Are we not all seduced by historic buildings? Only exceptionally are they not beautiful. We rarely retain memory of a 60s tower block, or a commercial warehouse, or a shopping centre. So historic buildings are precious, to be dignified with our respect. It is for the old historic centres that we love a city, never for the modern accretions.
One of the joys of my work over the last few decades has been the access to historic buildings that are off the beaten track. In France this means châteaux, mills, manors, farm-houses, and dignified old houses in cities. My first encounters were with châteaux in the Dordogne; dinner on the terrace of a château overlooking the river was unimaginably beautiful. Then nights spent in old Sarlat houses gilded the lilly.
Such is the random destruction, by war and by modern developments, of old buildings all over Europe, that the survivors are precious. Indeed, they are often all that reminds us of our capacity to create beautiful places. France escaped the worst of the war-time destruction, so there remain countless thousands of handsome, nourishing old buildings; we are richly gifted with these in our collection.
I have a special affection for big, old Normandy farm-houses, like the Ferme de la Rançonnière, whose 13th-century tower still stands proud over the courtyard. These great complexes of buildings were once almost self-contained. This one has, as is typical, stone stairs worn by centuries of treading, vast fireplaces and stupendous scale. Normandy has many, and we include many; some of them are still working farms.
When we began to find Special Places, one of my favourites was the Château Royal de Saint-Saturnin, once owned by Catherine de Medici and then in the hands of a mad restorer who had devoted years to breathing new energy into the place. It is remote, yet so close to the Aveyron and its watery magic. I always feel magic, too, when running my hands over ancient walls, feeling the patina of time’s use; or admiring very old woodwork, invariably of real artisan quality and a silent rebuke to our Ikea-heavy era.
In Troyes, I stayed in the Hôtel Champ des Oiseaux, an ancient wooden hotel that had just been reconstructed
by the Compagnons du Devoir, a still-dynamic guild of craftsmen dedicated to keeping alive old skills such as stone masonry and carpentry. The hotel was a work of art, each wooden post, plank or beam crafted with deep respect. ‘Historic’ does not mean ‘preserved’; it can be alive, and reach us with its own, authentic, message. I like sleeping under a pattern of old beams. A marvelous house full of old beams is the Maison Crème Anglaise, in Montréal in Burgundy. The village is a symphony in stone, the house too. A good dinner and a long breakfast seem almost too much of a treat on top of that.
The Hôtel du Jeu de Paume, on the Isle St Louis in Paris, is as richly caparisoned with beams as you can dream of – history whispering to you at every corner. So too is the Auberge de Castel-Merle in the Dordogne, this time with old stones – an ancient house revived with passion and local materials, near the sweetest possible hamlet.
We have plenty of modern buildings in our Special Places collections, but they have to work very hard to catch up with their older cousins.