"Since my early days in the French Alps, I always dreamed of owning and renovating my own mountain lodge with a view to running the property as a luxurious mountain retreat, where my guests not only benefit from having an in-house guide, but also get to relax in a beautifully restored lodge,” explains James.
However, when James discovered how expensive it would be to realise his dream in the Alps, he decided to change tack.
“After realising that the start-up costs in the Alps were out of my league, and also that I was looking for more of an all-year-round lifestyle, my search took me to the stunning Pyrenees. I searched many valleys and towns that could not only offer me the property that I was looking for but also somewhere that could offer my guests a gateway into the many mountain activities available during both summer and winter seasons. The Louron Valley delivers on both.
“The lodge is a very traditional Pyrenean stone-built building, dating back to 1854 – it was once the village post office. Part of the building’s charm is the wonderful character features, like the incredibly thick walls, old exposed beams and large fireplaces which all combine to give the property a very cosy, warm feel both inside and out.
“The property is a detached building and was already divided into two halves. One half was the house, which, although in a very poor state of repair, was just about habitable. The other side of the property is like many properties in the Pyrenean mountains – attached to the house is what the French call a ‘grange’, or barn as we would know it. It was this side that needed the most work but actually gave the building its potential. Once the opening between the two sides was made, the two halves became one large property. I wanted to keep the original look of the exterior, so apart from adding some large windows and rooflights, the property stayed very close to its original form. It was important to me to restore the building to its former glory whilst retaining as many of the original features as possible in order to preserve this stunning property for many centuries to come.”
James continues: “My vision was to renovate the property to a very high standard of comfort whilst carefully preserving its original features, combining a look of new and old into the interior of the building but, most importantly, making sure the property is very energy-efficient and where possible using environmentally-friendly and locally-sourced materials in the process.
“I planned the renovation project carefully over a year, sourcing some good tradesmen, but also visiting as many properties as possible, along with plenty of research on the internet to gain ideas, so I could achieve the exact look I wanted. From start to finish, planning permission took about five months.
“One of the biggest challenges was sourcing excellent tradesmen and local materials, but also making sure the project did not run out of control financially.”
James explains: “I did manage most of the project myself, however, as this was my first renovation project I did sometimes call on help and advice from my main contractor when it came to getting the right trades working in the right order, which I now know is crucial to the smooth running of a project on this scale.
“I employed an architect to draw up the plans but also to help with the very complicated planning process – after that, I was on my own.
“My approach to this was simply that where possible I wanted to recycle as many of the original materials as possible, but where the use of new materials was necessary I always made sure that these were locally sourced and as green as possible.
“One thing I would say is always make sure you invest time and money into getting the best insolation available, as this will not only be cost-effective in the long run, but something that if you decided was not done well enough or is insufficient the first time round would prove very costly and messy to upgrade at a later date, so even if it means increasing the budget to be able to do this; trust me, it will be well worth it.
“All in all, I was 10% over on budget, but this was mainly due to unexpected structural costs which were sadly only detected once the building works started, so be aware when renovating an old property as there is almost always a hidden problem and it’s best to have a contingency fund ready.”
James continues: “As I was only able to work on my project between winter and summer seasons, it took about three years to complete, however, looking back I have to say it was a benefit not to be in a rush as it enabled me more time to calculate and plan along the way.
“The ground floor comprises a large kitchen, snug/reading room and a very large living/dining area all with roaring woodburning stoves for the cosy winter nights. The main living room opens onto its own terraced area and private garden giving unrestricted views onto the snow-capped mountains. We have six well-appointed and very comfortable en-suite rooms all with incredible mountain views. The exterior of the property is a mixture of robust exposed stone and wood which help to maintain its original beauty all topped with its mandatory Pyrenean slate roof. It’s everything I hoped for and more. Being one of the original buildings in the village and now renovated to its former glory without many exterior changes, it stands very proudly but discreetly at the entrance to the village of Avajan. Given the building’s history as the old post house, the locals as well as the mayor are always telling me how delighted they are to see the building returned to its former glory.
“What I love most is the feeling of complete protection and shelter it provides from some of the most extreme weather conditions we endure in the mountains, as given its incredibly robust structure, it can withstand almost anything mother nature throws at it, whilst being able to retain a soft, cosy feel about the place. My favourite room would always be the kitchen, as with its large windows and woodburner, it’s simply a delight to be in and a room which is so incredibly warm and snug in the winter months – it’s hard to leave.
“The only thing I would do differently would be, never to try and live in the property as you’re doing the works, as this brings so many problems, but also makes the whole process that little bit more stressful as you are never able to switch off at the end of the day’s works. That said, I would do the whole thing again in a heartbeat as I feel it would be a shame not to use the experience and knowledge that I have gained from this project.”
James concludes: “My advice would be to plan the project properly, down to the finest detail and make sure you’re ready to commit the time and effort that the project will need. Do your research in sourcing the best tradesmen available to you and make sure they fully understand your vision before embarking on the project. Be realistic with your budget and make sure you have a contingency fund for when unexpected problems arise but, most importantly, make sure you’re ready to work incredibly hard to achieve your goal as there will be days when you question why you ever started such a project – but trust me when I say it’s all worth it in the end.”