By: Tara Jenkins
Though the Hong Kong stint of Nicky Roberts and her family has drawn to a close through an audacious move to the French countryside, they maintain a beloved Stanley apartment, where the furniture and interior design pays homage to French country chic style.
It’s not an inconsiderable commute from their Stanley apartment to Gascony, but for financial search consultant Simon Roberts, a fortnightly flight from Hong Kong to France is a small price to pay for a much better quality of life. So when the house of his dreams came up in a beautiful old bastide (fortified town) two years ago, Simon signed the paperwork and started planning a completely new way of life alongside Nicky, his energetic and enterprising wife. The result? Nicky and eight-year-old Eloise upped sticks this summer and moved lock, stock and barrel into a partly-renovated farmhouse in the Gers, and Simon is currently spending a fair amount of his time on aeroplanes!
It seems like a mammoth undertaking, but the more you learn about Simon and Nicky, the more logical their decision becomes. They moved to Hong Kong from London seven years ago, so Simon could more precisely target candidates in Asia for his financial clients. Nicky’s always dreamed of having a beautiful old rectory in the countryside, but Simon – who is half-Australian and adamant he doesn’t want to “grow old in the cold” – wasn’t keen on a move back to rural England. “We thought, where can we go that’s not too far from the UK but is several degrees warmer, that will give us the lifestyle and property we want, but is accessible enough for us to regularly pop over to London?” explains Nicky. “We started looking in the Dordogne, but ended up instead in the Gers, a properly rural area with exceptionally friendly people. It’s part of what is sometimes called Gascony, with a rich, earthy soil, and delicious produce like confit de canard, foie gras, truffles and Armagnac. Although it’s not near the sea, it’s only a couple of hours to the Pyrenees, and we can drive to Barcelona if we want! We’ve got the whole of Europe at our feet, and yet we can be at Gatwick or Heathrow in an hour and twenty minutes.”
“I know some people think we’re bonkers,” she continues, laughing. “We own a very nice little house in the London suburb of Barnes, and we could have quite easily moved back there, or gone slightly further out, towards Wimbledon. But Simon wanted to feel as if he was moving forwards, not backwards, and we think France is the solution: a whole new life for us!”
After seven years in Hong Kong, the couple had begun to long for a different sort of existence. “I’ve loved Hong Kong life,” says Nicky. “I’ve adored living in the expat ‘bubble’ where you go to the supermarket or the doctor’s surgery and see someone you know – it’s like being part of one big family. Our friends are all like-minded people who belong to the same clubs, and have children of similar age, who play with the same toys; it’s a lovely, social, fortunate life. But it’s not the real world, and I wanted Eloise to live in a place where there are completely different types of people at different stages in their life, living in close proximity. There are 390 people in Lavardens, our village, and I know there are some lovely people there. I had lunch with the man who has been looking after our house, and I asked him if there was a cinema nearby. He said, just because we live in the country doesn’t mean we’re totally uncivilised! There’s a six-screen cinema just 20 minutes from the house!”
“I thought the village was a sleepy place where nobody lived,” continues Nicky, “because the shutters were always closed; but it turns out there’s a music school on the doorstep, and 20 minutes away, a gymnastics and dance school. Actually, what I’m really looking forward to is meeting people and going to their homes, or inviting them back to ours. We haven’t done much of that in Hong Kong, because we were restricted by space, and there’s a big going-out culture. We’ve loved that too, but I’m looking forward to entertaining friends, as we did in London. And also to having my stepsons Jack and Jasper to stay, with their friends from university.”
It’s also a challenging change for little Eloise, who is enrolled at a tiny local village school of fifteen children; rather different to the large academy she attended in Hong Kong. But Nicky is sure the change will be very grounding. “It will bring her down to earth. Part of me thought: am I crazy to give up this big international school we spent two and a half years on the waiting list to get into, for, basically, one classroom in the French countryside? But the school cooks fresh food every day, and trying it is part of the children’s education. Eloise will become fluent in French, will have beautiful curly handwriting, and excellent manners. She’ll have grass under her feet, and she can run out of the front door chasing insects, without anyone worrying about her. At home we’ll eat food that’s grown within a five-mile radius, we’ll go to the market; we’ll experience all the good things in life. We might have some disasters along the way and I am sure there will be tears: it’s a brave move, no doubt. But we feel the time is right for us as a family”.
For now, their Hong Kong base is still the charming Stanley apartment on Stanley Mound Road, which Simon and Nicky have decorated – naturally – in French country style. Nicky is quick to attribute the decorating scheme to her dapper husband: “When I first met Simon he had just bought and renovated the most beautiful Georgian house in Bath, and I was totally blown away by his amazing taste: fabulous paint colours and wallpapers; beautiful antiques he’d bought or inherited from his father; paintings he’d bid for at auction; furniture he’d personally restored. He studied law and has had a successful career in the city, but definitely has an arty bent and background. Seeing the house made me think, there aren’t many men who could do this on their own!”
Simon has certainly collected an interesting mixture of antique and contemporary pieces, but the décor in the Hong Kong flat – like the proposed renovation in France – is a definite collaboration. “We don’t clash at all, our taste is the same,” smiles Nicky. The large, striking paintings above the bed and the desk in the sitting room are by British artist Nick Jones, bought from a London gallery, but sit alongside more traditional watercolours by a Scottish artist called Ethel Walker, a Vietnamese painting by Hong Viet Dung from the Apricot gallery in Hanoi, and countless other sketches or engravings. “All the paintings have been deliberately framed in a different style, to add to the eclectic feel of the room – there are so many pieces from different cultures and periods put together,” explains Nicky.
The feel of the Stanley apartment is predominantly French, but the furniture is actually a mix of antique pieces from the UK – the brass beds in the spare room were from a shop in Hazlemere, the dining table from The General Trading Company, and the imposing desk an heirloom from Simon’s father – and locally sourced pieces, which have been expertly blended. In the sitting room there’s an ornately decorated red and gold Chinese cabinet from Zhuhai, but Simon and Nicky have grouped a collection of shabby chic French-style items on top. The sofas were originally bought in Barnes, but Nicky had them re-covered by a “a lady in the lanes”! The dark bedside cabinets were bought in Hong Kong, but share the bedroom with a huge mahogany chest of drawers, which is British-made. Of course, there are lots of French items in the flat too – but, ironically, Nicky sourced most of them from shops in the UK. “The imposing mirror in the dining room is French, but came from an antique shop in Tetbury, along with the distressed console. They’re going back to their homeland!” she laughs.
Nicky most definitely has her own “eye”, and, aside from decorating the Stanley apartment, has successfully managed a number of property renovations since she’s been in Hong Kong – including one in Robinson Road, one in Australia, and one in London. “Simon and I both love renovating, and we buy something if we feel it’s got potential,” she explains. “To date, it’s always given me an ongoing project, but now I have this huge project in France!”
She’ll have her hands full for some time; the couple has begun by renovating the outbuildings on their five-acre French site, which they plan to eventually turn into a gîte (holiday home) business. Once the accommodation is complete – including four bedrooms, a party barn and a swimming pool – the family will move in, and begin renovation of the main house. “Each summer we’ve lived in Hong Kong, our wonderful friends have hosted us in their beautiful large houses in Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and London, and I’m looking forward to being able to reciprocate, and have people come to stay with their children,” says Nicky. “Then once the gîte is up and running, I’m excited to meet the people who rent it; we might run watercolour or yoga courses, perhaps – we’ll have the space to do it! I don’t know who’s out there; hopefully, some nice people!”
“I love the thought of having a rental property that I’ll manage – maybe I’ll grow lavender, maybe I’ll have honey bees,” she adds. “I don’t know yet. But I don’t think for one minute it will be Simon and I rattling around a big old house, with Eloise at UK boarding school, and us thinking: why did we do this? It will be a wonderful hub of life, and lots of different people will come and go”. No doubt, it’s a very long way from city life in Hong Kong. But it sounds like it’s just what Nicky and Simon Roberts need.
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