High life in Auvergne

Character features abound inside this quintessentially French cottage

Character features abound inside this quintessentially French cottage - Credit: Archant

On the lookout for a holiday home close to the ski slopes, Sue Woodward was taken way up high onto the Cézallier plateau to view this charming cheese-maker’s cottage

Mountains and open spaces were right at the top of our wish list as we began our search for a property in France. Initially just for holidays, but with a plan to move permanently in the future, we wanted somewhere that could also serve as a stopgap, while we looked for our forever home.

With our small budget, our initial look at what was available in the Alps was very quick indeed; we could barely afford a studio. So, our thoughts turning to other regions, we began to consider Auvergne.

Apart from the lower property prices, we were attracted by the vast areas of unspoilt countryside and the sheer variety of its volcanic landscape: rugged mountain scenery with lakes, forests and deep river gorges. It seemed to offer everything we were looking for in terms of outdoor activities, including the opportunity to learn to ski at either Super-Besse or Le Lioran.

TREK TO THE TOP

After trawling the internet, we chose a few freezing cold days in early February for our house hunt. As it happened, it was good preparation for winters to come. We had our hearts set on a very attractive stone property needing considerable work in a hamlet near the historic town of Brioude. On inspection, however, we realised that a renovation project to be conducted at such a distance was not feasible for us. We did not want to spend all our holidays in Monsieur Bricolage or sorting out dodgy plumbing.

Our second viewing served up the perfect lock-up-and-leave holiday base but we didn’t consider it to be somewhere we could make home. It had no outside space nor open views, although its village location was pleasant. As we thawed out over a hot lunch, we realised that we might have to spend a bit more money.

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That afternoon, our estate agent insisted on driving (his car being better equipped with snow tyres) and we cautiously wended our way higher and higher onto the Cézallier plateau, right in the south of the Puy-de-Dôme department. The hoar frost clung to the trees and the air was crisp and still.

At an altitude of 1,200 metres, we drew up to a former cheese-maker’s cottage situated in a hamlet, set a little way back off the road and close to a pretty chapel. Painted a cheerful creamy yellow, with lavender shutters, it provided a splash of colour among the white landscape and was welcoming and warm inside, its prudent owner having thoughtfully left the heating on.

The ground floor comprised just one main room, but it provided ample sitting, dining and kitchen space. Upstairs, however, we discovered three very good-sized bedrooms and a small but adequate shower room. In addition, there was a huge attic, offering conversion potential, and a small cellar. As well as the front garden, there was a reasonable area to the side of the house. There were a few decorative issues (a bright orange bedroom) but there were no essential works needed for the property to serve as a holiday home and our first permanent base in France.

“Can you see your things fitting in here?” asked the estate agent. Yes, we could! We agreed a price on the spot and completed the purchase in early May 2006.

AUVERGNE A LAUGH

For three years we visited as often as possible and spent active holidays exploring the stunning countryside, amazed to be able to walk for hours and not meet anyone else (in contrast to the busy Peak District, our nearest UK area for outdoor activities).

Auvergne has been a region somewhat overlooked by the British and thought to be less accessible (Clermont-Ferrand being over 700km from Calais) but the advent of seasonal low-cost flights direct from Southampton to Clermont may see its popularity increasing.

In early 2009, we planned our permanent move to France: Kev would continue his website design business and I hoped to find work teaching English.

But, as usual, things did not go to plan. We were hit by the financial crisis and the slump in the housing market and were unable to sell our UK home, so had no alternative but to rent it out. Although this provided us with a useful monthly income, it did mean that we were unable to look for our future property and our little mountain cottage was to be our home for much longer than we anticipated.

We set about doing essential improvements to make year-round living more comfortable, installing a very essential wood-burning stove and refitting the kitchen and shower room. (The orange bedroom had already been painted a more neutral colour.)

We also tried to get involved in village life by attending events and we were touched by the warmth of the local people. Far from resenting the arrival of les Anglais, they seemed pleased that the rural population had increased a little, although the maire was disappointed that having no children we could not add to pupil numbers at the village school.

For such a remote area we are well provided with facilities; in the main village 2km down the hill from our hamlet we have a small library/post office within the mairie, an excellent bakery, a bar and restaurant, a small grocery store and even a petrol station.

Our nearest large town is Issoire, an attractive place that combines quaint streets in the old town with excellent modern shopping and leisure facilities. Its location just off the toll-free A75 makes it a convenient stopover for tourists and, indeed, it is known as the ‘Gateway to the South’.

The city of Clermont-Ferrand, famous for Michelin tyres, its short film festival and its rugby union team, is just over an hour’s drive away. While Clermont retains an industrial feel, it is now a vibrant university city, nestled at the foot of the Chaîne des Puys, a 25-mile long chain of dormant volcanoes, the highest of which, the Puy de Dôme, gives its name to the department.

SNOW PLACE LIKE HOME

Remembering that we were now most definitely not in France on holiday, we both set about registering to work independently under what was then the new auto-entrepreneur scheme, introduced to simplify the process of starting a business.

For Kev, keeping his existing clients was no problem and with a good internet connection it was business as usual from home. I took longer to find teaching work and that necessitated travelling, mainly to Issoire or Clermont, often on snow-covered roads. I was, however, prepared to put up with the long commute to gain experience to add to my CV. Staff at the Pôle-Emploi (the French job centre) were very helpful and I was able to attend free advice sessions. I now also have a contract with a Paris-based language school and have entered the world of telephone lessons – very practical in winter at 1,200 metres altitude.

Yes, winter can be harsh here but generally they are very efficient at clearing the roads and only early, unpredicted heavy snowfall has caused a problem. Unlike in the UK, where everything infamously grinds to a halt at the first snowflake, life goes on here and the children are bussed to school in all weather.

From the original plan of a stopgap property, our cottage has already been our home for four years. We are now faced with the decision of when to put our UK home back on the market and more importantly, where to look for our final resting place.

Property prices in France may be very attractive but the buying process is expensive so we need to get it right. Much as we love the beauty and tranquillity of deepest rural France – and wouldn’t change the life we have had here for the world – we know that in the future we need to be closer to a larger town and that will dominate our search.

We look forward to starting it!