When Coral Miles watches television programmes like Escape to the Chateau, she can’t help smiling. ‘That has always been my life,’ she says, explaining that, as a child, her family moved to France when her parents bought an old convent in Brittany. In the years that followed, her mother Lesley went on to restore several more houses in Brittany and elsewhere in France, including Paris and the Loire Valley. Then, 15 years ago, she and Coral found this atmospheric manor house in the Loire, which was built in the 1850s.
Once a grand nobleman’s house, it had fallen into disrepair after years of inheritance disputes. ‘It was a rare opportunity to restore a traditional house with really beautiful features,’ Coral explains, adding that some of those features are even older than the house itself. In the mid 20th century, the house was owned by a master stonemason who worked on restoring historic buildings in the area. ‘Any pieces that were no longer wanted he kept for himself and put into this house,’ she says. ‘And he had a good eye.’
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The same might be said for Coral and her mother, who between them have filled the house with an eclectic array of antiques that enhance the character of the house. And, in doing so, they are following in a family tradition. ‘My grandmother was an antiques dealer, a true eccentric who ran a shop in London’s Blackheath in the 1960s,’ says Coral. ‘She would sleep fully dressed at the wheel of her car, so she was ready to set off to sales at the crack of dawn.’
Coral has clearly inherited both that passion for antiques as well as the love of the chase and she is a regular at the local salerooms, brocantes and flea markets, several of which are held along the banks of the river. ‘You can spend hours looking for treasures and then enjoy oysters and a crisp white wine at a riverside cafe,’ she says.
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The fruits of these trips fill the house: everywhere one looks there are interesting collections. In the living room a dazzling array of antique green glassware fills the mantelpiece. The collection was started by her grandmother and has been continued by Coral. It includes 19th-century apothecary bottles and 20th-century chemists’ jars, some with blue glass stoppers added for decoration.
The kitchen walls and a high shelf in the hall are home to blue-and-white ceramics from Wedgwood, Spode and Limoges, along with a few German and Dutch pieces. Some items are in daily use but many are too fragile, so are just for display. Coral’s devotion to fine china started young, when, at the age of 18, she brought back an entire Lomonosov tea service from a school trip to St Petersburg. ‘I managed to cram it into my hand luggage, along with a huge jar of Russian gherkins,’ she recalls.
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Antique Persian rugs are another passion, and they have been put to good use throughout the house. ‘They give a richness to a room and are soft to walk on,’ Coral says, adding that she finds it ‘restful’ to sit and gaze at the intricate patterns. ‘There is so much detail to find in them.’
Most striking of all is the collection of butterflies that fills the walls of the dining room. It was put together by Coral’s great-uncle, an entomologist who travelled the world documenting species. Originally hidden away in dark cases, Coral mounted the traysso they can be enjoyed. Despite being surrounded by so many wonderful antiques, Coral maintains that collecting is not simply about the desire to own things. ‘It’s about appreciating them,’ she says. ‘The trouble is, once you’ve started or inherited a collection, it’s hard to stop adding to it…’
As with the house, the garden was sadly neglected but, having researched its original planting, Coral has worked hard on its restoration. It is now recognised by the French state and is open to the public alongside famous neighbours such as Château d’Ussé and Château de Villandry. Coral and Lesley’s latest project is a barn conversion for visitors in which they host workshops with a focus on garden design and creative pursuits.
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