Chateau D'Armentieres

The Kerekes family bought the ruined castle in 2004. The chateau which survived the French Revolution unharmed, suffered from many years of neglect and was heavily damaged during WWI. It is now water which is the biggest threat to its foundation.

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Sophie, Francois and Marie Kerekes
@Castles_and_Palaces' owner Artiom Ganin is in France's northern Hauts-de-France region talking with the Kerekes family who own the ruined Chateau D'Armentieres. The castle was built as an important stronghold in the 13th century in the middle of river Ourcq's marshes which made it hard to access. The once imposing building whose facade with two turrets looked strikingly similar to the iconic facade of Avignon's Palais des Papes was badly damaged during decades of neglect and the first World War. Water also took its toll - it has a terrible effect on the foundations of the chateau especially in winter when it freezes inside damaging the stones. One of the beautiful turrets collapsed almost ten years ago but the owners do not lose hope as they do their best to prevent the castle from falling apart and to restore parts which are habitable. Sophie and Francois Kerekes live in one of the towers and say they love their chateau, they also see their attempts to preserve the castle as a challenge.

OPTIMISTS AND REALISTS SAVING THE RUINED CASTLE

Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Could you please introduce yourself and your family?
Marie Kerekes (MK): We are Francois, Sophie and Marie from France. My father Francois works as a general practitioner, my mother Sophie looks after our home and takes care of the garden, and me, Marie. I am doing research and teaching at a French university. We bought Chateau D'Armentieres in 2004.
CnP: I looked through the pictures, old and present-day ones and you know I have this question - can this castle be saved?
MK: It depends on what you mean by "saved". We don't want to restore it all the way it used to be, it would be pointless. It is clear from the pictures that a huge amount of effort and work has been put into the castle. We managed to safeguard what required our urgent attention and more recently we also renovated a part of the castle. You've probably noticed that the castle stands in a lowland which is normally flooded once or twice a year. Water penetrates the lower parts of the castle and breaks it when temperatures fall below 0 degrees Celsius. So, yes, the castle can be saved, but you have to have motivation and have realistically thinking optimists around you. These people should really understand our dynamics.
CnP: But why have you bought this very castle in first place?
Francois Kerekes (FK): Speaking about what motivated us as a family - I wanted to save a castle in principle. For me it was a childhood dream! My daughter Marie wanted to be "a princess" in a castle and help saving it. Well, to be honest, Sophie and the other daughter weren't as motivated at first, but then they accepted it. Now my daughters wish they could throw parties at their own chateau or show their friends around!
CnP: Agree! It must be cool to tell your friends that you parents have a castle! But I can imagine how much work needs to be done to continue with all these works! Do you have any idea? Have you made rough estimates?
FK: A lot of work has already been done and paid for both by us and by the state of
France. We restored the roof on the Oratory Tower, we completed works in the Staircase tower, also the restoration of the keep is ongoing right now, etc, etc, You know, the castle would have probably died without it. That's why it's important to focus on what we can achieve now rather then get desperate about what we cannot do immediately. In the future, we would love to save a part of the main building, like putting a roof on it, remaking floors, installing windows and stairs. But we totally realize that it would be impossible without patrons. For us it would be too expensive, we just can't pay for all of it. If we are lucky to find a patron, it could be mutually beneficial partnership!
CnP: How come you came across Chateau D'Armentieres? How did it happen?
MK: Well, we saw that this castle was up for sale by pure luck. We come from a different region of France and we were on holidays. My father looked through a magazine and saw this small ad - it stated that a ruined castle with 2 towers was for sale. He contacted the landlord, who said the castle had already been sold. But a few days later, he called back and told us that the buyer had refused to sign the deal at the very last moment. So we visited the chateau and… bought it! It's a wonderful castle! We love it so much! We find the ruins very beautiful. And you know there's something more than just enjoying the picturesque view - it's more challenging to save a ruined castle than a building that is almost intact!

SCARS OF WWI AND THE LOST TREASURE

CnP: The chateau survived the French revolution unharmed but was later neglected – what brought it in a state like this? WWI hostilities or natural causes?
FK: The castle was left almost without inhabitants in the late 17th century. The lords who owned it had other properties and did not live in Chateau D'Armentieres. The castle was leased to a farmer who lived nearby. Taking care of the castle was not among his everyday duties and the chateau slowly deteriorated. But you are absolutely right when you say that the castle – unlike many chateaux in France - was left unharmed during the French revolution. Why? Because no noblemen resided in it back then. When WWI broke out, the chateau was already crumbling. Still the roofing was almost all there - except the two big towers of the south facade that collapsed in the end of the 19th century, the Oratory Tower where the roof was missing, and the other tower on the west facade. The castle was on the front line of the second battle of the Marne - the last major German offensive on the Western Front - in 1918. The castle was bombarded and the roofs caved in. We still stumble on the traces of the Great War everywhere in the castle.
CnP: I traveled a bit around France and when I looked at your castle it struck me all of a sudden that I've seen the portal with those turrets elsewhere. And then bingo! This is very similar to Palais des Papes in Avignon! Is it just a coincidence?
FK: Yes! That's very true, the south facade has a lot of similarities with the facade of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. But it seems it's just a coincidence. Our facade was probably built when Jean II Juvenal des Ursins was the landlord – it was in the 15th century. The man was the archbishop of Reims and he wrote a lot about the final phase of the Hundred Years' War. This type of architecture could be found in churches or other religious buildings of his times. Maybe the castle's facade was inspired by it, given that the landlord was himself a religious man.
CnP: What are you going to do with the turret which collapsed?
MK: It was half a surprise: Francois and the neighbor Alain had seen that the towers were "rotten" at their basis – they normally make routine checks of the castle. They worked on saving one of them and it worked. At least the one they focused on is still there. But they lacked time to save the second one – and it collapsed. We would love to rebuild the turret, but it's very expensive. We focus our efforts on parts of the castle that risk collapsing. Here, when the tower fell, we were able to unlock funds to take care of the building for the rest not to collapse.
CnP: In general what is the plan for the future? What do you want to make out of the castle – just a private residence? Or a museum? Or maybe a hotel with a restaurant?
MK: We would love to fully save the castle. It is our biggest dream - having a roof on every part that needs one and solving the flooding problem because it affects the remaining walls. At the moment the chateau is a private residence, but we have been thinking about other options. We would like to have the castle generating money which could be spent on renovation and restoration. A museum might not be profitable because the castle is in the countryside, people aren't much going to museum in that area. A hotel or a restaurant is not a good option either. I know that there are castles in the area which tried it and failed. We are thinking more about partnership with companies that would like to take advantage of the castle to advertise their products. But this is just a general idea and we haven't gone into detail at the moment – I mean how we can structure it. Anyway we are open to any suggestions and projects.
CnP: I know volunteers are helping you in your efforts to conserve the castle and the Dartagnans platform in particular, could you tell me about these people?
FK: We launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2018 with Dartagnans. Marie managed it for the castle, it lasted for 3 months and she had to create the castle's account on social media, take care of the crowdfunding campaign, constantly updating and keeping track of everything. Thanks to the campaign, we have got around 4,000 euros donated. It helped us to renovate the keep – the budget was some 300,000 euros – and the works are almost completed. We still interact with them from time to time and had a small gathering in the summer of 2018 to celebrate the future renovations.
CnP: What did locals say when they learned that you bought the ruins and were eager to look after them? Were they happy?
MK: Both. Firstly, we received great support from our friends throughout all these years. We are grateful to our neighbors Alain and Maud, Marie-Therese and Ignace from Armentieres; Regine and Pascal who also own a castle nearby; Christine and Frederic who live near the castle of Cramaille. It would have been much more difficult without them!
FK: Still, some locals were hostile towards us. We come from the Parisian area, and the castle is in the countryside, so the locals thought that we were too urban to manage it. But in fact we're not really that urban. Most of the locals didn't like the castle and wanted it pulled down. Imagine we were told some local people were still stealing stones from the structure! They were stealing stones from a historical monument protected by the state! Unbelievable! So these people were totally against us because we wanted to bring the castle back to life, solve the flooding issue. But they just did not want it to exist!
CnP: This is terrible! Sounds so strange – normally people love such artifacts from the past because, firstly, it can attract tourists and money and, secondly, it can give people work. But surely the authorities were in your side, weren't they? MK: Of course the state of France helps us, the authorities partly financed the renovation through a grant because the chateau is on a list of Historical Monuments. We are very thankful for the unfailing support of the DRAC (this is the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs) of the region. The department of Aisne also granted us money for the works but they have stopped recently so we have to slow down a little bit.
FK: But sometimes we do want to leave it all behind, return to the city and forget about the castle. Just think of it - some local authorities were clearly against us, for example the major of the town. At a meeting devoted to the flooding issue he said he preferred to have the castle pulled down and left angry!

CnP: This is a big surprise for me!
FK: It was a big surprise for us all too! And in general it is a big surprise why the castle is in such a dire state although it is on the list of Historical Monuments of France!
CnP: What about real surprises? I mean things that you can touch. When you were removing the plants, trees and clearing the rubble you should have found something interesting!
FK: We have found 2-3 pieces of the old floor of the castle and some bullets from WWI.

CnP: Not much to be honest! I've seen a report by French TV and I was surprised you actually live in the castle, how is it possible to live inside?
MK: It is possible – we live in the castle in summer and when it is warm – the chateau has no heating system installed and when it is cold outside we have to leave. We can't live there all year round.
CnP: The tower you live in is the part which looks least damaged – is it a relatively new structure of the castle?
FK: I wouldn't call the 15th century tower a new structure! You see, the castle was originally built in 1297, it was expanded with the passage of time, new structures kept on appearing till the 16th century roughly. So it's a medieval castle, with Renaissance elements.

CnP: Has the oldest part survived?
FK: The "main building" or the Grand Logis dates back to the 13th century and it has survived! There's only one problem – it has no roof.
CnP: What's your favorite part of the castle? And what part do you family members love most of all?
MK: Good question. It is very hard to say to be honest. Francois loves the whole of it. He loves his room and the living room in the Gate Tower – this is where we live. He also likes the old room of the landlord in the old main building. He is fond of the garden, where he can spend time dreaming. Sophie likes the Gate Tower too, it is cozy and it is our home. As for me I like the living room in the Gate Tower and my new room in the keep.

CnP: The keep is the key part of any castle. Lots of people lived there and died there. Have you detected any ghosts there?
MK: Not for the moment! It is true that many persons lived and died in this chateau, I agree with you – there should be lots of ghosts! But… we haven't seen any so far! But we'll keep an eye open!

THE HISTORY AND WILDLIFE MIX

CnP: But perhaps you can take a night owl for a scary spirit - you have such rich wildlife, I saw it in the pictures, wildlife simply flourishes here – falcons, owls! How do you get along with them?
FK: When we cleared the area of old plants and trees we spotted nests - we have great birds of prey here and we really love birds and animals! The ruins are a nice place for them to breed – some areas are hard to access so the animals can be sure no one will disturb them there. We are very sensitive about their privacy so to speak!
CnP: A lot of people find it romantic – to have a castle for themselves, when I talked to the owner of Chateau de Meauce in Burgundy he told me this is not as romantic as it may seem, it is hard work and lots of problems. What would you tell those romantic dreamers?
MK: I 100% agree with the owner of the Chateau de Meauce! It's hard work everyday, dreamers have to take it into account. Keeping the castle alive costs a lot of money and a lot of time and efforts. But yes, it can be pretty romantic, it's maybe one of the last places here where you can dream and let your imagination go!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Francois and Marie Kerekes, the owners of Chateau D'Armentieres in Hauts-de-France!

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Pictures credits: Chateau D'Armentieres

You can always get in touch with the owners directly or via castlesandfamilies@gmail.com
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