Sally Howard and Emma Wells, The Sunday Times (London), November 1, 2009
Rudy Nielsen looks unprepossessing enough in his blue jeans and lumberjack shirt, but he has been known to buy up an entire town before breakfast. Nielsen is an agent and property developer with a difference: his speciality is buying, renovating and selling the once thriving mining communities that litter the vast expanses of Canada.
“Many of these abandoned places are extremely picturesque, despite their industrial history,” says the Vancouver-based Nielsen, who often parcels up the land and sells it on as holiday-home plots for Canadians or for overseas buyers attracted by the romance of the country’s wilds. “Sheep Creek, one of the first I developed, lies in snow-topped mountains east of Vancouver, with a single road carving down to a beautiful creek and waterfalls. It makes for wonderful hiking and fishing.”
Many of the sites Nielsen buys are offered to him by mining companies. Among them was Kitsault, a hamlet hugging a picturesque fjord on the west coast of British Columbia, which was built in the 1970s to mine molybdenite and since abandoned. A few, however, he discovered serendipitously — most memorably an old jail town on the Alaska/British Columbia border. “I was heading to a 400-acre property I’d bought in northern BC that was only accessible by water,” he says. “I was coming in by helicopter and on the way I noticed a glimmer through the trees below. So I decided to spend some time on the ground seeking it out.” Nielsen’s find was Arrandale, a 19th-century town he bought and eventually sold for $1m (about £580,000) to a German buyer who wanted to develop the area as a nature retreat for his wealthier compatriots.
Buying an entire town or village may sound fantastical — the exclusive domain of developers, or the pet projects of billionaires desperate to create their own estate — but it is a dream that also captures the imagination of more ordinary folk. The ancient hamlets, villages and borghi of France and Italy, for example, have inspired plenty of Britons to escape the rat race and create a new home, community and livelihood.
Six years ago, Steve Humphrey, 48, and his wife, Helen, 45, originally from the Cotswolds, bought the Domaine de Peyrecaty, a bucolic honey-stone hamlet near Belvès, in the Dordogne, comprising 50 acres and 12 properties, for which they paid about £1.2m. The couple converted a large outbuilding into a 433 sq metre five-bedroom home, complete with library, and refurbished nine of the other buildings, letting them out as self-catering gîtes. Guests have use of a tennis court, swimming pool and central bar, and the business is flourishing. However, the pair have now decided to return to Britain to spend more time with their grandchildren, and have put the domaine on the market for £1.96m (gitebusinessforsale.com).
“The place would suit someone who has done well for themselves, but perhaps feels there’s more to life than the work treadmill,” says Steve, who used to work in sales. And someone who’d enjoy being king or queen of the castle, perhaps? “Of course,” he smiles. “Walking around your own village... Nothing beats it for that sense of quiet confidence.”
The couple were fortunate in that the previous owner, who was also British, had already completely rebuilt many of the properties in the hamlet. “Renovating even one home is usually too much for most people, so you really have to think about what you are going to do with a whole hamlet,” says Rupert Fawcett, of Knight Frank’s international department. “It is a huge job to take on a village and create a personal estate, so most people looking to buy a hamlet or village in Europe are coming from the business angle — they are planning to rent out the buildings as holiday homes, or to create cookery schools or holistic and arts centres.”
One such high-profile project is Pierre Cardin’s, at Lacoste, in Provence. The Paris fashion designer and businessman has been gradually buying up the village, which is spread around a half-ruined castle that once belonged to the Marquis de Sade, with the aim of turning it into a community of artists. Cardin, 87, now owns 42 buildings in the village of 430 people, and has spent about £18m restoring them. He has also established a music festival.
Local people — who report that he is willing to offer €1m (£900,000) for a house worth just €300,000 — are divided, however. To some, he is breathing new life into a dying village; to others he is a feudal lord threatening to destroy a traditional Provençal community. His plans to build a Greek-style amphitheatre in a nearby quarry — and his perceived opinion of the villagers as ignorant bumpkins — have provoked an outcry, and a protest group has been set up to monitor Cardin’s every move. Lacoste castle was last sacked in 1789, when the villagers protested against de Sade’s politics and perversions: it remains to be seen if its present lord will face a similar fate.
Italy, too, is seeing celebrities at the forefront of village restoration. The fashion queen Alberta Ferretti has been steadily rebuilding and renovating the 12th-century borgo (walled village) of Montegridolfo, which lies on the border between Emilia-Romagna and Le Marche, near her childhood home and the headquarters of her haute-couture empire. The village has a church, town hall and smart restaurants, plus a castle, which she has transformed into a four-star, eight-room hotel.
“The idea of finding a ruined, abandoned village is certainly a terribly romantic notion,” says Luca Catalano, executive director at the estate agency Realitalia (realitalia.co.uk), which has offices in London and France and specialises in buying hamlets and small villages in Italy, often developing them and selling them on in separate units, as houses or apartments. “However, there are not many complete hamlets or villages left to buy.”
After the second world war, people left the countryside and headed to the cities, looking for work, leaving villages all over rural Italy — and, in particular, in the centre of the country — virtually empty. The 1980s and 1990s, however, saw an increase in tourism, and in developers and overseas buyers snapping up some of the best spots. “Yet,” Catalano says, “people are always interested in finding hamlets and estates that have renovation opportunities.”
Catalano is part of the development team at Colletta di Castelbianco, in Liguria, an £18m restoration project, and is keen to point out how much work such schemes entail. The substantial village was abandoned in the late 19th century, but in 2005-6 its buildings were restored into 72 flats and houses — all of which have since been sold.
“Our team spent two years collecting all the deeds to the properties in the village, owned by disparate people, and then there were of course the discussions, obtaining the planning permission, the roads, parking, infrastructure, and then the actual renovation work, which took seven years,” he says.
It seems there are still plenty of people out there willing to take on the challenge of creating a personal estate. Stephen Woods, 34, a former window fitter from Birmingham, is just embarking on his village adventure. Together with his father and a group of five friends from Britain, Germany and France, he has bought Malhada de Santa Maria, a run-down village set high in the hills above Santa Catarina in the Algarve. They bought the cluster of seven homes in two phases, acquiring the bulk of the properties last summer for about £540,000 and the remaining house for £72,000 in January.
Woods is looking ahead to the time when the renovation work has been completed and they have created a self-sufficient community of friends, complete with allotments and a herd of cattle. “The dream is to make a proper escape from the rat race,” he says. “And you really can live in Portugal very cheaply — as long as you skip the long afternoons on the golf range, that is.”