Petit Chablis

John and Julia Abbey overcame language barriers and complex regulations to successfully renovate a dilapidated property in the Chablis region of France, creating their dream home with a ‘gite on the side’


Have you ever dreamed of selling up and heading for a new life in the sun? It sounds idyllic, but the reality often falls short of the dream. The idea of transforming an old rural building into a gite can often be a logistical nightmare – fraught with complex regulations, language barriers and spiralling costs.

But when John and Julia Abbey moved to France they had some distinct advantages. John had already renovated a property, a dilapidated old village bakery, in the tiny Chablisienne village of Viviers and was familiar with the local red tape and building regulations. Julia, meanwhile, is a professional chef who, with John, was running a celebrated country pub in Cambridgeshire when they decided to make their life-changing move. Furthermore, John speaks ‘reasonable’ French, thanks to spending many years dealing with vintners of the Chablis region who supplied their venues with fine wines. Between them, they were the perfect partnership for a new life in the sun.

“We had often talked about moving permanently to France but business and family commitments kept us in the UK,” said Julia. “When the time was right we decided to take the plunge and started looking for a property to buy in Chablis. We were familiar with the region, knew people in the town and loved the location. The challenge was finding the right house.”

At first John and Julia were looking for a property they could run as a small B&B, so it had to be big enough to accommodate themselves and others, as well as have off-street parking and a garden where green-fingered Julia could grow herbs and vegetables to include in recipes.

They eventually found the perfect place which came with an added bonus – a family house with outbuildings on a river frontage, complete with a large garden containing an ancient open barn. Better still, the outbuilding, a former sawmill and machinery store, was a large empty space; ripe for conversion into a gite.

Julia explains further: “John had already renovated the old bakery, so he was familiar with French building regulations and laws, and had got to know the local tradespeople, which was a huge bonus.” She continues: “We could avoid the pitfalls and make sure we did everything correctly from the outset.”

Initially John was unsure about the dated property because of its impractical open plan ground floor but, once he could visualise its potential, he realised it was the ideal place for them to live. They agreed that the extensive ground floor would be divided into three separate rooms and the kitchen completely refitted to Julia’s professional chef’s design, while the outbuildings offered a blank canvas for conversion into extra – and independent – living space. This would earn them an income in the short term and provide futureproof single storey accommodation for them both in the long term, as well as extra accommodation for visiting friends and family.

There were two caveats to the project: the house is the only property in Chablis with a direct link between the road and the river that runs through the centre of the town, and this access had to be kept available in the event of emergency vehicles needing access to the river. They were also compelled to keep the huge old barn in the garden as a building of historic interest, even though their initial plan had been to demolish the entire structure.

“We were not allowed to take down any historic building within a certain distance of Chablis church and had to alter our plans accordingly,” said Julia. “In hindsight the locals were absolutely right to have preserved it – it’s proved to be an excellent sun shelter during the sweltering summer.”

Before they tackled the neglected outdoor space, however, John had to renovate the main house within the confines and restrictions of lockdown.

They agreed to live in the Old Bakery while John set to work, then they would move into the property once it was finished and renovate the outbuildings.

“We were delighted to have got the relevant permissions to move to France permanently ahead of Brexit, but we hadn’t bargained for going straight into lockdown,” says Julia. “It made everything that much harder because we couldn’t draft in extra help very easily and it was difficult to get building materials, but it didn’t stop John from working long, hard hours, every single day, for months on end.”

It was a mammoth task, but John had renovated properties before and knew how to break everything down into bite-sized sections.

He began by stripping out the fixtures and fittings of the old kitchen which included a cloakroom and a small utility. With the help of his brother-in-law during a three day visit, he knocked down the dividing walls and chipped away the old plaster ready for replumbing and new electrics. All the rubble from the house was shovelled by hand into a trailer and taken to the local tip and new building materials were ferried in using a standard trailer on the back of the car.

It was then back inside the house to start work on the electrics, plumbing and plastering followed by the flooring. During this phase he also reconfigured some of the walls on the first floor to make better use of the space, turning four bedrooms into three with a main bathroom and an ensuite guest room. John and Julia wanted to restore the original ground floor layout of three main rooms – a kitchen to the left of the entrance hall along with a dining room and sitting room to the right. This meant reinstating walls and doors and turning an archway into a feature bookcase on either side of the double doors between the two main living rooms. 

They agreed to keep the original fireplace, which sits at an angle across one corner, but then had to wait a year before they could get the chimney swept and certified safe to use for insurance purposes. “However,” Julia says, “the first time we lit the fire, it smelt very strange and the next thing we knew, the mirror over the fireplace had cracked and we discovered that the heat was coming straight out of four vents in the chimney breast,” said Julia. “Everything around them was melting! After that we blocked up the vents and the fire worked perfectly.” With the rooms reinstated, John lay the electric cables for the underfloor heating before screeding over the top and laying new tiles throughout the ground floor. John and Julia bought their kitchen units in the UK and John fitted them himself, along with the granite worktops.

Drainage could have been a big challenge – there was no toilet in the main bathroom and therefore insufficient drainage at that end of the house, so John used past experience as a drain layer to put in new drains to serve not only the main house but also the gite.

They finally moved in – hoisting some of the furniture through the first-floor windows – just before Christmas 2020. “Fortunately, the previous owners had fitted a new family bathroom and upgraded the windows, which saved us considerable expense,” said John.

With the help of friends from back in the UK, John refurbished some of the more dilapidated external shutters, but the long-term plan is to replace them all eventually. 

“When you are working to a budget you have to prioritise,” he said. “Once we reached the point where we could move into the house, we turned our attention to the outbuildings and garden.”

In the early months of 2021, John and Julia gradually emptied the barn and storage space of its contents, taking most of it to the tip while salvaging anything that could be reused and recycled. Then their attention moved to landscaping the garden so Julia could start growing fruit, vegetables and herbs. There was a short delay while they applied for – and were granted – planning permission to build a shed and greenhouse. They hired a digger to shift some of the 100 tonnes of rubble which eventually came out of the garden, ferrying it to the tip in a trailer and returning each time with a load of top soil. “There were times when I looked at everything that had to be done and felt completely over-faced by it all,” said John. “When that happens you have to break everything down into manageable sections.
That way you don’t feel overwhelmed.” 

The hard work paid off when the gravel and turf arrived and completely transformed it from a building site into a beautifully designed garden of winding paths, raised beds, gazebos and ornamental planting. It gave them the push they needed for the next phase of their mammoth renovation project – the conversion of the outbuildings into a two-bedroom gite.

They had already acquired planning permission with the help of a local architect – the only stipulation being that the driveway had to be unobstructed, and two metres wide for an emergency vehicle to get from the road to the river.

John started by building a link between the house and the outbuildings which include a ground floor shower room, boiler, laundry room and wine cellar. Doors were installed in September 2022 and the link plastered out and tiled in December.

“The concrete roof had to be done twice because it leaked after the first attempt,” said John. “I was up and down ladders lifting the concrete in buckets. It was hard work but it had to be right.”

With the atrium almost complete, John removed the corrugated plastic roof of the outbuildings, took off the old doors and had an old oil tank professionally removed from the site. He then began the transformation of the 900 sq ft space by building the front wall up to roof level, creating a flat concrete roof and then using support beams to hold up the structure while he built the internal breeze block walls. While the front part of the gite was open to the elements, however, heavy storms flooded the building and progress was delayed until it could dry out ahead of doors and windows going in to make the building watertight.

Earlier this year three friends from the UK travelled down to Chablis to lend a hand, including father-and-son plumbers who spent a month living with John and Julia so they could complete to second fix stage. Between them they laid a concrete floor – using almost 100 mixes of concrete created across three days – fitted a shower room on the ground floor, made the roof terrace on the gite waterproof and installed a staircase to the second floor bedroom.

At the point of writing, John was still working on the second fixes, tiling the floors, plastering walls and generally getting the gite to the point where he could start decorating. “It’s been a long, hard project and most of it I’ve done on my own, but there are stages where you seem to be taking one step forward and three back, and other times when you are making huge progress very quickly. Then suddenly it all pulls together and you stand back and get a huge sense of achievement. You know, at that point, that it’s all been worthwhile.”


  • “Friends and family finally coming to visit and friends helping with the renovation.”
  • “Receiving our residency after a year of uncertainty and getting planning approval for the extension and barn conversion, just four weeks after submitting detailed proposals.”


When the flat roof failed. “I laid awake night after night worrying about that,” says John. “I was also worried we would run out of money, and there were some dark days during Covid – we couldn’t get home for my son Charles’ graduation.”



The Underfloor Heating Store 


South West Greenhouses 


John Willies Country
Kitchens in Burley

Thistle multi-finish plaster

Smeg appliances