Times_banner

21 January 2005: This piece was featured in The Times.

Meet the chalet cat

Restoring Alpine farmhouses is a British builder's pet project, reports Jenny Knight.

CHRIS HARROP went to the French Alps as a skiing-mad 22-year-old, subsidising his passion by working as a dishwasher, ski guide and builder. Over the years he discovered a new obsession -saving old farmhouses from decay and preserving the traditional architecture of the Isère valley.

He went back to England to take City & Guilds examinations in carpentry before returning to the Alps to gather his own team of workmen. Now he buys ruined buildings to convert into chalets for second-home buyers.

His sites in hamlets or villages where buyers are surrounded by French neighbours appeal to free spirits who don't need the comfort blanket of other tourists or the bustling atmosphere of nearby ski resorts. The chalets, some of which are divided into two or three flats, are not cheap -from €570,000 to €2.5 million (£400,000 to £1.75 million) -but that is about half the price of chalets in ski resorts such as Val d'Isere. Harrop's chalets should offer more opportunities for rental income: ski resorts have limited attractions out of season but a mountain hamlet may provide walking, climbing, mountain biking, tennis, golf, parapointing (parachuting off a mountain wearing skis), snowboarding and white-water rafting.

Harrop resolved to preserve the character of his chalets after seeing developers modernise the hearts out of 200-year-old Alpine farmhouses. He loathes the new steel roofs common in the area and always uses lauzes -large, thick slabs of irregular slate that have to be hammered into place -as the top layer for his own roofs. "When I first came to the Isère valley more than 20 years ago I stayed with a farmer," he says. "He lived in the way that people have for centuries, a poor, agrarian, subsistence life, bringing in the cows and goats during the winter and living with them in the same room or keeping them underneath the family's sleeping quarters for warmth."

The farmer had a gulley running across his living quarters so that liquid manure from the cows could run off. I suppose most people would have thought it was terrible but I quite liked the sweet, warm smell and I try to preserve something of that traditional way of life in my chalets.” His drive for authenticity stops short of using animal heat and he installs underfloor heating, bathrooms, showers and sometimes saunas.

Robert Senior, an advertising executive, and Paul McCulloch, a City worker, were so impressed by chalets that Harrop converted for them that they provided the financial backing to form French Mountain Property. It has 14 properties in various stages of renovation, of which two are nearing completion. La Manessier, a seven-bedroom, six-bathroom former farmhouse in Le Mirroir, near the ski resorts of Val d'Isere, Tignes, Les Arcs, La Plagne and La Rosière, costs €1.5 million. A four bedroom, 1,500 sq ft apartment that forms half of an A-frame chalet in the nearby hamlet of Le Planay is priced at €750,000.

One of the first couples to benefit from Harrop's skills were Liz and Simon Clemmow. In 1998 the London couple spent a weekend looking for a property in the French Alps and saw a scribbled "A vendre" notice outside a dilapidated house in Le Miroir. The price was £75,000 and they bought it. "The house was not as charming and old as many properties, but it was big and solid and the views over the mountains are magnificent," says Liz Clemmow.

"We were told Chris Harrop was a good builder. He was rebuilding his own house at the time and we used to see him on his roof. At that stage he had done only one complete house. We looked at it and found it beautiful."

Since the completion of their seven- bedroom house, the couple have been digging themselves deep into French rural life. "We could go to a rural festival every weekend if we wanted," Liz says. "Two doors away from our house we have a lovely restaurant. I play tennis, Simon plays golf and we all cycle. We have seven ski resorts near by which we can reach in ten to 45 minutes. We are the only English people in the village, because the other second homes are owned by Parisians. But that's fine. Everyone is friendly."