Blazing a trail in Boulogne

Their friends said they were mad to set up a B&B in northern France, but that didn’t divert Malcolm Gale and his wife from their plans

There have been numerous books and articles written describing people’s experiences in setting up and running a B&B in France – we read a handful before starting ours. Now after four years’ involvement in this activity, the top tip we can offer anyone is: before you do anything, stay in some yourselves first, most preferably in different countries; you will find the diversity quite surprising. Make a list of likes and dislikes and then start planning your own. This is when the hard work starts.

We were already living in France (in Perpignan at the time) when we thought about ours. I was relinquishing work connections in England and had started to settle down to life in a nice sunny flat, right in the heart of France’s southernmost mainland city.

As a form of income, we had acquired another apartment nearby, which we hired out as a holiday let, and had another house rented out in England, but the so-called attraction of having little to do all day was beginning to wane.

Pastures new

A new project was required. We thought very seriously about an English tea/book shop in the centre of Perpignan but the arithmetic did not add up in respect of the amount of rent we would be paying, versus the number of cups of tea we would have to sell for viability. Carol, my wife, had always fancied the idea of running a small guesthouse. Both of us had run businesses before but our only experience of the hospitality industry was from the clients’ point of view; working this idea to fruition would be the new challenge we possibly needed.

Next step – where? The obvious choice was naturally in the sunny department of Pyr�n�es-Orientales in which we were already living. In town or country? For some the choice is always the latter, especially in France where chambres d’h�tes are often established in village locations or in country premises down farm tracks. In fact, the author of one book positively warned against setting up in a town.

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Just the same, our Perpignan flat had rented very well all year round, while others, on the coast, stood empty for as much as eight months of the year. It also attracted those not travelling by car; good location was not simply a matter of town or country but more one of usefulness.

I was of the view that if we were to open a guesthouse, it should have the potential for occupation over 12 months, albeit with quiet periods.

Heading north

At first we pursued our researches for a suitable property in the Perpignan area but, unable to find anything to match our budgets or meet our criteria, we finally, more or less for fun, turned the map upside down and started to look in the opposite direction.

This was much against the vociferous advice of our southern friends whose classic prejudices about the north came to the surface. How accurate the observations in Danny Boon’s film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis proved to be. Just the same, north we went, into the cold, dark and barren wasteland fit for no man! Our travels eventually brought us nearer home than expected as we glimpsed the white cliffs of Dover from the French side. But we were not disappointed, and found that the locals were far from inhospitable.

What often comes to mind, when thinking about Boulogne-sur-Mer as a destination for the British visitor, are the images of day-trips to the Continent’. For many their first exciting steps on the great European landmass may have been though the streets of Boulogne. But its rich history over the ages, ranging from the Roman port to the headquarters for Napoleon’s intended invasion of England, and through the rigours of two world wars, gives the town an outstanding robustness, deserving of more than a few lingering hours to explore.

We noticed too there was very little provision when it came to B&B accommodation. Instead, it was largely a matter of staying in a hotel or finding a chambres d’h�tes out of town and despite the close proximity of England there were no English-run ones! Potential here perhaps for a guesthouse, but could we find the right premises? Was this the hole in the market we were looking for?

It took three north-south round trips to finally discover the answer and locate a house that might suit our requirements. We were almost at the point of despair until at the end of a long day of viewings, our agent took us to see the four-storey townhouse we finally bought. Owned by an investment company, apparently it had just come onto the market. It had pluses and minuses but overall most boxes received a tick.

Steep climb

In Boulogne, apart from a small area around the port, hills are the norm. The 19th-century developers had no respect for contours; instead they pushed roads up the inclines whenever there was an empty space. The house we bought was midway between the old and new towns, so everything is within walking distance and there’s free parking opposite. Constructed in the early 1950s, it had replaced the former dwelling, which has been destroyed during the severe bombing raids suffered during World War II.

Halfway up one of the famous hills, it has the advantage of magnificent views from the garden side, across to the old town; a panorama enhanced by the impressive dome of the basilica, built in the Italian Renaissance style that dominates Boulogne. The view has proved to be the one feature most remembered and photographed by our guests.

Despite the house being in very good condition, there were a lot of changes to make before we could start receiving paying guests. This meant adapting two good bedrooms to en suite and converting the old laundry on the ground floor to become the garden bedroom’.

Stage payments

As everyone knows, regardless of the amount of time one has spent in France, there will always be problems about getting work done – but we found tradesmen prepared to accept a small deposit on the first day then stage payments afterwards, with the final balance on completion. This seemed fair to both sides.

We also drew out a plan each time showing exactly what we wanted, yet despite there being room for minor changes, from time to time, we could do little to influence the erratic working hours! We joined Cl�vacances – a nationwide label of accreditation – which did an inspection, indicating that our rooms met a certain standard.

Good from that perspective but we can only attribute one booking directly from their marketing efforts in four years! Much better are the staff at the local tourist office. Right from the start, they have been very encouraging. They still phone every few days to check if we have vacancies and seem especially able to find us customers, even during the winter months.

One should never underestimate the amount of preparation that goes into running even the smallest guesthouse. It’s not just the alternations to rooms but making certain you have enough of everything: linen, towels etc and two washing machines!

A warm welcome

So has it paid off and what sort of guests do we welcome? Well we did as much homework as we could and built our own website to save money just in case nothing happened – but slowly we started to receive enquiries mostly by email, which we always answer by return.

Yes, there was certainly a demand from all quarters. Our first guests were a couple of Belgian girls even before we had put the sign up outside and Belgians have continued to be very strong in terms of numbers, although of course, more than any others, are the French and British, who come in equal measure. Understandably we attract a lot of people visiting war graves but also those taking advantage of the wonderful coastal walks for which we can supply maps.

We try to provide a warm friendly atmosphere – the sort of thing you would expect from someone welcoming you into their home for the first time. During the summer months, guests can enjoy the garden terrace, which is a veritable sun-trap, so many sit outside long into the evening. During the cold days of winter, we try to make the house as warm and cosy as possible and since we get darker mornings than in the UK, because of the hour’s difference, we partially light the breakfast room with candles!

During our travels in different countries we have been offered a vast variety of breakfasts including just a small cup of coffee and a pastry in Italy! Early on, however, we soon realised that a good breakfast would mark us out from the competition so we provide a really large choice in jams, yoghurts, cheeses etc, as well as fresh croissants, plus local and homemade speciality breads. Another important point is remembering guests’ names plus recalling, in conversation, where they come from. Our French visitors especially love talking about their home regions.

It is very hard work and we certainly don’t make a fortune but meeting lots of people is the real bonus. In our spare moments we sometimes dip into our Fawlty Towers videos. We, too, can number among our guests: two doctors (married couple), a wedding party (or two), Germans (who did discuss the war), an American who wanted a late meal, and dodgy builders; but hopefully that is where the comparison stops.

Malcolm & Carol Gale, Le Soixante-seize