with no mortgage,” well, how are you going to pay for the rest of it?’ For example, Dick and Angel’s winter heating bill is ‘abysmal’, and, yes, they knew that before they moved in, which is why they put aside the profit from the final wedding of every year to pay it. (Running weddings is a mammoth job and, while they have made a huge success of it, Angel admits that the couple do sometimes ask themselves if they’d still do it if they won the Euromillions.)
Dick has been thoroughly researching more sustainable heating options: photovoltaics, a biomass system, solar and thermal. And if those words sound complicated to the average Joe, he’s having none of it. ‘When it comes to doing it, this is just like a bungalow, only bigger,’ he insists, with the rampant optimism of a man half his age. ‘It’s all exactly the same principles.’ I point out that he has engineering training, which most of us don’t. He says it simply comes down to logic, and that anyone could find a way to solve these problems. ‘You eat an elephant a bite at a time: it’s just nice to know if you should start at the nose or the tail. That’s how you have to think.’
Are you not knackered? ‘I’m permanently knackered! But it doesn’t stop me, because there’s lots to be done, and when you’ve decided to do it, do it. People always say to us, “You’re an engineer and Angel’s a designer so you can live like that.” I hear lots of excuses but not many good reasons for not jumping into life and doing what we do. We do more during the day than most people, because we have a passion for what we do and for our life. Luck?’ His moustache bristles happily. ‘The harder you work, the luckier you get.’
For more information, go to thechateau.tv. The Escape to the Château Christmas special will be on Channel 4 on 22 December