CHATEAU RUINS FOR SALE IN NORMANDY. If there a more magical phrase we do not know it. Six words that send us on a dream of possessing our own fortress in the beautiful Eure countryside. For less than the price of a studio flat in London, we could be lord and lady of all we survey.
Just 145km from Paris, 35km from Rouen there is a 13th century castle to restore. Set back from the road on high ground, it’s a two minute walk from the church that stands at the heart of a tiny village.
But how much renovation would you be willing to do? Does a history going back to the Middle Ages make up for no roof?
A fortress for battles
This is Château de Houlbec. Built by the Harcourt family, on the site of an ancient stronghold destroyed by Viking invaders, it was once a vast square fortress with towers at each corner and a drawbridge to the east. There would have been encircling ditches full of water and high walls around an inner courtyard. It was built for battle.
The chateau lived through many wars but to its eternal shame the Harcourt family lost it to the English Duke of Clarence, who attacked and occupied it in 1418.
From the end of the 16th century the Château de Houlbec belonged to the Postis family. King Henry IV visited (1589 or 1591) and the road he travelled from the Château de Genetey to the Château de Houlbec became known as the ‘King’s path’. The family Postis du Houlbec had a bell struck in memory of his visit, with an effigy of the good king and inscription ‘Henrius Rex Franciae and Nava’.
18th century restructure
The family redesigned their fortress in 1786, to be the the more elegant building we now see only in old postcards. The roof, originally tile, was replaced with shiny grey slates in 1787. Abbé C. Heullant, in his local history published 1901, noted a paper in the family archives stating:
2 April 1787 agreement between Louis Nicolas de Postis, squire, lord and boss of Houlbec, and Étienne Delarue, carpenter, residing in Epreville in Roumois, to carrying out important carpentry work in the interior of the castle: a frame for the castle and towers to receive a slate roof, floors, etc., for the sum of 900 pounds, two pots of small cider a day to each worker, without food, except for the contractor.
The family produced a historian in the 19th century, we know this as an excavation was organised in 1898 and plans of the original castle layout carefully recorded. The excavation also uncovered a complete set of fifteenth century knights armour and a beautiful rapier with fleur-de-lis engraved 1441.
The Postis family lived at Château de Houlbec until the beginning of the twentieth century. Their library was famous, each book inscribed in gold ‘Libraries Houlbec’. But abbé C. Heullant noted in 1901:
At the close of the eighteenth century a library existed at Chateau de Houlbec. Unfortunately many volumes have been lent and not returned, or removed, a lot of books no longer exist…
Ravaged by fire
Then in 1910 a terrible fire ravaged the building and it was abandoned, quickly falling into terrible ruin. A threat of demolition in 2007 saved it. Someone fell in love with the ancient red bricks and hints of grandeur. Restoration began.
The oldest part of Château de Houlbec is two vaulted cellars from the Middle Ages that support the entire structure. Two towers date from the 13th and 15th century and once loomed twenty metres high, neither is complete. On one still clings some fairy-tale machicolations that just a few years ago supported a tall pointed roof.
By 2007 the back wall, limestone and bands of flint, had completely collapsed and nature was busily filling in the gaps. The plant life was removed and a steel roof secured to temporarily halt deterioration of the building.
The new owners set about restoring their dream home themselves, building up the façade, the towers, replacing old mullioned windows and slowly reconstructing the interior.
A few important period features have survived, mostly in poor repair: stone staircase, large stone fireplace, the vaulted cellars, diamond-tipped pillars… A large cast iron plate in the fireplace with a scene from the wedding of Cana. Many of the original stones lie in the 6 hectares of gardens awaiting their time.
The overgrown gardens were cleared in 2010 and replanted with alleys and pretty copses that are just beginning to show their form. Of course being Normandy there is an orchard of apples, and a few plum trees.
Then, just a few months ago the chateau was put up for sale again. The renovation just too extensive for owners who spent a decade trying to save it.
Numerous agencies suggest the chateau is still for sale, one says it is prix à débattre – open to offers. Will new buyers be found? We will watch with interest.
Perhaps one day a brocante rummage will reveal a handsome leather clad book with gold letters proclaiming ‘Libraries Houlbec’. That would be magical indeed.
Monograph of the parish of Houlbec (Fr.) by Father C. Heullant 1901