Running a holiday rental business on the Médoc coast
Seaside living is a far cry from her former London life, but for Jane Butler, the move to France offered a welcome change, as Anna McKittrick discovers
When Jane Butler and her young son Archie went on holiday to Dordogne in the early 1990s, little did she know that more than 20 years later she would still call France home. But it wasn’t the pull of the Dordogne countryside that convinced Jane to relocate from London with her six-year-old son; rather it was the beautiful beaches of the Atlantic coast that sealed the deal.
“We had a week with friends in Dordogne, and then for the second week, I was on my own. I realised that once Archie had kicked his football around, there wasn’t much for him to do, as we didn’t have a swimming pool. So I abandoned the holiday rental, took my friend’s advice and drove west towards the Atlantic coast, where we ended up at a lovely little beach hotel. Within an hour, my son was happily arranging starfish on the beach. I knew then that the answer was to be near the beach,” remembers 67-year-old Jane.
After a few days the charms of the Médoc coast had well and truly cast their spell. “I’m one of these haphazard people, and I came here by accidental exploration. Then, by chance, I found a very cheap little house in the commune of Vendays-Montalivet, and I started to think about doing it up,” says Jane who worked as an antiques dealer in London.
She also thought it would be a nice place for her son to grow up, and the day after visiting the mairie to discuss Archie attending the local school in Vendays, he was signed up. Jane had always been a Francophile – before making the cross-Channel move, Archie had been a pupil at the pre-prep school at the Lycée Français in London, and although he refused to speak a word of French at the time, the experience proved fruitful when they moved to France, where he grew up bilingual.
Running a holiday business wasn’t Jane’s original life plan, but after doing up the small house, located near the beach of Pin-Sec, in the mid 1990s she bought two additional large properties in the Médoc with her now ex-husband Russell. “There were lots of happy and unhappy accidents, and after separating from my husband, I got landed with the two big houses, which wasn’t part of my plan; they were both wrecks. But I’d done up houses for a long time in London so that came naturally to me; although I have to admit, it was hard work,” says Jane, who knew then that she needed to make an income, and set up her holiday rental business Médoc Holidays.
The two self-catering properties are located in the traditional seaside resort of Montalivet-les-Bains, in Gironde, with Soulac-sur-Mer to the north and glamorous Cap Ferret to the south. The Beach House, a 1920s wooden seaside villa, didn’t require too much structural work to bring it back to life, but it did need an extensive facelift, and Jane painstakingly restored the original windows and doors, as well as all the woodwork. “The previous owner had furnished it completely from the local rubbish dump, so there was a mismatch of different styles. Coming from London, I thought I must knock through here, change this and that, but as time went on I decided to leave it as it’s quite interesting,” remembers Jane.
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The property has an intriguing history, and was built after the First World War to house families who had been bombed out of their own homes. Jane says it was moved from its original location, which she is still trying to discover, to its current beachside setting, and then the veranda was added.
The finished property is split into three self-catering flats of differing sizes, and during July and August, the Beach House is rented as one large let for groups of families and friends, who enjoy its seaside location and the excellent surfing conditions in Montalivet.
Only 10km down the road lies Jane’s second property, Pey au Bruc, which is a complete contrast to the Beach House as it’s a classic stone country house surrounded by woodland. The seven-bedroom house was a complete ruin when Jane took it on and with no electricity or roof, renovating it was a large-scale project. “I don’t just redecorate, I do major underpinning, putting in new roofs and walls,” says Jane, who was conscious of making the renovation as eco-friendly as possible; using lambswool insulation, and favouring natural stone and terracotta to preserve the property’s history.
When it came to the interiors, Jane was in her element and adopted an organic approach to the design so that the schemes worked for each place. “For the stone house Pey au Bruc, I used a lot of lime washes in grey and beige, and as the Beach House is near the sea, it’s very vibrant and bright so I incorporated a lot of sea colours,” says Jane, who describes the former as “a country house that isn’t trying to be too bourgeois”, and the latter as “a bit rock and roll”.
“I was an antique dealer, so I’ve got a collection of antiques and light fittings, which I love and have had since the 80s. They’re the tools of my trade, and I just moved them around with me,” says Jane, who used to specialise in decorative antiques and still has many pieces; although most of them now live at Pey au Bruc as they are more suited to the property, which has a grander feel than the boho-style of the Beach House.
“The antiques work well in the rentals, because I’m not one of those people who worries that guests are going to scratch or break things. People often ask how I can let people rent the house with all my lovely antiques in them, and I think the more generous you are and the more you give, the more people seem to appreciate it. My clients are far better than my children when it comes to the house,” laughs Jane who also has another son, Louis, and a daughter, Sophie.
While Jane had a lot of existing furniture and decorative items for the properties, she has also sourced many pieces during the time she has lived in France, and describes herself as a maniac for antique markets. She is well placed for benefitting from the region’s brocantes, and for two weeks in spring and autumn, Bordeaux hosts a vast antique fair in addition to the city’s weekly Sunday market. “I just love French antiques. I have bought quite a lot for the Beach House, nothing terribly expensive, but lovely high-backed cane chairs and lots of kitchen stuff. I go mad for enamelware, says Jane, who now lives in a converted garage at the back of the Beach House itself.
Jane’s properties attract an international clientele, keen to get to know this undiscovered part of France and enjoy a relaxing break by the coast. And, while it’s been hard work and a challenge at times, moving to France and setting up the holiday rental business has been rewarding. “I’m thoroughly enjoying it at last as I’m getting quite a lot of creative clients, who are quite stimulating and interesting,” she adds.
With Jane’s eclectic style, it’s not surprising that her properties have also caught the attention of film crews and photographers. One client was the Swedish celebrity chef Leila Lindholm, who filmed her 10th television series and shot the images for her book, Hello cupcake!, at the Beach House.
Using the properties as film sets is something that Jane finds thoroughly enjoyable. “I want to do more, as with my experience of antique dealing, I can change the set of the houses to adapt to different clients’ needs. That’s part of the joy of it for me,” she enthuses.
After more than two decades in France, Jane has decided to put Pey au Bruc on the market. While she doesn’t want to retire completely from the holiday rental business, she wants to free up more time to enjoy winters in the sun, and is keen to go back into the antiques business. After all, it’s something she loves doing and she’s in the perfect location to do so.