A British couple swapped the UK for France in search of a better life and have carved out a future for themselves in the beautiful countryside of Lower Normandy, as Deborah Curtis discovers
Dissatisfaction with work and the desire to live a more sustainable life inspired Mike Read and Alice McLaren to make the move to Lower Normandy five years ago. They found a granite long�re in Manche in the summer of 2006 and by January 2007 they had relocated to La Hiette in the village of Saint-Vigor-des-Monts.
“I was a bit frustrated at work and we wanted to do something different,” Mike says. “We were into green living at the time. We liked the idea of growing our own vegetables and having a few animals.”
A search for properties in the UK proved fruitless and eventually, the couple turned their attention to France. “We initially started to look in the UK for somewhere with a bit more land but we soon realised that wasn’t practical from a financial point of view,” Mike says, “so we decided to have a look for a property in Normandy.”
After searching online and contacting several agents, Mike and Alice went over to view the properties on their shortlist.
“We found the house pretty quickly,” says Mike. “We spent a week looking at properties and we found this one at the end of the week. It was definitely the one. We wouldn’t have rushed in if it hadn’t been the right place.”
The couple were drawn by the amazing view and the light and airy rooms the property offered.
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“The house was quite neatly divided in two which was one of the reasons we liked it,” says Alice. “It’s a lovely size. It’s really airy and bright and it’s south-facing so the sun falls on it all day long. It’s got a good feel. We ripped it apart in terms of the decor but the frame-work was there.”
Over the first two years, the couple worked hard transforming La Hiette into a family home with B&B accommodation, and they welcomed their first guests in May 2009.
“Chambres d’h�tes was always one of the options,” says Mike. “We kept everything quite flexible really. We didn’t come out here with an absolute plan.”
Flexibility has remained key to the way they have carved out their life in France and having nothing set in stone enabled them to adapt to the way things have turned out.
“We were planning on coming over here and not having a mortgage and living in a much quieter way but it didn’t quite work out like that,” says Mike. “We’ve ended up with two mortgages: one on our house in the UK and a smaller one on the property here so our plan for a slightly easier financial situation hasn’t quite come off yet. We aren’t quite doing what we originally intended.”
Mike’s plan to stop working in the UK hasn’t come to fruition yet either but being based in Normandy has meant that he can still work in the UK while setting up his own business in France.
“I do two jobs,” he exlpains. “I’ve set up a French IT business providing advice and guidance, building websites and providing online services mainly to expat clients in France and I also work for a company in the UK doing consultancy work.”
He works alternate weeks in the UK, taking the night ferry between Caen and Portsmouth so that a minimum of time is lost with the family, which has increased in size over the intervening years. In August 2008 they were joined by Ella Rose and daughter Annie was born in April last year. Their arrival has meant a hiatus in the couple’s sustainable living plans with needs of a toddler and baby taking precedence over the vegetable patch and plans for livestock.
“I did a lot of work on the garden that first year and we had a massive veg patch which was wonderful,” says Alice. “I really enjoyed it but then the children came along and it has petered off a bit. I had this completely unrealistic expectation that I would just strap a baby to my back and off I’d go. It’s crazy really and then you realise that it’s just not possible. Four-month-olds don’t like digging potatoes! We are hoping to get back into it next year and start off on a smaller scale. Ella can help out now and Annie can sit and watch!”
They have recently acquired chickens too and Alice is looking forward to offering her guests freshly laid eggs for breakfast next summer; building on the positive experience that running a B&B has been so far.
“We have been really lucky,” says Alice. “We haven’t had anybody who we weren’t happy to welcome into our home. We have tried to create a family atmosphere so that although we remain professional, people know it’s a home.”
Not that she has any illusions about the amount of effort and commitment that a business such as this requires.
“It’s very rewarding but it is very hard work,” she says. “If anyone is thinking about doing it, don’t be put off but do be aware that the hours are very long. You are always clearing up after the guests have gone to bed and you have to be up before them in the morning. You are tied to the house while they are in but in a way that has been good because when you have small children you are a bit more tied anyway.”
The family have been warmly welcomed by their neighbours, both French and British, and have sealed their place in village history with their marriage at the mairie in November last year. “The maire was nervous that he wouldn’t be able to pronounce our names,” says Mike.
Having the children has been an icebreaker too and both Ella and Annie are warmly received wherever they go. “Everybody wants to talk to you especially when you have a very little baby,” says Alice, who has been delighted at the kindness shown to Ella as she starts to take her first steps in French.
“There are shops that we go into regularly and people always want to stop and chat to her. They love the fact that she is starting to speak French. They are so supportive and that’s really nice.
“Having the children has really helped us feel welcome and because it’s a small community, and an aging community too, they are delighted if you have children. This year, the maire was pleased because there were eight births in the village!” Alice and Mike are very happy they took the decision to make the move to France and they are completely smitten with Normandy.
“It’s very rural,” says Alice. “It’s very green and lush round here. Winter is wet but spring and autumn are crisp and dry. The countryside is beautiful and there is enough going on all year round. Things don’t close down in winter like they do in other parts of France. It’s lovely.”
For Mike, Normandy’s appeal is simple. “It’s just a lovely place to live and bring up your family,” he says. And you can’t say fairer than that. LF