What restoring a derelict chateau taught me about myself

As I laboriously scrubbed its floors, dusted its surfaces and ridded the French chateau of three decades of cobwebs, I finally found the time to reflect. The smell of freshly cut grass and musty old barns evoked memories of my summer holidays spent there.

It’s been in our family since the early nineteenth-century. And when my parents split up, it’s where I’d spend time with my father. Unable to keep up with the costly upkeep of the chateau, he moved to the cottage down the road.

But as kids the chateau remained our playground. We would dare each other to enter its grand halls alone, and see who could stay in there longest without being scared. In the library, we’d laugh as we discovered ancient leather-bound books on the Kama Sutra and early French erotica.

restoring chateau

And whilst I was raised in the city and stopped visiting the property long ago, last year, when London life became overwhelming and I hit rock bottom, I longed for it. Feeling broken had me thinking I needed fixing. And not knowing where to turn, I left my flat, my friends and most of my possessions behind for the only place that has ever truly felt like home. In search of a slower pace of life and some much needed headspace, I set out to fix up the chateau and return it to a presentable state.

Pushing my DIY skills to their limit, cleaning to the point of exhaustion, my scouring mirrored the deep cleansing I was undergoing within. In my mind I revisited failed relationships, dissatisfactions with life and previous careers, while questioning past choices, current values and yearnings. But knowing that the past couldn’t be undone, nor the future preempted, encouraged me to be mindful of the present, just as it was.

restoring chateau

In time, I started drawing and creating like I hadn’t done in years, and singing and dancing like nobody was watching; precisely because they weren’t. Taking the time to live in the moment with nothing and no one to distract me but the chateau, I realised I hadn’t needed ‘fixing’ after all. I’d never been ‘broken’. It’s just that over time, my values, needs and aspirations had evolved, and I simply hadn’t allowed enough space to listen to them. The safe haven of my youth and the stillness of its walls had helped me reconnect with myself.

The experience convinced me we all have the necessary resources and ingenuity to ‘fix’ ourselves, if only we take the time and space to do it rather than turn to others for inspiration and affirmation. But it takes courage to do a little soul searching solo—to no longer fear the silence of those grand halls inside us but rather welcome their stillness, from which newfound confidence can spring. The chateau and I have a long way to go yet, but as a consequence of tending to each other’s needs, we’ve both regained some of our brightness.