Q&A: Martha Butterfield and the Bastion Ste Anne
Best known around these parts as one of B&R’s titular co-founders (having been born a Robinson and married a Butterfield, she likes to joke that she’s the original Butterfield and Robinson) Martha Butterfield is also a proud resident of Beaune, B&R’s medieval second home in Burgundy. She and her husband George are the owners of the Bastion Ste Anne, an idyllic and luxurious retreat nestled into the heart of the town.
The Slow Road recently caught up to Martha to discuss the property’s historic beginnings, its humble origin as a vacation property and its current standing as a serene and inspiring escape.
The Slow Road: The Bastion is a centuries-old National Historic Monument in the heart of French wine country. How did it come to be owned by two Canadians?
Martha Butterfield: Butterfield & Robinson had toyed with the idea of starting a small boutique hotel in Beaune. A property adjoining the garden of the Bastion via a tunnel proved inappropriate, but the garden itself was being sold separately and wasn’t expensive. Everything about it was in ruins, but it had a charm and a mystery to it—it was actually a very large park in the centre of Beaune, entirely surrounded by tall 17thC rampart walls. (To this day we don’t understand why it was sold to foreigners, as it is a Classified Historic Monument. It certainly would not be sold to us today, so we are the lucky ones.)
For years B&R used the garden for picnics and other festivities, including some wedding receptions. The garden was maintained but very minimal repairs were made to the house, just enough to stop it from falling down!
When you and George first purchased it, the Bastion was far from the beguiling hideaway it is today. Can you give us a sense of what state it was in when you first purchased it?
Adjoining the stone house is a serre, a greenhouse, with a curved glass roof and wall that extended from the tall stone rampart wall to the ground. All the windows were broken and the iron structure was in a sorry state.
Historically, Burgundy was very close to the frontier with Austria and when Austria invaded during the Thirty Years’ War, our Bastion was hastily built in 1637 to defend the town of Beaune. It was built to house cannons.
When we bought it, the house had no running water, no bathrooms or kitchen, and to get to the second floor you had to take an external staircase—and risk your life walking on the floor above! As I said, it was a complete ruin. All the same, it was beguiling. It felt fabled.
You hired acclaimed architect Jack Diamond to help transform the house. Can you speak to the vision you and he had for it? What was the process like in both determining what you wanted to do, and what you could do within the constraints of les architectes des batiments de France?
We were able to do very little other than restore it. We wanted to add to it but the authorities would only allow us enough space to put in two bathrooms and an inside staircase. And they wouldn’t let us do it in stone. They suggested glass. “But it’s for bathrooms,” we exclaimed! We settled on wood. While it only has one full bedroom and a loft (where our grandchildren often sleep when they come visit us), its coziness adds to its charm and exclusivity. Jack Diamond designed a small but exquisite addition for us. The green house is the unique room: totally glass in an iron framework, with a fireplace and a sunken stone floor, with broad views onto the gravel pathways, the fruit trees and flowers of the garden. It is greatly admired.
You mentioned the garden, which is a highlight of the property. What makes it so unique?
Some of the old fruit trees still exist in a beautiful gnarled way: figs, kiwi, pears, plums. And some of the flowers are species that are not seen today, which we treasure. We restored the design of paths radiating out from the house in a fan to echo the shape of the property. The focal point is a small, stone sentry tower; even the domed roof is of cut stone. It is an emblem for the whole town, a symbol of the fortifications surrounding Beaune.
From the modern design to the lush gardens, there’s a lot to love about the property. For you personally, what’s your favourite part?
My favourite moment is always climbing the stone steps from the busy centre of Beaune and opening the small, inconspicuous gate that opens unexpectedly, into our little paradise, our secluded, quiet park. It is always a delight, a surprise. The gravel paths all lead to our échaugette, the stone sentry tower where soldiers stood on guard against invaders during the Thirty Years War.
How does a stay at the Bastion differ from staying in one of Beaune’s hotels?
There is no way to compare. Here, you are in an exquisite, secret hideaway. It is luxurious in every way, from the Bulthaup kitchen, the Jura espresso machine, to the fine art and furnishings. These are, of course, in addition to the historic house and grounds that would be impossible to find elsewhere. While there are maid and catering services available (and bicycles!) you are on your own without the minute-by-minute services one finds in a luxury hotel. The choice depends on a traveller’s needs—both physical and spiritual.
What feeling or impression would you like guests to leave with after a stay at the Bastion?
The feelings the Bastion always leaves me – and I hope our visitors – with are of good fortune and an urgent desire to return! We have people coming back this year for the fourth time. They feel so privileged to have found our retreat, which offers beauty, peace history and a one-minute walk to the centre of Beaune, with its wonderful, gourmet restaurants, wine and shops. Don’t forget, this is one of the great wine capitals of the world.