Deborah Curtis meets the enterprising English couple who are making grand plans for Aquitaine vineyards, while easing themselves into a new life in France
When Simon Grice and Emma Jell chanced upon a house for sale while on holiday in Aquitaine, it set wheels in motion that will eventually see the whole family relocating to France.
“We bought it as a holiday home in May last year,” Simon explains. “Although, when we bought it, I think we were already making the plan in our minds about moving.”
Simon and Emma were on holiday near the medieval bastide town of Duras in Lot-et-Garonne with their three sons Samson, 13, Reuben, 10, and Fabian, nine.
“We were staying in a little cabin on a campsite and we had forbidden ourselves to go and look at properties, because normally we drag the boys round to look at old wrecks wherever we are on holiday,” says Simon.
On this particular day, however, the house found them during a visit to a vineyard for a wine-tasting.
“We went to an open day at what is now our neighbouring vineyard,” Simon remembers. “As we parked the car, Emma looked across the field and saw this lovely house. Out of the corner of my eye I did see an ‘à vendre’ sign but at that point I didn’t think anything of it.”
The next day, the temptation to look at a nearby renovation project got the better of them so in the precious minutes they had spare before leaving to catch a ferry, the family set off for a viewing.
“Our plan was to just quickly go and look at a broken-down house, which again needed loads of work, but Emma happened to mention to the agent about the house we’d noticed the day before,” says Simon.
The agent offered to take them straight there and so with time ticking away and Simon anxious to get on with the 12-hour drive ahead of them, they rushed over to have a look at it.
“As we pulled up, I just knew,” says Simon. “It was a weird thing. We looked around the house for literally 10 minutes because we had to get going and we thought: ‘We
have just got to buy it. It’s such a lovely place.’”
The property was in a very tired state. No one had lived in it for three or four years and outside it was overgrown and neglected but Emma and Simon instantly saw it had tremendous potential.
“The house itself didn’t need renovation but it did need a huge clean and lots of little repairs,” says Simon. “It’s not a grand house by any means. It’s a simple farmhouse but it’s got big stone walls and a very lovely feel. It’s also got five double bedrooms and five bathrooms.
“Every bedroom has a bathroom, and when I saw that, I knew it would definitely rent and that was a massive motivating factor for me. If you have a property that you are sure will rent, it underpins the financing to some extent.”
The property also has a pigeonnier, which is in the process of being converted into a children’s bedroom/den, and a pool which has proved a huge hit with the boys, as has the hectare of land, which is big enough to accommodate a not insubstantial football pitch.
“It’s a very nice spot,” says Simon. “The house itself isn’t grand but where it is, is lovely. When you wake up in the morning, all the windows look out over the vines; the location is quite spectacular.”
In its first season as a holiday let, La Maison du Vignoble proved hugely popular with holidaymakers. This confirmed Simon’s faith in its rental potential, but knowing that people were enjoying the house and its surroundings made Simon and Emma long to spend more time there themselves.
“Having other people spending weeks in your house when we’ve only really spent a couple of weeks there, while it makes economic sense, also feels a bit strange,” says Simon. “We now want to spend some time there because it’s a very different feeling living somewhere than it is going there for a week at a time.”
They began to think about how they could make this dream a reality and gradually a plan emerged that they are in the process of putting into action. The couple run a web agency, called ideas.org, which they will continue to operate from their home in France with trips back to the UK as business demands.
And, unlike many British families who move to France, they have made a conscious decision to go for a gradual transition from one life to another rather than a ‘burn your bridges’ approach; a plan which includes initially renting out the family home, near Pakenham, in Suffolk, to see how things work out.
They have started forging strong links across the Channel, and have already landed a couple of contracts with local French clients to make sure they hit the ground running when they move out in September.
“We are doing it differently from other people who just decamp and literally arrive in France,” says Simon. “We are doing it almost the opposite way. We’ve already got the house. We’ve already got the business ideas. We’ve started building websites for some of the local vineyards and today I’m going to start building a website for one of the local estate agents so even though we’re not there, I’m starting to build our business presence from here in the UK so that when we are there, we’re already known.”
They have been helped tremendously by the fact that they both speak a good level of French and having both lived in or near France before means that they are on familiar territory.
“I lived in France when I worked at CERN,” says Simon. “I was there for three years off and on. Emma spent a year in Strasbourg – she did a French degree – so we’ve both had a long-standing connection with France and we enjoyed living in France.”
Their plans also include wine; not just enjoying it on the terrace at the end of a long sunny day but harnessing a business opportunity by marketing it in a new way.
“We are looking to work closely with the next-door vineyard,” says Simon. “We think there is a major opportunity to generate a lot more money from owning a vineyard than simply thinking of it as place that produces wine. A lot of holidaymakers come to Lot-et-Garonne in the summer and there’s definitely an opportunity to offer them a little bit more than a basic wander around a vineyard.”
To that end, they are working with vineyards in the area to roll out an ‘adopt a vine’ programme where people can rent vines for the duration of the winemaking process, and at the end they’ll receive personalised bottles of wines made from their own vines.
Emma has also started a blog called vin.io through which she plans to report on new innovations in the wine industry, and profile great wines and the people behind them.
With La Maison du Vignoble already renting out well for this summer season, the plan is to be out in France full-time in time for la rentrée; a prospect the whole family feels very laid-back about, including the children.
“The boys are very relaxed about it and it’s great opportunity for their language,” says Simon. “I think that’s partly because they’ve already been there. They already know the wood, the garden, the big football pitch and the pool. We’ve been going there off and on for the past year so they already know where the school is; mentally, they’ve already got it in their minds and, importantly, they have already met other children in the area who they will be at school with.
“We’re intending to be there full-time from 1 September and in some ways it doesn’t feel very exciting. We’ll just be there and spending time there rather than here, and I think that’s just because we’ve already got the house and it’s familiar. If I walk into the bar in Duras, I already know everyone. It already feels like home to me.” LF