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Work-life balance in the South of France

Work-life balance in the South of France

While renting a temporary home in Provence, Peter and Cathy Bullen set up a French antiques business in the UK before eventually buying – and furnishing – their own house in the South of France, as they explain to Amanda Harling…

With homes in Suffolk and the South of France, Peter and Cathy Bullen lead a life of contrasts and travel. “As antique dealers, we split our time between the two, spending around six weeks in Cotignac and then driving back to our home in Suffolk, the van fully loaded with the latest items we have bought.”
The couple first became acquainted with the area around 15 years ago when Peter, who was in the military at the time, was posted to the south of France as a liaison officer with the French army. Peter recalls: “The prospect of spending three years in Provence sounded quite appealing, especially compared to some of the other places I had served. I went there after completing an intensive six-month French course before arriving.”

Cathy, who worked as a dance teacher and choreographer, joined him in Provence after leaving her home in Suffolk where she had lived for 16 years. “Despite Peter’s military career, we were fortunate not to have to spend too much time in the marital home, which was difficult for me, not least because of the constant upheaval of houses, schools and friends. However, the children left school and this deployment was an adventure for Peter and me. We found a charming house to rent just outside Cotignac, a beautiful village in the Var department, not far from the French military base. I began to explore the area, stopping to browse antique markets and flea markets where I found interesting bits and pieces to furnish our temporary home, and improved my French along the way.”

©ANDREAS VON EINSIEDEL INTERIORS PHOTOGRAPHY

Three years later, Peter’s post ended and Cathy’s now considerable collection of French furniture and artefacts was brought back to Suffolk in a large removals van. “Fortunately, our house in Bildeston, although not huge, has a couple of old stables and an artist’s studio in the garden, so we piled everything up there while we thought about how I could start a French brocante business from home. After sending out invitations to all our friends, we priced everything out, converted the outbuildings into theatrical room sets so people could see how decorative these pieces looked as part of a project, and waited to see what the response would be. By the end of the weekend there was hardly anything left!”

Clearly the Bullens were doing something right, as the couple regularly returned to France to source more furniture and decorative items for their thriving business, The Boule-in. “Eventually we swapped roles,” laughs Cathy, “as Peter eventually left the army to join me! Word got around and for the past 11 years we have held our Suffolk French Decorative Fêtes three times a year. The first is around Easter and the second in mid-summer. Both festivals focus on vintage garden furniture and decorative tableware for outdoor entertaining. Our third festival is in the run-up to Christmas, so we make sure there are plenty of smaller decorative items that are ideal as gifts, as well as larger pieces that will add a special touch to a festive table or room. We invite other local homeware artisans and businesses to take part, so we always have a vibrant mix of colourful, beautiful things to choose from,” says Cathy.

“Because the contents of each fair are completely different from the previous one, putting together the arrangements takes several weeks of preparation. Sometimes it’s hard to resist the temptation to keep a special piece, but when I do, my rule is: one piece in, one piece out. Because I love beautiful things, my instinct is to put everything together, but beautiful objects are often best displayed in a group or individually.”

©ANDREAS VON EINSIEDEL INTERIORS PHOTOGRAPHY

©ANDREAS VON EINSIEDEL INTERIORS PHOTOGRAPHY

As they spent more and more time hunting for antiques in the French provinces, it was a natural choice for the Bullens to live there permanently. “We had rented the house in Cotignac for several years and always dreamed of owning our own property. So when we spotted a somewhat run-down early 19th-century mansion on the market, we were the first to want to view it.

“Although the property had been owned by the same family for years, it had not been lived in for some time – the fact that it had not been renovated was a large part of its appeal, as was the adjacent garage, which we knew would provide useful storage space. Fortunately, architectural details such as the fireplaces in both reception rooms were still in place, as were almost all of the traditional hexagonal ‘tomette’ terracotta floor tiles.

“Also, its location on a side street just steps from the picturesque, leafy market square couldn’t be more convenient. Cotignac’s shops, bars and restaurants are well known, as is its weekly street market, which attracts locals and visitors alike who fill their baskets with the variety of delicious French foods and products on offer.”

After purchasing, the house was completely renovated over the next two years. “The upper floor was used as a grain store and was traditionally tiled to keep out rats and mice. Otherwise, the walls were extremely rustic and required six tons of plaster to cover the stones.” The Bullens transformed one of these green spaces into a huge master bedroom with a bath and shower at one end, while another became the summer kitchen, from where a staircase commissioned by locals leads up to a newly built mezzanine balcony.

Cathy explains: “Apart from a tiny courtyard behind the garage, the balcony area is our only outdoor space, but it’s more than enough. We eat lunch there in winter and summer (as long as it’s not too hot!) and being able to sit outside in the evenings and enjoy the warm summer breeze while gazing at the stars is heavenly.”

©ANDREAS VON EINSIEDEL INTERIORS PHOTOGRAPHY

©ANDREAS VON EINSIEDEL INTERIORS PHOTOGRAPHY

Cathy relished the opportunity to put her design flair to good use in her new French home, and although the interior is distinctly French in style, there are still hints of the owners’ origins.

“Our son Jack Bullen, an artist, is director of the annual Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair and as well as his own prints and paintings we bought a number of works by artists at the fair. The lantern light in the kitchen couldn’t be more English as it was originally part of a lamp post on the Embankment in London. A local lady was clearing out her garden shed and asked if we would take it off her hands.”

Textiles are mainly British-sourced and supplied by Suffolk neighbour and friend, interior designer Sophie Grattan Bellew. Hugh St Clair is another Suffolk friend with a range of classic fabric designs that Cathy has incorporated into the scheme. “Hugh’s designs are timeless, so they work well in a period setting, while the colours and scale are a slight nod to contemporary style,” she says.

Cathy points out that while the house is furnished with antiques, mid-century and modern design are a big part of the mix. “It can be fun to juxtapose old and new and we make sure the pieces we bring to England reflect that look; antiques and vintage, but also newer design pieces. We only buy things that we like and, happily, our customers seem to share our taste.”

©ANDREAS VON EINSIEDEL INTERIORS PHOTOGRAPHY

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Photo credit main photo: ©ANDREAS VON EINSIEDEL INTERIORS PHOTOGRAPHY