Running a luxury camping business in Charente
Holidaymakers are camping in style at Sam and John Kegg’s luxury tepees tucked away in the beautiful Charente countryside. Gillain Harvey finds out more
Picture a rural getaway in France, and you’d be forgiven for imagining a tumbledown stone cottage, a converted barn or a chalet on the mountainside. You may be surprised then on entering the small Charente village of Ranville-Breuillaud, home to three American tepees, each reaching eight metres high and decked out in colourful, traditional cloth material.
For Sam and John Kegg, however, the tepee is an ideal place to spend a summer holiday, camping (or rather glamping) in accommodation so luxurious the facilities resemble that of a top-class hotel, rather than the wrinkled groundsheet and sleeping bags usually associated with a camping trip.
So what inspired this couple, originally from Brighton, to open such an unusual site in western France? “We went travelling to Nevada and the Grand Canyon in 2005 and saw some amazing tepees,” says John, 46, a trained carpenter. “At the time, we were living and working in the UK; but the idea stayed with us, and, when we felt ready to open a business, the thought of purchasing some high-quality tepees really appealed. It’s something very different.”
Living in France, and providing a temporary home for visiting friends and family, was the final proof needed by John and Sam that ‘hosting’ was for them. “Since moving, we’ve been packed with family who love to visit,” says Sam. “Many of them remarked how they were hard-pushed to leave us – so we realised that we must be good hosts! And we had this field we’d never used: it just seemed ideal.”
Their business ‘Glamping Tipis’, named after the French for tepee, consists of three tepees, each of which houses a super king-sized bed, three singles and – at 50 metres square – the living space of a small house. Guests are also treated to private bathrooms with high-quality, modern facilities built in a converted piggery. “Each customer is given a code that unlocks their bathroom,” explains Sam. “Which means they can use the electricity in the room to charge their phones, or even leave things there for the day if there’s something in particular they want to keep secure.”
As well as the spacious sleeping and living area, WiFi and private bathrooms, the site also includes a tree house eating and drinking area and communal kitchen, known as Woody’s. Here, guests can sit and socialise with the family, prepare food and generally relax. “We’re always around for our guests,” says Sam. “It’s basically up to them. If they want to keep themselves to themselves, we completely understand; but if they want to mingle, that’s great too.”
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The couple are no strangers to foreign climes, having travelled extensively for a year in 2005. It was during their travels that they began to consider living abroad; although, at the time, France wasn’t top of their list. “We were tempted by many far flung locations, such as Australia,” admits Sam. “But then, when we returned to England and I discovered I was pregnant, our thoughts turned to family.”
Sam’s parents, Mike and Maggie, had already lived in France since 2000, so it seemed logical to consider it as a possibility, and when Sam and John visited France in 2006, they fell in love with a house only eight kilometres away. “It reminded me of my grandmother’s house,” says Sam. “It was Georgian in style, and just what I’d always imagined in my head for my family home.”
Although ideal in some ways, the property was far from habitable when the couple purchased it in 2007. In fact, John had to replace the entire roof and upstairs windows as they were beyond repair, and the renovation works continue to this day. “The property had been neglected and the owner moved out as soon as we’d made our offer,” says John, “so the garden was overgrown and the house had fallen further into disrepair. Even now, it’s still a work in progress.”
The bulk of the renovation work has fallen to John, whose skills as a carpenter have been invaluable. “He’s worked non-stop,” says Sam. “Not only when renovating the house, but also earning income as a registered artisan.”
John, who was self-employed in the UK, is well used to turning his hand to a variety of tasks. “I used to build exhibition stands, and even make bespoke furniture,” he says. “So I’ve got plenty of experience in making anything and everything.” As a result of this experience, he has a regular client base, of both English and French customers, and is kept extremely busy.
Luckily, Sam’s father, Mike, is also on hand to help with renovations to the family home, and John’s father Pete visits each year for several weeks, working non-stop on the project. “Both of our fathers help as much as they can,” says Sam. “I don’t know what we’d do without them! And my mum is great with the kids too. We are very lucky.”
A qualified chef, Sam is hoping to add an extra dimension to the glamping business this year, by offering guests the option of freshly prepared meals: everything from Mediterranean to Indian. “I worked as a chef in London previously,” she says, “and I love cooking all different types of food. I’ve now registered, and all I need to do is complete a French health and safety course, then I’m good to go.”
As for the language, it was fortunate for Sam that much of her training as a chef took place in ‘kitchen French,’ which meant she already spoke French to A-level standard when they moved.
Her fluency has also developed considerably since their arrival, despite the fact that she hasn’t attended formal lessons. “I prefer not to take lessons,” she says. “I know lots of people who do, and it suits them. But for me, I just wouldn’t be able to commit myself.”
Instead, Sam has found that socialising with locals and neighbours, and striking up conversations with other mothers in the school playground has paid dividends. “I now have some really great French friends,” she says, “and they’ve helped me no end. I was really surprised how much we had in common. And at the end of the day, if you’re sitting around with people and they’re all talking the language, you pick it up!”
John, despite only having a smattering of French, has also settled in well, and finds ways to communicate. “We’re often at dinner with eight or nine French friends,” says Sam, “so he’s picking it up all the time. And his ‘building French’ is fine – so he has no problem when it comes to work.”
As for family life in France, although it took the couple a little time to settle in, they’re happy that they made the move. John, in particular, describes their life in Charente as ‘heaven.’ “I couldn’t be happier,” he says. “I’ve got my Land Rover, my workshop and as much as space as I could ever need.”
The children, too, are extremely happy. “There’s lots of freedom,” says Sam, “and I feel we can give our girls a wonderful childhood.”
Florence, seven, was just four weeks old when they moved out, and Isabel, six, and Nelly, two, were both born in France, so none of the three children have had problems with language or settling into the local school. “We speak English at home,” says Sam, “but they just switch when they get to school. The French schools are quite strict, it’s true, but I think the girls need that. They can be a handful sometimes!”
Despite the fact the campsite only opened for business last summer, the couple have already had many happy guests, several of whom have already expressed the desire to return. “One family is hoping to book all three tepees for a big group holiday,” says Sam, “which will be great fun.”
Furthermore, although the site has only been open one season, the tepees have already proven their quality and durability. In July 2013, just days after they were erected, France experienced a rare hurricane which caused chaos across many areas of the country.
“It was horrendous at the time,” admits Sam. “We had no electricity; everyone was sheltered in Woody’s and we were really worried, although there was nothing we could do.” Thankfully, however, the storm passed and the tepees remained unaffected. “We now know we don’t have to worry about the weather,” says Sam. “The tepees are here to stay!”
As for the future, the site has planning permission for up to five tepees, so the couple have the option to expand. They also constantly add small touches to make visitors’ experiences as perfect as possible. “We’ve developed as it’s gone along,” says Sam. “We always like to think about our visitors’ needs.”
Whether guests are seasoned campers or complete novices, Glamping Tipis provides for everyone. By bringing the Wild West to western France, Sam and John have created a new life across the Channel that appeals to fellow Francophiles in search of both adventure and comfort. www.glampingtipis.fr