A search for a stress-free life brought Sue Culligan and her husband John to Charente-Maritime, where she now runs knitting and crocheting workshops. Stephanie Sheldrake finds out more
Knitting is rarely associated with France, but guests flock from around the world to enjoy Sue Culligan’s knitting and crochet retreats at her home in rural Charente-Maritime. This temperate coastal region, with its pretty towns and rolling countryside, provides the perfect environment for knitting enthusiasts to relax, enjoy a break in rural France and, above all, indulge their passion for this popular pastime.
Sue’s love of knitting started at a young age. She was taught the basics by her godmother and started knitting scarves and doll’s clothes before progressing to more complicated garments such as sweaters. “I started knitting when I was four or five years old and have always loved it,” says Sue. “I love colour and texture, especially Fair Isle and cable knitting.”
Before moving to France in 2004 with her husband John (known as Culli), Sue had been running a business selling knitting yarn in Brighton. “I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in working with knitting pretty much since I left college,” she says. “I had a short spell working in an office for 18 months and decided that wasn’t for me, so started up my own business 35 years ago with a friend, designing and making children’s knitwear and clothing.”
But it was the stress of daily life that inspired the couple to seek out a more relaxed lifestyle. “We were both working really long hours: I was working in the shop six days a week, and Culli was working all hours of the day as an architect,” reveals Sue.
During a much-needed short break in Malvern, the couple saw an advert in an estate agent’s window that triggered the idea of a possible new life across the Channel. “The advert was for a property in Charente-Maritime with numerous outbuildings and lots of land… all for £80,000, so I thought it was definitely worth looking into,” says Sue.
Sue and Culli decided that the time was right to pursue a less stressful life in France, and started their search for their dream property. They knew France well but at the time they weren’t familiar with Charente-Maritime. “We first started looking for houses in the Vendée, but decided that it wasn’t different enough to Sussex,” says Sue. “We wanted to live somewhere with a bit more sunshine than where we were in the UK, and as Charente-Maritime has its own microclimate it seemed a good choice.”
As well its warm climate, Charente-Maritime is within an easy half-day’s drive of ferry ports, and also is close to the coast. This was important to the couple as they enjoy sailing and had a boat they wanted to moor in nearby Royan. Having decided that Charente-Maritime was the right area for them, they spent a fortnight there looking at properties and weighing up the pros and cons of each, before eventually finding the right one – a charming rural stone farmhouse in the little hamlet of La Verderie. “This house was one of the last we saw and as soon as we walked in, we knew it was right, although we had initially dismissed it from the agent’s photo and description,” Sue says.
La Verderie occupies a picturesque rural setting, surrounded by cognac vineyards and fields of sunflowers in the summer. “There’s a real feeling of space here; I love the big open skies and the lack of traffic,” says Sue. “It’s so quiet, and it’s a great place for walking and cycling.”
The four-bedroom farmhouse was in a reasonable condition but required some renovation work. “We wanted a house that we could move into straightaway but that we could put our own stamp on,” says Sue. With its two outbuildings, a chai (wine cellar) and a grenier (loft), there was plenty of scope for renovation. The couple have converted the grenier into another bedroom, renovated the outdated bathroom and added two additional bathrooms, and turned one of the outbuildings into an office for Culli. The barn has been transformed into a studio/gallery for Sue and the chai has become a workroom for Culli and a utility room. The couple did much of the work themselves, and employed builders for some of the bigger projects. “The garden is just a small enclosed courtyard, which is fine – much as I love gardening I don’t have time for it!” laughs Sue.
Sue and Culli have fitted into their rural farming community and regularly socialise with their neighbours. “Most of our neighbours are farmers; they are very sweet to us and always ready to give a hand when needed. They drop by with fresh vegetables, fruit and eggs,” says Sue. “We try to make an effort to go to the village bashes – there are usually a couple of barbecues in the summer and a Christmas fair.”
Sue admits that her ability to speak French was non-existent when she first moved to France but has slowly improved. “I can get by but I will never be brilliant,” she adds. “My grammar is appalling, but I enjoy trying. For me, the best way of learning French is by talking to our neighbours.”
After moving to France, Sue continued to run her yarn business in the UK. “I spent a lot of time flitting backwards and forwards, but I decided that wasn’t working,” she admits, and after five years she decided to close the business. In the meantime, she had started running a big yearly knitting workshop in a château that she rented near Poitiers, but with the UK business now closed, Sue needed an additional income: “I needed something that would give me an income for more of the year so I hit on the idea of running smaller workshops from home.”
For the last two years, Sue has been running small knitting and crocheting retreats for four or five guests at home, lasting five to six days. She continues to run larger workshops once or twice a year at a nearby gîte in the nearby hamlet of La Nougerée, with the help of specialised tutors: “It is much lower key than it was at the château and much easier to run. La Nougerée is a gîte that belongs to some friends of ours and we manage the property for them.”
Sue registered their farmhouse as a chambres d’hôtes, which means that she already had the accommodation needed for the holidays. “It is far more cost-effective having guests for five days than one night,” she reveals. “We’re quite a long way out from most of towns around here so we’re a bit off the beaten track, and there are a lot of chambres d’hôtes in the area,” she adds. “We’re pet-friendly so we mostly attract guests with dogs.”
Advertising the holidays couldn’t have been easier as Sue already had a big mailing list from her original business. “I had a lot of regular customers who came to start with and we have lots of repeat bookings,” she says. Sue’s website ranks high on internet searches, and she is currently building a new website to sell knitting kits. She writes a regular blog about the holidays, has a Facebook page and sends out monthly newsletters. Sue found it easy to set up the business by completing online forms. She is registered as an auto-entrepreneur and has a SIRET number.
Sue currently runs six to eight knitting and crocheting retreats a year and already has bookings lined up for next year. Around 80% of her guests are British, but she has also welcomed guests from Norway, Germany and Australia, and has a Canadian booking for next year. The retreats are open to all abilities: “We have some really good knitters who just want to relax and knit or crochet all day long, and then there are some who want to learn some new things,” she says. “We’re open to all skill levels – that’s great because the beginners learn from the ones who are more advanced, so it works really well.”
Many of the guests come alone, and one of Sue’s greatest triumphs has been bringing a group of strangers together who go on to become life-long friends. “It’s really nice that you get people from completely different walks of life, but they’ve got knitting in common and they hit it off,” says Sue.
The retreats are fully catered and Sue and Culli take the guests on local sightseeing tours as part of the holidays. Sue admits that it’s hard work: “Culli helps a lot with the catering – he’s a good cook so that helps,” she laughs. Despite the hard work, she reveals that her new life in France is far more relaxed than it was in the UK. “There doesn’t seem to be the stress that we had in our old life,” she says. “It’s great, I love it – it’s quite exhausting but good fun.”
Since moving to France nearly 10 years ago, Sue and Culli have no regrets. “There are so many positive things – we can afford a much larger house than we could in Sussex, we have time to go sailing when we want, the weather is better and we have a good social life. Even the food seems to taste better; we cook according to the seasons using the fruit and vegetables that are available,” says Sue.
Their dream of a better quality of life certainly seems to have come true, and there is no looking back for this hardworking couple. LF