Sue Aitken and her partner Andy Mackay have found happiness with a new life and business venture in Charente-Maritime, as Deborah Curtis finds out
When she was a girl, Sue Aitken went on camping holidays to France and dreamed of living there permanently. She grew up, became a teacher, married, had children and was widowed, but the idea of a cross-Channel move never left her. Finally, in 2007, she packed up her life and set off for the ferry with her new partner Andy Mackay.
“I’d always wanted to live in France and I was determined to get there somehow,” she says. “Finally at the end of September 2007, we just packed up the car and left. It was literally that unprepared. We didn’t have a clue where we would end up or what we were going to do when we got there.”
They’d booked a short-term let for two months in Deux-Sèvres and while they were there they were joined in their adventures by two kittens Twits and Roo, who have been with them ever since.
“We heard this yowling one night,” Sue remembers. “We opened the door and there were two kittens. They adopted us and they’ve moved around with us the whole time since we’ve been in France.”
Once their two months in Deux-Sèvres were up, they set off for a six-month stint in Languedoc but found it too expensive; eventually retracing their steps northwards to Poitou-Charentes where they have put down firm roots.
“We came up to Charente-Maritime because the coastline is gorgeous, and you’ve still got the vines; you are still in south-west France,” says Sue, whose grown-up children – Jess, 27, and 24-year-old James – both live in the UK.
Home is a restored farm cottage in two acres of land on the edge of a small hamlet, near the village of Beauvais-sur-Matha. Its restoration has been a labour of love for Sue and Andy, who have done all the work themselves since they moved in at the end of December 2008.
“It was semi-derelict,” Sue remembers. “There was no shower, no washing machine, and the fridge was the front window sill. It’s slowly improved from there.”
Some judicious wielding of a sledgehammer by Sue, while Andy was on one of his regular supply teaching stints in the UK, created the open-plan kitchen and dining room, and what was the old grenier upstairs has been converted into bedrooms so that they now have a proper living room downstairs.
“It’s gorgeous,” says Sue. “We’ve got a huge garden, and a veggie plot, and chickens; we’re basically living ‘The Good Life’ in France. The house itself is not too big and we’re still doing work on it. It all takes time and money; and with Andy going backwards and forwards to the UK, and me starting the business, it’s a slow process; but it’s lovely.”
The business Sue has started is Blackhen Education: online English courses for expat children to help them keep their written English on a par with their UK-educated peers.
“Often, the first concern for parents is how their children are going to learn French,” says Sue. “They are more worried about that, and then the penny drops about English. If these kids do want to go back to the UK for university or whatever, they will need their English,” says Sue. “It won’t be good enough just to be able to talk in an interview. They’ve got to prove that they can write up to a certain standard. We are literally keeping them as up to date as they would be if they were in the UK, and it gives them a choice.”
The idea for the business grew from their backgrounds as teachers in Portsmouth, and from speaking to parents at the drama sessions Sue set up when she first moved to France.
“We’re both teachers and we’d always had it at the back of our minds that we could do something with that,” says Sue. “The first thing I did was to start drama and theatre lessons for kids in a local village hall, and the more I got to know the expat kids through drama, the more I realised that they were talking about losing their English.
“They were speaking English at home and they could still read it, but they were forgetting their written English. When I started looking on the internet, there are groups, and one-to-one sessions all over France, but there was nothing online, so that’s what I decided to start up.”
They launched Blackhen Education, which is named after one of their first chickens – a black hen named Coco – towards the end of 2010, and now have 63 students aged from six to 15. Every month, the children are sent work appropriate for their age and English level, from Key Stage 1 right up to IGCSE. They complete each unit and then send it back to Sue and Andy for marking and feedback.
“We have two IGCSE courses and have written 104 units of work because we do different strands for different age groups,” says Sue. “Each group has its own coursework strand and there are eight courses.”
There is an emphasis on fun and creativity both as a contrast to the more formal lessons in French schools and to keep the children motivated and enjoying the work.
“We wanted it to be based on what the kids would be doing if they were in the UK because it’s very different to how they teach in France,” says Sue. “We also wanted it to be fun because they are doing it on top of their French work so you’ve got to make it interesting. We try to do a lot of creative stuff.”
The children either complete the work at home or some of them get permission to work on it at school.
“They are sitting there doing colours or what their house looks like in English lessons, so often the French teacher is pleased that they are bringing in work that is at an appropriate level for them,” says Sue.
The business is growing steadily and they now have children in Brittany, Normandy, Poitou-Charentes, Dordogne, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Loire Valley. They even have two children in Holland, and because it’s all online, the location is immaterial.
“Because it’s all online, we could live anywhere and do it,” says Sue. “That’s the brilliant thing about it. It’s so portable and flexible. There are no overheads, bar new cartridges and printer paper. We send out units, with completion dates and wait for them to come back; we stagger those so they don’t all arrive at once, then we mark it and send feedback.”
Working in this way has meant that Sue and Andy have had time to enjoy life in France as well. Sue has her chickens and potager, and they have been able to get out and explore more widely in Charente-Maritime.
“It’s a lovely area,” says Sue. “We’ve got the vines because we’re very near Cognac. It’s very rural where we are and then you’ve got the lovely coast, La Rochelle, and the Gironde Estuary going down into Bordeaux. It’s gorgeous.”
Sue has been working on her French thanks to her neighbours, and the couple also feel very welcome and settled in their new adopted community.
“If you don’t stick at your French, it’s very easy not to speak it because there are a lot of expats and it’s very easy to talk English all the time,” says Sue. “New neighbours moved in behind us about a year ago. They are lovely. They are in their 70s and very kind, and now I’m speaking French every day. We go for walks together and do various things.
“Where we live is made up mostly of farming families, and they will do anything for you. We join in with all the village events. If you are warm and friendly to the French then that is how they will be to you.”
Their leap of faith has paid huge dividends and they are both delighted with life in France.
“It’s hard work but in a very different way to England,” says Sue. “It’s very relaxed and life is at a slower pace but you’ve got to go by the seasons. It’s a very different way of thinking – being back with nature… and I love it.”