Living the good life in south-west France
PUBLISHED: 10:01 10 March 2020
Becky Brown and husband Andrew are raising their children in 10 acres of wild French woodland, where they have a campsite and run workshops and retreats
Becky Brown and her husband Andrew live in 10 acres of wild French woodland in Tarn-et-Garonne with their three young children. Keen to share the beauty of their rural surroundings, they've added a campsite with bell tents and this summer they launch their new programme of retreats and workshops at Wild Oak Wood.
Did you always intend to develop a smallholding when you moved to France?
When we lived in London I always had a dream of keeping chickens and having a veg patch. When we first moved to France we lived in a village and had a tiny patch of land for a garden. We got chickens straight away and started our veg growing journey with a good crop of tomatoes and potatoes. Adding more animals and creating a larger veg patch has been a natural progression as we have moved to a (much!) bigger place. We're adding things gradually as our first priority was to get the house comfortable for living in. It had been abandoned for years before we moved in and needed quite a bit doing to it.
Had you done something similar before?
We had attempted to grow veg before when we lived in London, but nothing like on the scale that we do here. We never used to have animals, not even a cat or dog. It's funny, I never considered myself to be an animal person before living here, but my wish list is growing!
How did you get started?
We've been here at Wild Oak Wood now for three years and one of the first things we did was assign a patch just outside the house to develop as a kitchen garden. We had to clear the land and build raised beds, as well as bring in top soil as we're on thick clay that is full of rocks. We brought our chickens over from the village we were in and quickly added rabbits to the mix. With 10 acres to look after I can see the added bonus of having other animals, particularly ones that could graze the fields. We have a rule that any animals we have must have a purpose. Our dog for example protects our animals from predators, our chickens provide us with eggs, and our rabbits we raise for meat. Even the fish in the pond help keep the mosquitoes at bay! Each year is a learning curve and we get better with time and experience.
What does it mean for your day-to-day life in terms of managing the land?
We have a huge amount to learn when it comes to woodland management. We have a couple of fields but the majority of our land is untouched wild woodland. At the moment we're trying to build up a routine of chopping wood for winter as our heating system relies solely on our woodburner. It takes a huge amount of time to process all the wood - chopping down the trees, loading the van, taking it to the wood store, chopping and splitting it into smaller pieces for the woodburner, stacking it outside, then wheelbarrowing it into the house for the fire. It's not for the fainthearted but it's keeping us fit!
How do you feel your children are benefiting from growing up surrounded by nature?
Knowing that our three children (10-year-old Reuben, eight-year-old Jacob and baby Phoebe) would have a more outdoor childhood was one of the reasons for moving to France. Back when we lived in the village they would have the freedom to roam around with their friends, and here the woodland is their playground. Our main hope is that they learn to appreciate the nature around them and learn to look after it.
How has life changed for you since moving here and what do you enjoy most about it?
Our aim in moving to France was that we would have more time together as a family. In London I used to look after the boys while Andrew worked full time as a social worker. He used to see the boys in the evenings and at the weekends so here the kids definitely get more daddy time. Despite living in the city for most of our lives we're thoroughly enjoy being in the countryside. We're learning to tune into the seasons and enjoy seeing all the wildlife around us. There's something special about being able to go for walks around the land when there's a full moon, or seeing wild deer run across your fields. There's also a real sense of community here which we just didn't feel when we lived in London. We know that there are people who we can call on in times of need and that the kids are always looked out for. We've been welcomed into our village with open arms and enjoy taking part in and organising events. However, we're certainly nowhere near that goal of a good work-life balance, especially as we enter our debut year as a campsite, but hopefully we'll get there one day!
Where did you get the idea to offer bell tent camping come from?
The moment we drove through the gates when we first came to look at our house we knew it was for us. It has a certain presence about it and we thought it was too good not to share! We thought about the best form of accommodation that we could offer and we loved the idea of tents in the woods. We've always been keen campers and have often left home with the car packed to the brim full of stuff. We decided to make it simple for people and provide everything guests need to make their stay comfortable, so all people need to bring is a suitcase of clothes and a sense of adventure! Once guests have unpacked into their tents (equipped with comfortable beds and all linen provided) they are free to do as little or as much as they please! Summers here are hot so they can cool down in the pool or swing in the hammocks under the trees. They are more than welcome to help out in the veg patch, collect eggs from the chickens, or feed the animals.
What's next at Wild Oak Wood?
We have three retreats running this summer and the themes are all things I'm passionate about. The first by Nessa from Bear Woods & Wellbeing is all about 'Rewilding', reconnecting with nature. There will be daily yoga (no experience necessary) and meditation sessions alongside traditional skills workshops such as firelighting and basket weaving. Country Living columnist Sara Ward will be giving people a 'Taste of the Good Life' in her week. There will be trips to local farms and hands-on workshops such as breadmaking, beekeeping and cheesemaking, and a visit to a local vineyard. Finally Ania Grzeszek from Kaliko is offering a 'Natural Dyeing' week to learn all about the magical properties of plants. Workshops include how to prepare fibres, creating a spectrum of colours using plants, plus there will be a trip to a local alpaca farm. We are also working with friends hosting two weeks of English language immersion courses for kids and teens. Two jam-packed weeks of English teaching in the morning and activities in the afternoon such as canoeing or bike riding, before pizza making and marshmallow roasting in the evenings!
Do you hope to offer more retreats in the future?
We'd love to run more retreats and we'd love to hear from anyone that might be interested in collaborating with us. We think we have such a beautiful space and are keen to share it with others that share the same ethos as us. When our barn is up and running I'd love to host more events too. I'm a musician and a keen crafter and love the idea of music or crafting events with maybe a few canapés and cocktails thrown in!
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