Running a camper van hire company in the south-west of France
Tony and Yvette Martin swapped Brighton for south-west France, where they run a camper van hire company from their converted watermill home, as Sandra Haurant discovers
When Tony and Yvette Martin made the decision to leave Brighton and bring their seven-year-old son Scooter to start a new life in France, they did it in style. With six weeks to devote to house-hunting, a classic VW camper van became their temporary home, combining a roof over their heads with the mobility they needed to explore. As it turned out, it also planted the seeds of their new family business; hiring out vintage camper vans to holidaymakers.
At the beginning of their property search, they had yet to narrow their choice of area to a specific part of the country. Yvette had previously been to Paris, while Tony had travelled to France several times. He had fallen for its charms, having visited some of the country’s most celebrated areas, from Paris down to the Dordogne, the Atlantic coast and the Alps.
As a musician and digital media specialist for an international company, Tony was able to work from home part of the time, while the rest of the time he travelled overseas. Yvette, meanwhile, a model and former hotel owner, had been taking some time out to be with Scooter. They had plans to start a business where they settled, and were prepared to fall in love with the right property when they saw it, wherever it was. “All we were certain about was that we wanted to be below the ‘cicada line’,” says Tony. “We wanted to be far enough south to hear the cicadas in the summer.”
With such a broad spectrum of properties and potential new lifestyles to consider, searching was tricky at times. With Scooter, then four, they travelled across the south of France, looking for the right house. Meanwhile, Tony was still working hard, with a camper van as his home office, always on the look-out for Wi-Fi and somewhere to settle in with his laptop.
Early on in their search, the family had seen a converted 400-year-old watermill in beautiful gardens just outside the fortified village of Monflanquin in Lot-et-Garonne, close to Dordogne. The surrounding villages and landscapes were just the kind to make visitors fall head over heels for France. Perched on a steep hill, Monflanquin dates back to the 13th century, and is classed as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Just over the border in Dordogne is Issigeac, a veritable treasure with its carefully preserved pale stone buildings and busy weekly market.
The Martins had a good feeling about the house and area, but it was early days so they decided to keep looking, eventually concentrating on watermills. “It dawned on us that these properties came with the potential to earn an income by generating and selling electricity back to the grid, and it seemed like a really sensible idea,” says Tony.
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One watermill in a village in Midi-Pyrénées caught their eye – and they came very close to buying it. However, although they went as far as negotiating and putting in an offer, their heart was with the first watermill they had seen outside Monflanquin. The area, the village and the landscape appealed to them more, and they had fallen for the house. They pulled out of the Midi-Pyrénées purchase and chose to put in an offer on the property that they had seen at start of their search. It was a change of tack that paid off.
“Tony phoned up to put in an offer, and then negotiated. He came back all pleased with himself. He had managed to bring the price down. He said: ‘We got it!’ and I knew this house was really the right one,” says Yvette, looking around at the old watermill and gardens they have called home for the past three years.
It’s easy to understand why they fell for it. The old stone structure is set in large gardens, and comes complete with its own giant bamboo thicket, a mill pond with a duck house and a pair of mallards, a swimming pool, and a gîte for guests to stay. There is a large potager vegetable patch where Yvette has had plenty of success growing food for the family, and Scooter has trees to climb, a boat to row on the pond and freedom to roam. The space also means the family’s two dogs Cooper and Milo are in seventh heaven.
The house had been a holiday home to its previous owners, and needed a considerable amount of work to make it suitable for everyday family life. The Martins have renovated, combining modern comforts with original features – although one rather big one had to go: the giant water wheel that once sat in the heart of the house has been removed, and the space has become a light, contemporary living room.
The family home is taking shape, and three years on Scooter couldn’t be more settled; he is bilingual, getting great marks at the village school and has lots of good friends. But the early days were tough on Scooter and his parents. “We anticipated some problems at the school,” says Tony. “But it was probably harder than we thought. We arrived one week and the following Monday he was starting school, with no French and no one he knew. It was heartbreaking in the first few weeks, but within a year he was completely at home.”
Tony and Yvette have also been making an effort to become part of the community, which has meant working on their French. “Tony had some business French but I really didn’t speak any,” says Yvette. “I’m now having weekly private lessons and I try to practice as much as I can.”
There have been plenty of changes on the career front, too. The business, called WeDubYou, gives people a quirky, fun and, above all, laid-back way of touring the area. But for a company that promotes life in the slow lane, it is certainly moving fast. And after a year, business is positively booming – so much so that Tony has begun to focus solely on the family company, allowing him to put an end to the international travel and spend more time at home with Yvette and Scooter. Successful investment has seen interest soar among UK holidaymakers. “We have had unbelievable numbers of enquiries,” Tony says. They currently have five camper vans, but have secured finance for another 25, with more to come later. They are setting up in Spain and are even looking at the New Zealand market.
The couple’s success is partly thanks to their own experience of camper van living, which they used to put together a perfectly modern package. “People are on holiday; they don’t want it to be hard work. We hire each van out with all the essentials, like bed linen and towels, as standard, but you also get an iPhone set up with GPS, and an iPad preloaded with films. We can provide a welcome hamper with champagne or book a first night in a luxury campsite with a table at the restaurant, or a package with one week in a van and one week in a gîte,” says Tony.
Serendipity has been good to the Martins too. Shortly after they decided to give their business idea a shot, they discovered one of the top vintage car mechanics works in a neighbouring village. “We had no idea he was there – it was amazing. He has spent time in California and knows these vans inside out.”
A year after launch, they have had to call on Vintage Autohaus to deal with the occasional mechanical issue, but the vast majority of clients come back very happy campers indeed. And the set-up works well for the Martins, too. “We had talked about starting some sort of tourism business once we got here,” says Yvette. “But having experience in the hospitality business with my hotel in Brighton, I felt I wanted something where our home was our space.” This way, they get to offer guests a very warm welcome, then wave them off on their own adventures in their distinctive vans.
It’s getting to early evening, and Scooter and Tony are rowing across the millpond, when suddenly Scooter shouts out excitedly. The ducks nesting on the pond have become parents, and day-old ducklings are muddling their way uncertainly across the still water. The house sits comfortably looking over the river in the warm sunlight and all around is green and calm. With a home like this, you can see why they’ve adjusted so well to their new laidback life in France.