Classic cars in Charente
- Credit: Archant
Vicky Leigh shares the success story of a couple who have turned their love of cars – and their beautiful home – into a business
modern classic in charente
As their advert says, this is more than just a B&B. The accommodation on offer at this picturesque property in western Charente is certainly reason enough to come here, whether you stay in one of the en-suite bed and breakfast rooms or in a beautifully converted self-catering cottage in the grounds.
Of course should you need more of a reason, the owners are more than happy to oblige. Whether you fancy taking a classic car for a leisurely spin in the scenic Charente countryside, or want an idyllic setting in which to celebrate your wedding day, then you’ve come to the right place.
Nestled among vineyards and sunflower fields, the 18th-century logis and former cognac distillery has been home to Nick Brimblecombe and his wife Sally since 2005, but Nick’s connection with France goes back much further than that.
“I got the bug for France as a teenager when my parents bought a house in Dordogne,” says Nick. “They paid £750 for it, and it was a ruin, so I was drafted in to help renovate it because it was pretty tumbledown.” Nick went on to work as a property agent, selling houses in France before moving into the rental market, which in turn led to his 35-year career as a tour operator specialising in France.
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In 2005, Nick and Sally decided the time had come for them to make their own move across the Channel. “Our children were happily settled, we’d done everything we could to our house in the UK and we felt that we’d got one last adventure left in us,” says Nick. And what an adventure that turned out to be.
His previous experience of the country meant that they had quite a long shortlist of regions in which they felt they could happily settle, but they gradually whittled it down. Charente appeared to offer everything they wanted, so they decided to concentrate their property search there.
“We were shown lots of properties but nothing matched our requirements,” says Nick. “Eventually though, with the help of a friend in Angoulême, we found what we were looking for. He rang me one day and said ‘I’m standing in the courtyard of the property you’re going to buy’. We went to see it and it did indeed fulfil all the aspects of our wish list, apart from the fact it was in a terrible condition!”
The property was without a kitchen or bathroom and also lacked a heating system, but Nick and Sally were so taken with it they were able to see beyond this. And so began a major building project to restore it to its former glory. They had a policy of only using very local labour, preferably from their own commune, which has been a great success both in terms of the work carried out and their integration into the area.
Their own living accommodation has been transformed, and they have also created a guest wing with five bedrooms, three self-catering cottages and a bar. The accommodation for guests has been specifically designed with them in mind in order to meet the expectations and requirements of the modern-day holidaymaker.
“I’m a poacher-turned-gamekeeper I suppose,” reflects Nick. “I used to go and inspect other people’s properties and had seen a very big change in people’s expectations over the years in terms of what they wanted and what was acceptable. I realised early on that you need a pool and en-suite rooms, and as far as bed and breakfast goes you need sumptuously comfortable beds so people get a good night’s sleep. You need to put things in that will have the wow factor.”
HOME OF A RANGE
The property offers all of the above, and plenty more besides. The large grounds, which include a park, are used for a wide range of events, from weddings and concerts to theatre performances and classic car meets.
The latter, Nick says, is his vice, but he has successfully incorporated this passion into the business and in doing so has created something quite unique. A specialist insurance policy is required – something Nick has as a result of previously having a fleet of classic cars for hire in the UK – and would be very difficult, if not impossible, to come by now.
“I’ve always had the cars and they’re a personal hobby, but I’ve always been one to try and make my hobbies pay,” says Nick. “I felt that they would really appeal to people and be a draw. It’s such a pleasure to drive in France and the roads are suitable for older cars – exactly the conditions they were made for if you like.”
The cars are particularly popular with his French guests, and he’s even sold a few to them as well.
Nick is actively involved in promoting tourism in the area, and is now also supporting local cognac producers by offering his guests the opportunity to visit the vineyards to learn more about the production process.
“In the summer we are busy with events and running the B&B, but during the winter it’s much quieter and we don’t have as many overnight guests,” says Nick. “There’s not enough to keep us busy for the whole time then, so it’s good to have complementary activities too.”
Nick and Sally clearly have their eye on the future when it comes to developing the business, and indeed haven’t looked back since they moved lock, stock and barrel to France eight years ago.
“We’re totally at home here and wouldn’t wish to live anywhere else now,” says Nick. “The children and grandchildren come to visit a lot. We’ve made a big commitment and we haven’t regretted it for one single moment. It was a very positive, life-changing step to take and as far as I’m concerned it’s the best thing we ever did in terms of a move.”