HAD anyone told a young Catherine Dickens-Gore that she would end up making a life and business in Hungarian property, she probably would have laughed.
The great-great-great granddaughter of Charles Dickens had enjoyed a privileged childhood with her parents and sister Lucy in Yorkshire, and had carved her career in hospitality in the West Indies over more than a decade.
‘My mother is from Hungary but we’d only visited once, as teenagers, in 1984,’ Catherine, now 50, recalls. ‘We were Sloaney girls and it was still behind the Iron Curtain. I could never have guessed that 20 years later I’d be back and making a life here.’
Today, she is the proud owner of Catherine’s Cottages, near the village of Csákberény, 80km west of Budapest, where she and her late husband Christopher Gore first began renovating the tiny A-frame summer houses (nyaralos) in 2004. It began as a hobby but is now a thriving business, with nine cottages (a recent guest was actor Adrian Brody) run as holiday lets. At the heart of the compound is an eco-house. Built from scratch with solar panels to generate electricity, it features a reception, dining area and bar — though each cottage has a kitchen and a hearty log-burning fire.
Catherine started out in Budapest in 2000, buying, renovating and selling more than 30 flats, mainly for English and Irish investors after she moved to Hungary on the spur of the moment when her mother Jean-Marie Dickens, now 81, returned to her homeland. ‘People thought I was mad,’ she says. ‘And I had to do a crash course in the Hungarian language — which almost killed me. Then I met Christopher and I began the business.’
Today, she lives at Catherine’s Cottages in a house she renovated with her late husband, with her 12-year-old daughter Meg and daschunds Molly and Emi and rescue dog, Lotti. Catherine’s first cottage, bought in 2004, cost £2,800, although prices have spiked since then.
Inside, many of the cottages are clad with tongue-and-groove wood panelling in the style Catherine came to admire in the Caribbean. ‘My style is the story of my life,’ she says. ‘Each cottage is different. It’s Englishness, with Transylvanian gypsy and a Hungarian twist.’
Much of the furniture is recycled pieces from her mother’s village of Doboz, provided by craftsman Jozsi, who supplies the retailer Anthropologie and sells distressed furniture, ceramics and rustic wrought-iron work around the world.
Her shower bases are crafted from old wine barrels. And the curtains and robes are made of local waffle cotton. ‘My Hungarian roots are as important to me as my English heritage,’ Catherine says. ‘Having not only Dickens’ surname, but also the same name as his wife has been a great privilege and asset. Hungarians can’t understand why a Dickens descendent (they all study him at school) would not want to live in Britain.
‘But he was a pioneer in many respects and I think I have a bit of that in me. Though I think my late husband was the real pioneer — I wouldn’t have done any of this without him.’
VISITING Catherine’s rural empire is a delight — the concrete 50-65sq metre houses are scattered across the picturesque Hungarian countryside between vineyards. Each cottage is two storeys — part of which was formerly used for storing wood and harvested crops — and decorated in her inimitable style with its rich red and cream hues and Caribbean colours. Catherine transformed the outside of the cottages by painting most of them white with blue shutters. A former mayor of the town was less than approving. ‘He told me: “this is not Greece”,’ Catherine says.
RYAN Air flies to Budapest from Stansted a few times a day. British Airways also flies from London to Budapest. EasyJet flies from Gatwick and Wizz Air from Luton. Catherine’s Cottages are just over an hour’s drive from Budapest. For more information visit catherinesvineyardcottages.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.