Life swap

Olivier and Janet Hickman turned their backs on corporate careers for a new life in Vaucluse, a dramatic move they have never regretted. Gillian Thornton heard their story

By most people’s standards, Olivier Hickman and his partner Janet had a pretty enviable lifestyle in London as the 20th century drew to a close. With Olivier working as a financial controller and Janet as a media lawyer, they earned good salaries and enjoyed a high level of creature comforts. But the future didn’t actually seem that rosy until they took the life-changing decision to quit the capital and settle in Provence near the Rhône Valley.

“Despite external appearances, we felt our quality of life was poor in London,” explains Olivier who has swapped the intricacies of corporate balance sheets for the mysteries of French terroir through his tour company Wine Uncovered. Janet, meanwhile, is in the process of launching guided history tours to dovetail with bringing up sons, Scott, nine, and Joshua, seven.

“Janet and I worked very long hours but we didn’t feel that furthering our careers and earning more money would actually improve our quality of life,” explains Olivier. “If anything, things were only going to get worse, with even longer hours and all the soullessness of corporate life and consumerism.”

Janet agrees with him: “The more senior I became within the organisation, the more I felt obliged to buy into the corporate ethos 100% – and I just didn’t feel able to do that.”

Olivier had grown up in London, but his mother was French, while Janet’s parents are Scottish and German, so a life outside Britain wasn’t an alien concept. Olivier had enjoyed many childhood holidays near Vaison-la-Romaine and it was there that they came up with a plan for a radical change of lifestyle. Olivier’s parents were nearing retirement and as he read an article about downshifting that Janet had brought with her from London, the penny dropped. Why not invest in a property together in France?

In 1998, the family clubbed together to invest in an old farmhouse in Valréas, a former papal territory north of Vaison. Olivier’s parents moved in immediately, but he and Janet set about converting part of the property into an independent gîte to use as a holiday home. As the new millennium dawned, they resigned from their corporate jobs and set a July date for their wedding in France.

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“We sold my flat in London, bought an apartment in Aix-en-Provence and began to plan our new life,” he says. “From 2000 to 2003, we took contract and consultancy work in London for eight months of the year, living in Janet’s apartment which we now rent out. Summers were spent in Aix and Valréas.

“We decided to settle permanently in France in June 2003. Then, having tried without success to start a family, Janet fell pregnant with Scott a few weeks after we arrived in Aix-en-Provence. At that point, we didn’t have any grand plans about how to earn our living.

“The overall objective was to reduce our overheads and daily expenditures so that we could work less and enjoy life more. We knew part of our income could be generated by renting out our property in London and our gîte in Valréas, but we had worked and saved hard since leaving our permanent jobs, and had enough of a savings cushion to last several years without needing to work. Also, having benefited from significant increases in UK property prices in the 1990s, we were able to purchase our own property in France without a mortgage.”

So Olivier began to think of ways of turning his interest in wine into a business opportunity. He had already studied in London for WSET qualifications (Wine and Spirit Educational Trust) and launched a part-time wine-importing business with a friend. He planted 250 vines at the family property in Valréas back in 1999 and now makes small amounts of wine from these.

“It has been an excellent learning experience which gives me an invaluable insight into the challenges faced by growers,” he says. This experience helped Olivier consolidate his ideas for a wine tour business. There weren’t many other operators at the time and Olivier hit on an original angle.

“In 2005, I began a year of exhaustive but thoroughly enjoyable research,” he says. “The concept of terroir is supposed to be France’s USP but they do a poor job of marketing it. My approach is to demonstrate how vineyard terroir drives the styles, characteristics and diversity of French wines and to contrast this approach to the winemaker-led approach of the New World.”

Meanwhile, with a second baby on the way, the Hickmans sold the flat in Aix and bought a house in Sablet, a village of around 1,200 inhabitants close to the jagged peaks of the Dentelles de Montmirail. Built in the 1920s, the former notaire’s office with accommodation upstairs ticked all their boxes.

“We wanted a rural setting that was still part of a community and Sablet seemed perfect,” explains Olivier. “It’s in the countryside, close to the Dentelles de Montmirail, but only 15 minutes’ drive from Vaison-la-Romaine. But it was the house itself that attracted us. Given the relative property price differences between Aix and the countryside we were still able to buy the property without a mortgage.

“It had three bedrooms on two floors and 1,800m² of garden, half of which had to be completely restructured. The old office area on the ground floor hadn’t been reconfigured, so we knocked down a wall to make one big living area and installed a new kitchen. But one feature we didn’t touch was the beautiful pergola in front of the house with its 70-year-old climbing vine that provides wonderful shade in summer. The garden already had a variety of established fruit trees and some of the garden has now been dedicated to growing vegetables.”

The Hickmans’ second son Joshua arrived in November 2005, and in 2006, research complete, Olivier launched Wine Uncovered. Today, his clients are mostly English and American-based tour companies with some enthusiasts who find his tours via the internet. Olivier also provides consultancy work for Inter Rhône, the wine producers’ trade association. The business has grown but still only provides part-time work during the tourist season; but with two young children, Janet and Olivier are happy with the current work-life balance.

Setting up the business as a sole trader, or micro-bic, proved far easier than Olivier anticipated. Olivier takes clients to high-quality producers off the usual tourist route, spending time in the vines to explain terroir and how it affects the local wine culture. It all sounds like the perfect downshift from corporate London, but the Hickmans’ new life hasn’t been without problems.

“Surprisingly, our only disappointment – but a major one – was the lack of local integration to begin with,” he admits. “Despite our best efforts – Janet’s in particular – we’ve found it quite difficult to make close friends. We’re a pretty sociable couple, however being open and friendly does not guarantee you acceptance in this part of the world!”

“The locals are quite guarded, preferring to remain within their established network of friends and it can take a number of years before ‘outsiders’ are accepted as part of the community,” adds Janet. “So you have to be patient, respectful of the local culture – and dogged!”

For Janet, at home with two small boys, it has been particularly tough – despite her fluent French and enthusiasm for French culture.

“When the boys were babies I felt very isolated here,” admits Janet. “However I have tried to be an active member of the community, in particular through working as a member of the parents’ association at the crèche for several years, and then as a voluntary English teacher at the maternelle and primary schools for the last four years. We also take part in most of the local village events and eight years later, we do have a nice bunch of local and expat friends, so provided you’re willing to make the effort you will get there in the end!”

In terms of the quality of life, Janet is very enthusiastic: “Sablet is a beautiful village, but unlike some of the other hilltop medieval villages nearby, it is also a real working village with all the amenities that a family with young children needs.

“There’s a wonderful crèche which cost us pennies, as we weren’t working at the time and fees are income-related. There’s a maternelle and a primary school, a grocer’s, two bakeries, a butcher’s, a pharmacy and – crucially with small children – a friendly village doctor!”

Overall Janet has no regrets about their move. The boys are bilingual and the family enjoy all the benefits of a downshifted lifestyle, both parents really appreciating the amount of quality time they can spend with their children. They also enjoy a lovely climate in an area that is rural without being remote. The surrounding countryside is beautiful but they are within easy reach of Avignon and Marseille for the occasional city fix. And it looks as if Janet may now also have carved out a professional role for herself, as she is about to start her own business venture, launching this summer.

“When the boys reached six and four, I thought it was time to think about what I was going to do next,” she says. “Having worked as a lawyer in London I was desperate to find something that was intellectually stimulating, but also flexible with the children. I’ve always loved history and I started reading up on Vaison-la-Romaine and the surrounding towns and villages, famous for their Roman and medieval heritage. Nobody is offering tours in English, so there is a gap in the market.”

Last summer Janet trialled her English tours of ‘Papal Provence’, and the response was very positive, so it’s full steam ahead for the 2013 season. Tours can currently be booked via Olivier’s website.

“But just as important is continuing to provide a secure environment for the boys which will equip them to think ‘out of the box’ and to think about other people, not just themselves,” insists Olivier. It’s a concept in which he and Janet seem to be setting a very good example. LF

www.wine-uncovered.com