All my barn days

Alison Craven and her husband Paul have had happy times running a successful B&B in Burgundy but now it is time for them to move on

We first saw the old barn on a dull, wet November day in 2005. We had often talked about the possibility of running a B&B in France. We had spent many enjoyable holidays there and like many had thought about a complete lifestyle change once our children had grown up and we had retired.

Paul had decided to retire in his mid-fifties, a couple of years earlier, and we had spent two enjoyable gap’ years combining travelling with working to gain the experience and additional skills we would need if we were to have our own successful B&B.

A vine life

We chose Burgundy for several reasons. It is a very popular tourist destination and it has a Continental climate. Burgundy is synonymous with some of the best vineyards in the world but away from the C�te d’Or it’s mostly pretty farming countryside.

There are lovely medieval towns dotted all around the region and our property is located just seven miles from the pretty Roman town of Autun which has a wonderful 12th-century cathedral as well as evidence of its Roman past.

It’s also an incredibly verdant part of France with many lakes and rivers, and the Parc Naturel R�gional du Morvan runs right through the centre of the region. Being centrally situated means being able to reach most parts of France in less than five hours by car.

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So our search for a nice little house with potential’ began. We spent three weeks touring the four departments that make up Burgundy. The vineyard areas of C�te d’Or were quickly dismissed as being too expensive and most properties had little garden space, vines being more profitable.

The departments of Yonne and Ni�vre were less touristy than would guarantee business for a B&B so we settled for Sa�ne-et-Loire with its history, vineyards, agriculture and good access to the motorway network and the Paris/Lyon TGV line.

After viewing a couple of properties badly in need of a total renovation, the estate agent mentioned an old barn that had just come on the market. It had a roof, water supply and basic electricity connection: would we like to see it?

As we drove down the lane feeling quite ambivalent about seeing another maison � renover we spotted her. Standing alone at the side of the lane on the edge of a field, with cracks in the stonework, rain dripping off the roof and the huge weather-worn shutters just managing to keep the rain from entering the inside.

And that was it. Before we were even out of the car we were struck – a coup de c�ur as the French would say. It was love at first sight for both of us. So very out of character.

The compromis de vente was signed the following day and in April 2006 we were the proud owners of a 250-year-old stone barn.

Having submitted plans and received planning permission from the local mayor, work started on the main part of the conversion in October 2006 and took a year to complete during which time we rented an apartment in the town centre.

Paul was project manager on site every day while I, being the French speaker, dealt with setting up both home and business.

By summer 2007, this once neglected old barn was filled with light from new window openings, sported a newly insulated roof, double glazing, under-floor heating, a state-of-the-art Italian kitchen, limestone floors and more insulation than you could shake a stick at. It was simply beautiful. We hired a big van and brought our furniture, new beds and B&B stuff over from the UK.

And so it begins

We decided to have just two guest rooms (both with full en-suite bathrooms) feeling that quality was preferable to quantity. We also had our own bedroom with an en-suite and dressing room.

Downstairs there is the guest dining/sitting room and our own kitchen/living room, both of which are 40m� in size. The dairy is now Paul’s workshop and the piggery is now a utility room.

As our plans for a B&B became more realistic, a good website became a priority. We intended to open in spring 2008 in order to catch bookings for the season so time was of the essence.

Although computer literate, I knew I wouldn’t be able to build a professional-looking website so used a web design agency for the layout and I chose to do the wording. This took quite some time but it was important for me to have the perfect finished product.

Our website went live’ in early spring and started off on page 34 of Google searches.

I registered with two popular Burgundy-based tourist websites which not only gave me bookings but also helped me move up the rankings. I also registered with G�tes de France to cover the French market.

We officially opened for business as La Vieille Grange on 1 May 2008 and within days had a phone call from a French lady wanting accommodation for the following weekend – the 8th, a French national holiday. She had found us on the G�tes de France website.

The first season we took as many reservations as we could and also provided dinners as many guests were en route to destinations south or north. We were getting requests for several months’ hence which was really pleasing.

Our days were very long and very tiring: they were spent turning the rooms round, doing the laundry then starting on dinner preparation and service before finishing late in the evening by setting the breakfast table ready to start again at 7am the next day.

Our second season was even busier and we welcomed guests from most continents. Americans, Japanese, Australians, Canadians, South Africans as well as many French and other European nationalities have all signed our guest book. We ended the season by discovering that we had climbed up the pages of search engines to be listed on page one, where we have stayed ever since.

One of the most pleasing aspects of running our B&B is being able to welcome some really interesting and pleasant people into our home. Our visitors love the barn’s warm character and appreciate the comfort and quality we wanted to ensure they experienced during their stay. We seem to have garnered enough invitations to tour most of the USA and Australia!

We are now in our fourth season and it will be our last. Our lovely old’ barn is now for sale and we’ll be moving to pastures new. Real retirement beckons and we plan to do some more travelling and see more of our grandchildren.

Paul and I have a tremendous sense of pride in what we have done. Bringing life back to a derelict building, setting up a completely new business in a foreign country and making it a success in such a short time is very gratifying.

We hope that whoever buys La Vieille Grange will love her as much as we have and will continue to keep up her reputation as a jolly good B&B’ for many years to come.

Contact Alison and Paul Craven for more information on the sale of La Vieille Grange by email at: [email protected]