When Fiona and Hugh O’Connor planned their move to France, they could never have predicted that they would be featured in a primetime television show, as Eleanor O’Kane discovers
In some ways Fiona and Hugh O’Connor’s story of moving to France mirrors that of many expats. They have purchased an old house in a dreamy, rural location, set up their own business and dedicated themselves to improving their language skills while settling into French life. There is, however, one thing that sets them apart from the majority of expats. The couple, along with Fiona’s daughter Nicole, have become co-stars of the recent ITV series Little England, which explores the lives of the British in south-west France. The 12-part series, first aired on 12 September 2011, follows expats who have moved across the Channel as they go about their new lives in and around Dordogne. Although the O’Connors live just across the border in Lot-et-Garonne, their proximity to the department that is a traditional honeypot for the British plus the fact that they were just beginning their French adventure made them a natural choice for the show’s producers.
The O’Connors’ love affair with France built up over many years of visiting the country. However, just over four years ago they decided to take the plunge and make a new life there. In 2006, Fiona left her job as a primary school teacher and was looking forward to spending summers in the garden of the couple’s Worcestershire home. It wasn’t to be that year however, as one of the wettest summers on record scuppered her plans. That wet English summer became the catalyst for the realisation of a long-held dream.
“We’d often said to each other, Oh wouldn’t it be nice to move to France?’” remembers Fiona. “But one evening that summer we were sitting in the pub and we actually had a little moment where we decided to start looking into it rather than just agreeing that it would be a good thing to do.”
Had it been left to Fiona, she says she would have just packed up and gone but Hugh with his experience as a project manager set in place a plan that would see them finally make a successful move four years later in October 2010. They decided to sell up everything and find a place where they could offer B&B and g�te accommodation.
The couple planned to rent in France once they’d sold their property in the UK to ensure that when they did buy, it was for the right reasons. They did their research and met estate agents at The France Show, where they began narrowing down their choice of locations. Having visited many parts of France, they wanted to take advantage of the clement climate found further south and, with a mind to create guest accommodation, they also knew that proximity to airports was a key factor in their house search, drawing circles on maps to refine their hunt for the perfect property.
In June 2010, with the south-west looking a likely location for their new life, the couple took a viewing trip while their UK home was being sold. They viewed several properties in the area around Duras in Lot-et-Garonne but were charmed by one place in particular, Vue du Duras, an old house sitting high on a hill with stunning views across the vines and the valley to the elegant Ch�teau de Duras, the origins of which date as far back as the 12th century.
Although renting had been firmly in their minds, the beauty of the setting forced them to reconsider, as Fiona remembers: “We never dreamt we’d find a house. We saw a few other houses but when we saw this one we were drawn to it. We knew someone else was interested and it hadn’t been on the market very long. It fitted us so perfectly, it just seemed silly not to go for it.”
Surrounded by plum trees, with a neighbouring vineyard at the end of the garden, the large stone property with an outbuilding perfect for conversion to a g�te was everything they could have hoped for. Deciding to take the plunge, the couple credit estate agency Cl� Rouge, for making the buying process run smoothly. Although the property was ready to live in, the couple knew they’d need to work quickly to make it suitable for running the type of high-quality B&B business they’d dreamed of.
After the sale was completed in October 2010, Fiona moved in to oversee the renovation work. Hugh remained in his job in the UK while the major work was carried out and is set to move over full-time this spring. Through a stroke of good luck Fiona and Hugh found a reliable builder who started work transforming the property just two weeks after they bought the ch�teau.
“We found him through some friends of friends of ours who put us in touch,” says Fiona. “We met him here at the house within a week of moving and he started two weeks later!” She says she would love to have used a French builder but admits that with the couple’s limited language skills, using an English-speaking builder has made the process run much more smoothly.
Another stroke of luck occurred when Fiona’s youngest daughter Nicole decided to stay in France for a year. Having just finished university, she had planned to come for a short visit but decided to stay and pitch in with the decorating. In hindsight, Fiona says she doesn’t know how she’d have managed without her.
With the renovation work on the property underway, the mother-and-daughter team set about readying the fledgling B&B for its first visitors who were arriving in February, which features as a storyline in Little England. “We really did keep each other going and that’s the angle the TV series has used,” Fiona says.
“We painted walls, stripped wallpaper, cleared up after the plasterer and once the g�te was coming to fruition we did a lot of work on that.”
Although Fiona now realises that there must have been adverts inviting expats to be in Little England everywhere, it was the series producer who found the O’Connors through Fiona’s blog. They contacted the couple and left a telephone message on 1 April 2010.
“I thought someone was playing an April Fool’s joke so we Googled them but even then I wasn’t sure it was real. I was all for not getting back to them but Hugh had his marketing head on so we did,” Fiona says. She was still reluctant, however, but a visit from the series editor allayed any fears she had.
“I kept telling him that I couldn’t imagine myself in the programme but he said that was just the sort of person they were looking for rather than people who would leap in front of the camera.”
The production crew went a long way to put Fiona and Nicole at ease, showing them the small camera that would be used and explaining that there would only be a crew of two people filming them.
“I was concerned that it would be a Disasters in the Dordogne’ scenario and I didn’t want to be part of that but they showed us the programmes they’d done on the Lakes and the Dales so we realised it was fairly gentle sort of stuff.”
It turned out to be a fun experience for Fiona and Nicole, with Hugh also making cameo appearances on his weekly visits back to Lot-et-Garonne. “We had two girls who did the majority of the filming with us,” remembers Fiona. “I have to say we all laughed all the way through. We got used to the idea that we would have to walk in or out of doors three or four times and in the end we just did it. They really made us relax and were very reassuring that ours was a very human story.”
Little England takes a light-hearted view of the expat community, happily devoid of the sneery viewpoint that is sometimes found in reality television. Fiona thinks that in all it presents the expat community in a good light.
“With some exceptions it’s about people wanting to integrate into the communities they are living in. Even those who cater for the British market want to become part of French life.”
Although on screen she didn’t have any connections with her co-stars, the man who came to dig the hole for the fosse septique was featured separately as well as some British vineyard owners who live nearby. Although she says the title of the programme is her one bugbear, she says she is glad she took part: “Ultimately, it was a fun, very positive experience.”
Now that Nicole has returned to England to start a new job, Fiona is counting down the days until spring, when Hugh moves over full time and the well-executed plan is finally complete. In the meantime, he visits frequently while Fiona continues to make friends and adapt to French life. Both Hugh and Fiona say they feel very welcomed by their French neighbours and although the language is a challenge, as long as you make an effort people will appreciate it and help you along.The first guests arrived in February, just a few months after moving in, followed by a steady stream of visitors, a mixture of house hunters from the UK and French and British tourists, many of whom are wedding guests at the stunning Ch�teau de Duras across the valley.
With a bubbly personality perfect for playing host, Fiona enjoys welcoming guests to her new home and says she gets a great sense of achievement from providing a good service.
The charm of Vue de Duras has not only had a huge effect on the O’Connors, according to Fiona their guests often fall under the spell of its spectacular setting too – visibly relaxing when spending time there.
“It’s so calm and quiet here that only one or two people haven’t totally relaxed during their stay. Even children who arrive in a really excitable state completely calm down when they are here.
“There seems to be a real magic about this place. It has a very calming effect and I just love to see that.” LFwww.vuededuras.com
� Huge O’Connor