Two teachers from Yorkshire swapped the classroom for a life renovating rundown cottages when they upped sticks and moved to Brittany, as Deborah Curtis discovers
The desire for a new adventure led Julie and Jez Rooke to put their teaching careers on hold and start a holiday cottage business in Brittany. The couple have now lived in their renovated farmhouse – Toul Ble�z, near Gouarec, in the heart of inland Brittany – for 12 years. They have one chambre d’h�te at the farmhouse and a couple of holiday cottages in neighbouring villages which they have also renovated and rent out.
This new chapter in their lives began in 1999 when, faced with a return to work after a long summer in France, Julie and Jez realised they didn’t want to go back to their respective jobs as teachers of art and home economics.
“It wasn’t the kids. It was all the bureaucracy,” says Julie. “All the stuff coming down from the top. We did like the teaching. We were 39 then and we thought we’d get out while we were still okay and do something else – have another adventure really. We always knew we could go back and do some supply teaching; that was the safety net if anything went wrong.”
Initial plans for a second home were quickly overtaken by dreams of a more permanent move.
“We thought that maybe we could have a little holiday home here so in the October half-term we came over and had a look,” says Julie. “Properties were so cheap and it suddenly evolved into us thinking that we could actually come over and live here permanently.”
Once the idea had taken root, things fell into place relatively quickly with Jez’s brother buying their house near York to free them up in the UK and then, after one false start on a property that fell through, they found Toul Ble�z; moving over to Brittany at the end of August 2000. “When we came to look at it, the drive was totally overgrown and all the roses had grown across the garden. It had been empty for so long,” Julie remembers. “Somebody had started to renovate it and then just given up. It hadn’t been lived in by anybody since the war we think. It was just an utter shell.
“We have done everything to it. We rented a little house nearby for a few months while we got Toul Ble�z just about habitable and we moved in in February 2001.
“It was a most miserable winter. It started raining about November and it didn’t stop till March. It was awful. We’d started a new life and I thought: ‘What have we done?’ Looking back we were living in this damp, cold house that had no heating and we were renovating it while we were in there, but after a year it all came together.
“I’m really glad we did it. I could easily have gone back to England during those first few months because it was hard, but once we were through that, it was all right. It’s a lovely way of life here.”
Having always renovated and done up properties in the UK, and once Toul Ble�z was well on the way to completion, it seemed natural to carry on.
“What we’ve done since then is bought little derelict houses and done them up and sold them or rented out some of them as holiday cottages,” says Julie. “We have a little one that’s just for two that we rent out in Laniscat. We bought it in 2003 and it was just a derelict little dump. It’s really nice to think through the mess. We’ve both got a good eye so we can see past the horrible mud floors and all that.”
The couple have done all the work on the properties themselves, taking their time and learning new skills along the way.
“When we came here, we learned how to point and Jez has learned roofing by swapping jobs with people, and electrics and plumbing, and even making the furniture,” says Julie. “Jez has made beds and a staircase. He enjoys working with wood. You don’t earn a fortune from g�tes and bed and breakfast so unless you do the work yourselves it’s not affordable. It doesn’t add up, but for us it’s turned out well.
“The hard thing for some people is working together 24/7 but we’ve always worked well together as a team and I think it’s enhanced our relationship.”
The couple had never been to Brittany before, but decided to take a look at the area because it is close to the UK and family.
“We came, and we thought: ‘This region’s gorgeous!’ I don’t know why we’d never been. The coastline’s beautiful, rugged and unspoilt and we really liked it.”
Being not far from Pontivy and Josselin puts them a stone’s throw away from the Canal de Nantes � Brest and the vast expanse of the Lac Guerl�dan, the region’s largest artificial lake. Both Jez and Julie are delighted they opted for the woods and fields of Brittany’s hinterland and didn’t follow the crowds to the better-known coastal areas.
“We are not far from the Abbaye de Bon Repos. The canal goes right past that and joins up with the Lac Guerl�dan. We are just a 10-minute drive from there. You can actually walk from our house just over the top of the moor and straight down to the abbey in about 20 minutes. It’s a lovely spot. It’s a beautiful area. It’s really green and pretty and just totally unspoilt.There’s a beach at the lake and you can hire canoes and swim so it’s not as if we’re not near a beach. People come here and say they didn’t even know about this area. Inland Brittany is so unspoilt and it’s got myriad cycle paths along the old railway lines and by the canal, and lots of rambling routes, and all these watersports on the lake. The French know about it but it’s like a little secret. We wish it would get more notice.”
Renovating the holiday cottages has led to them forging strong bonds with their French neighbours with the added bonus of really helping them get to grips with the language.
“The houses are all in little villages and we have got to know the French,” says Julie. “If we hadn’t had that, we would have got to know people but it would have taken longer. The neighbours have been so lovely. They have all been so welcoming. We’ve never had a moment’s trouble with anybody. They are so pleased to get new blood in central Brittany.
“It’s been really nice meeting people and brilliant for our French. Jez has a real knack for French. It took me longer but we’re both great now. You’ve got to learn French if you’re going to live here and we knew that. If you decide to come to a country you’ve got to integrate and speaking the language is really important.”
All their hard work has paid off with people returning year after year to enjoy their Yorkshire brand of Breton hospitality. Having noticed that special places for two are few and far between, they are now focusing on that market although they do have a cottage for four that they rent out too.
“We’ve had quite a few honeymoon couples,” says Julie. “A lot of people say it’s so nice to find a place that’s just for two because a lot of places say they are for two but they’re not… they are for four or they are in a larger complex.
“Our cottage is detached on its own in a village, so you can walk to the bakers and all that, and people just love it. It’s a tiny little place but people come back. It’s nice that they really like it.”
And with Jez providing evening meals and picnics to order – not to mention his homemade jam on the breakfast table – it’s not hard to see why people can’t wait to come back to this hidden heart of Brittany ready to make the most of the warm welcome that awaits them. LF