High achievers

When not climbing mountains or crossing Poles, Ruth Jenkins and Martin Rhodes run a g�te in the Pyrenees and offer active holidays. Helen Bevis finds out more

Ruth Jenkins and Martin Rhodes aren’t your average couple. She is an internationally recognised climber, the first British woman to climb 8b (a very hard grade of climbing that few climbers achieve), used to co-manage the British Climbing Team and recently spent a large amount of time hanging upside down for Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest film, Inception.

He is no stranger to life in the extreme either. A qualified doctor with an expertise in polar and high altitude medicine, Martin has accompanied many expeditions to the Himalayas, Arctic and Antarctica and is the Chief Medical Officer of two extreme-environment logistics companies.

So what made them move to France to run a g�te? They fell in love with Ari�ge, a department in the far south-east of the Midi-Pyr�n�es region, when they came walking and climbing in the area while visiting family in Montpellier. The sparsely populated area was already well-known to British climbers because it offered a mix of plains, foothills and mountains. In 2007 they decided to move from Sheffield to the department with their young sons Ben and Luca.

High expectationsAt first they considered living further into the mountains but realised that being close to the vibrant medieval town of Foix was a much better choice – the access to top-notch outdoor activities was just as good but importantly for a g�te there were also excellent transport connections and superb cities within easy reach. Toulouse and the picture-perfect UNESCO World Heritage Site of Carcassonne are just an hour away, as is Andorra, renowned for its ski resorts and duty-free shopping. For history buffs there is a large network of prehistoric caves to explore. These all add to the area’s attractiveness – both as a home and a location for a g�te business.

Their professional lives were also a deciding factor when it came to choosing where to live. With their other’ lives outside France – Ruth as a stuntwoman and Martin with both the Antarctic expedition work and locum working in Sheffield – quick access to an airport was vital to minimise time spent away from their young children and business.

Martin wanted to buy a ch�teau but Ruth reined in his ambitions and insisted they bought something reasonable and under budget. Although he still has a dream to own a castle, in the short term not over-burdening themselves financially proved fortuitous. Moments before they left Britain the sale of their house fell through, leaving them with a mortgage in Britain and in France. Without the crucial financial safety net of their alternative’ working lives the move could have turned into a disaster. Instead some of their short-term plans for the g�te’s infrastructure have been postponed and Martin had to continue working in the lucrative post as an occasional locum in Sheffield A&E longer than planned.

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Active familiesThe g�te they bought, in the small rural village of Loubi�res, needed updating, rewiring and re-plumbing. Martin undertook most of the renovation work himself – his newly acquired plumbing skills were put to good use fitting out the three-storey building with smart contemporary bathrooms. The d�cor is both stylish and cosy with an instant homely feel. A charming feature is the original wooden staircase that spirals up inside the building. On chilly days, the wood stove, with an ample supple of logs, glows happily in the corner of the living room.

When they were developing their business plan they were advised that it could take five years before their g�te would see a full summer season. That was three years ago – the first year was spent renovating the g�te and in the second year they were open for business. Now into its third year they were full this summer. Much of this is because they adapted to suit the market. At first they intended catering for small groups such as university or climbing clubs but they quickly established that groups like this were not in the market for comfortable family-friendly accommodation and generally weren’t willing to pay the going rate.

Instead they realised there was a strong market for families with active parents who wanted a holiday with an emphasis on outdoor pursuits. Now Ruth and Martin can offer families the chance to be active in the outdoors yet still enjoy comfortable accommodation.

Mountain guideOf course visitors don’t have to be sporty to enjoy the G�te de la Borde but it certainly seems a shame not to take advantage of everything on offer. Ruth and Martin are clearly passionate about the outdoors. They can suggest and arrange activities to suit all ages and levels of experience.

In the adjoining barn there is an indoor climbing wall for visitors to test their skills and a fully equipped bike workshop, with bikes available on loan. They can guide nature trails in the local woods or take guests into the high mountains, walking to snow-covered 3,000m peaks, perhaps staying overnight in a mountain refuge. They can even teach them navigation and orienteering. Ruth also holds the International Mountain Guide qualification, which entitles her to guide clients in all conditions and on all types of mountain terrain.

From their home in the mountains, Ruth and Martin have everything on their doorstep and an activity for every season. The g�te gives them the chance to share their infectious passion for mountains and outdoor sports with their guests.

And now Martin has finally had his doctor’s qualifications recognised and has started working at the local A&E in Foix, the family has more time to enjoy the mountains together. The added bonus to this new job is that working in France will, hopes Martin, "make me French!" Ruth and Martin's tips for a successful move to France

Use local expat networks to help find your feet

Take time to write your business plan, but be flexible

Learn new skills – Martin suggests taking a plumbing and electrical courseIt’s hard for young children and rural schools do not always know how to treat children who don’t speak French

Learn French – Ruth recommends free conversational language exchange with French students before you leave the UK

Go under budget!

Plan to leave the UK permanently; cutting your ties makes you work harder at your new life

fact fileG�te de la BordeTel: 00 33 (0)5 61 64 61 55www.gitedelaborde.co.ukImage � R Jenkins & M Rhodes