15 February 2005: This piece was featured in The Sunday Telegraph.

Chalets with altitude

High in the French Alps, perched above the crowded resorts, derelict farmhouses are awaiting buyers to turn them into idyllic ski chalets. Caroline McGhie reports

Forget the classic ski resort: apartment blocks, hotels, pizzerias, nightclubs, whooping teenagers, the constant swish of the chairlift, the magic of the mountains rising around you but just out of reach. You don't have to do it this way. You could be on a precipice in a restored Haute Savoie French farmhouse, watching the villages below light up at sunset.

It might be harder work to get there. To start with, you have to take or hire a car in order to corkscrew up into the French Alps, two-and-a-half hours from Geneva airport, to where the farmhouse hangs on its rocky outcrop. You might have to park some way from your front door and negotiate vertiginous icy pathways, squeeze round the stone walls of village outhouses, sniff cow dung and meet the eerie silence that comes with altitude. But if you have hired a chalet chef - in our case the amazing Rupert - and arrive in time for tea, there will be a roaring log fire in the vast raised hearth, a freshly baked chocolate cake and bottles with ice chinking nearby.

On the way, you will have noticed the logs neatly stacked beneath the overhanging balcony of an empty house. "That's Lulu's house. She lives on the middle floor, the animals live below and the hay is stored above," says Rupert. "A week or so ago, she took all her cattle to winter down the valley. She just herded them off through the village, bells clanging, calves following." Even the French locals, as with Lulu, don't reckon to stay in these high-altitude summer houses during the bone-aching deep snows. True to their reputation, the British are regarded as crazy to consider these semi-ruined mountain houses as potential pleasure domes.

A few steps up the mountain path in our hamlet of Le Planay Dessus is a ruined house with a collapsed wall and a picturesque one-up, one-down chalet beside it. The view across the valley is to a chairlift cutting through the trees to Les Arcs, which has the longest ski run in Europe. This property awaits restoration, after which it will go on the market at €1.6 million (£1.1 million).

It is among a portfolio of properties owned by French Mountain Property, which is run by three Englishmen. First with the ideas was Chris Harrop, who lives a few hair-raising loops down the road at Le Planay Dessous. Chris is one of nature's adventurers. The bigger the white-out, the higher the peak, the earlier the start (3am, for example), the better it is for him. In the winter he runs the British/American ski school in Val d'Isère; in the summer he concentrates on farmhouse restoration. He and his wife, Lesley, send their children, Sam, four, and Emily, seven, to the local French school, where skiing is taught twice a week.

Chris bought his first derelict farmhouse 10 years ago. "I just love the shape and the architecture of these houses, they are so beautiful," he says. "Generally, each one has a cave for the potatoes and cheese, a living floor, then two hay lofts above, with animals - cows, goats, chickens - next door."

The handful of houses in the hamlet are clustered cheek-by-jowl, and date from the 18th to the 20th century. Early photographs show subsistence farming thriving well into the 1950s, but the young have long since gone to work in the towns, cities or ski resorts.

Two old school friends and habitual skiers who identified with Chris's dream were Robert Senior, an advertising executive, and Paul McCulloch, a private investment banker. In 1998 the three formed French Mountain Property, built the portfolio of 14 romantic derelicts, and have now hired the affable Tim Lawson, a property-search agent from Gloucestershire, to bring the houses to the British market.

"In a resort you get dumped in one place and just ski in that one place," says Tim. "This way you can ski at Tignes or Les Arcs or Val d'Isère, or La Rosière, all within half-an-hour's drive and each with different characteristics. Then, at night, you retreat back to your farmhouse and have a wonderful meal, be a family and decide what you are going to do the next day." You will need a car for these daily expeditions, and if there is a heavy snow dump you'll have to wait for the snowplough. Families often opt to hire a good chef rather than a nanny, in order to spend time with their children, spare themselves the shopping and cooking and be treated to a gastronomic holiday in the process.

"You are part of the mountains here," says Tim. "It is so beautiful. You wake in the morning and you can see the dark silhouette of the mountain against your window. There is a pinky glow and then the sunlight just clips the top of the range and shoots down the valley. It is just captivating, and you don't get that in the resorts."

Prices are generally half what they are in the resorts, and the life is different too. Here there are neighbours to know, shops to negotiate, cheeses to sample. "The shopkeepers can practically tell you which herd the Roblochon and the Beaufort came from, and where they grazed last summer," says Chris.

At night we eat in a farmhouse restaurant, where hunks of lamb and beef are barely shown an open fire before being sliced rare onto the plate, followed by tumblers of pure, colourless alcohol. The razzmatazz of the resorts is a world away from these dark silent valleys and empty villages through which we slide back in the snow.

Chris is from Bolton, and tells me that he had bloody-mindedness stitched in at birth. He isn't interested in using new wood for his chalets, for instance. The houses are stone, with stone slate roofs, wood-lined like antique boxes inside.

He treasures the old wood, re-uses it, slices it into bespoke floors, cabinets, wardrobes, door handles, even coat hooks, and he orders fresh supplies from Eastern Europe. There's almost a Flintstone simplicity to his huge fireplaces, vast windows, over-sized linen sofas, underfloor heating (gas or electric) and beams made out of whole tree trunks.

It is quite different to the chalets in the resort agents' windows - all pine walls shining like saunas, check curtains, floral sofas and chintzy chandeliers. "Ordinary developers would gut a place and make bonfires out of the old wood. But I love it. And the stuff that you get from the cowshed, which has been urinated on for 200 years, is deep purple when you cut it and hard as steel," says Chris. Ordinary developers wouldn't work so far up a mountain on a crazy terraced site without vehicular access either.

The impact of increased interest from British buyers is being felt locally. "Values for old properties have gone up by 20 to 25 per cent a year in the past two years," says Tim. "It is now recognised that they are a limited commodity. Because of the way the French inheritance laws work, properties are split between all the children so you can sometimes find that putting the ownership together is like a difficult jigsaw puzzle, and then you have to get everyone to agree. It can take years."

The house I am staying in, restored by Chris and with three bedrooms and a sleeping gallery, is not for sale. But there are lovely peak-top houses waiting for the treatment. At Le Planay Dessous is a four-bedroom flat which is nearly finished, selling at €750,000 (£517,000). In the village of Le Miroir is a huge three-floor chalet sitting on the lip of the valley which will be restored and sold for €1.95 million (£1.35 million. A copy will be built next to it and sold at €1.7 million (£1.17 million). At Peisey Nancroix is a grand, semi-derelict bourgeois town villa with ornate balconies sitting just below the church and the telecabin, which will finish at €2.5 million (£1.7 million). At Montorlin is a farmhouse which will be converted into six two-to three-bedroom flats priced at €260,500-€540,100 (£180,000-£370,000).