Life in French chateau is great, but Dick Strawbridge does miss his soda bread
It's a hard life for star of Channel 4's Escape to the Chateau, Antrim man Dick Strawbridge, as he tells Gail Bell he hasn't even had time for a two-hour lunch yet – or his honeymoon
AS KING of his castle, Dick Strawbridge, the mega-mustachioed half of the charismatic couple responsible for one of the most popular programmes on our TV screens at the moment – Escape to the Chateau – is bristling with bonhomie.
He is surveying his surroundings as we chat on the phone and giving a blow-by-blow account of his now famous rural retreat, Chateau de la Motte Husson, in the Pays de la Loire region of north west France. The sun is shining, he has just spotted a kingfisher in the moat and there are red squirrels and wild boar roaming nearby. All is well in his world.
"We do have a bit of a charmed existence because we've worked for it," he argues. "The harder you work, the luckier you get; that was what my old man used to say all the time.
"We made a decision which I think has been a brilliant decision because I am standing here looking at the most amazing house that costs the same as a bedsit in the east end of London. And, it's not just the chateau; Jenny and Steve's [his wife, Angel's parents] house which we did up, with the walled garden and her own special kitchen – Cafe Grandma – is gorgeous and they love it to bits."
If he is feeling rather pleased with himself, it's because the Co Antrim man really has worked hard for this particular fairytale – which hasn't ended yet. He and flame-haired, vintage-clad Londoner wife, Angel (founder of the Vintage Patisserie), and their two children, Arthur and Dorothy, have just spent a "lovely Christmas and new year" on their own after wrapping up the fifth series for Channel 4.
After the parties and presents, he has been tidying up – "there's a tree coming down today" – and generally enjoying the "last weekend of sanity" before it all kicks off again, this time with a new Escape to the Chateau DIY show due to begin next month.
Mention DIY, of course, and Strawbridge, a former army colonel who went to school in Ballyclare, jumps to attention, as "fixing things", not be mention inventing them from scratch, is his raison d'etre, to borrow a little of his adopted language.
From the creation of a bespoke suction tube lift which hurtles through four floors of the chateau, to the design of a helter skelter for his bilingual children, no project has beaten him yet and there is still so much more to conquer. The 'to do' list includes "boring bits" like replacing the rest of the windows and starting a "big, big job" on the roof, as well as building a professional kitchen "out the back" for the growing wedding business.
Luckily, for Escape to the Chateau's enthusiastic two million-plus viewers per episode, there is now a chance for them to try out some of the practical, artistic or madcap ideas themselves, with a new 'How to...' book ('The Chateau, The Beginning...' ) having just been launched, guiding the novice through everything from building a coconut shy to designing wallpaper and printing their own tiles.
"We live by the motto, 'Just do it' and although we have written quite a lot separately, we wanted to write something together," Dick explains. "It wasn't going to be a design book as such, nor a cookery book, DIY or story book – it was going to be all of those things, so conventional publishers didn't know what to do with it."
So, after being rejected by publishers who "failed to see our vision", in true Dick and Angel fashion the couple did what they always do, circumventing convention and doing it themselves – through the creation of 'Chateau Publishing'.
"We wanted to capture the first part of our story which started three years ago with our wedding and in response to numerous requests from people keen to learn more," says Dick, whose CV includes, as well as army oficer, jobs ranging from programme manager, and trouble shooter for a large multinational company to television presenter – as well as contestant (Scrapheap Challenge, Celebrity MasterChef) – and author.
A degree in electrical engineering undoubtedly helps in the quest to bring yet another "cunning plan" to fruition when restoring a crumbling chateau, but he says growing up in Northern Ireland also played its part in forging patience and a sense of humour – something which is always needed when you buy a 47-bedroom derelict French castle (a snip at €345,000) and then move in without water, electricity, heating or sewerage.
But, despite the odds, Dick and Angel's seemingly impossible French dream is paying off and the chateau is now a successful wedding, events and 'glamping' destination which is pretty much booked out for the incoming year.
"We have done a lot of work and the chateau is now a fully functioning wedding business," says Dick, who doubles up as a marriage celebrant and was delighted to host a "a great northern Irish wedding" last year.
"The couple were from Co Derry and it was a lot of fun," he says."Getting married in France requires a lot of legal action, so couples have the legal element done before they come here for the celebration.
"Angel and I went through the whole French legal process – six months of jumping through hoops.
"We said we would only do 12 weddings a year because we wanted each of them to be special – so far, we've done 25 in total. We get many more requests than we can deal with, unfortunately."
Although born in Burma (Myanmar), Dick moved to Northern Ireland when he was "tiddly wee", first living in Bangor to be near grandparents in Newtownards, and then later moving to Antrim.
"I went to school in Ballyclare and my mum and sisters still live in the area," he says. "I love going home to visit – I visit regularly and the family love coming out here. They bring us soda flour to make soda bread and pancakes for a little taste of home."
While he finds the bureaucracy in France frustrating, the two-hour lunches are appealing – although, with the couple's busy schedule, he hasn't had time yet to indulge in that particular mode de vie.
"We've never had the two-hour lunch break the way the French have been doing because we're too busy," he sighs. "For a treat, we're going to do that some day, but we have to have our honeymoon first... we're still waiting to do that.
"Everyone talks about the bureaucracy in France and they don't have the same urgency for things, which can be frustrating – places shut for lunch, big two-hour lunches. Most shops shut and that includes the big DIY shops; people just shut the door and ask you to come back two hours later.
"But, you know, I think they've got it right because on a Sunday here, there are no shops open. You have a day with the family, a day to do something else and I think we've forgotten how to do that, to have a day to just let the family breathe."
:: The Chateau: The Beginning is available to order at www.chateaudelamottehusson.com and Escape to the Chateau DIY is set to film at the end of February.