Taking on a watermill and gîte in France “a brilliant lifestyle opportunity”
On a quest for a more relaxed pace of life, Phil and Elaine Miles decided to swap the rat race for a converted watermill in Pays de la Loire, where they provide bed and breakfast and self-catering accommodation
What prompted you to make the move to France?
We had come back from a visit to friends of mine who had relocated to Spain. It was February and dull and dismal back in the UK and we really weren’t looking forward to a return to the long work hours, the seemingly endless traffic jams and the generally manic pace of life.
We both agreed that perhaps it was time to change some things in our lives before we got too old and set in our ways. We had both enjoyed visiting France on holiday, I spoke French having studied it to A level at school, so it seemed a logical place to choose to live, with, hopefully a slower, more relaxed pace of life.
What attracted you to Sarthe?
We weren’t specifically looking to buy in Sarthe, but we are really glad that we did. We were looking for somewhere that hadn’t been overrun with Brits, that was north of the Loire Valley, so would be within easy travelling distance back to the UK and with Phil being a keen fisherman, somewhere near water.
Sarthe is beautiful – it has forests, rivers, lakes, valleys and vineyards. It is known as the ‘Garden of France’ and always seems to be lush and green. The weather is usually better than the UK, with longer summers and slightly higher temperatures where you can still experience all four seasons. We are in the south of the region and just over half-an-hour’s drive from the airport at Tours which has regular flights to London Stansted. The main châteaux of the Loire Valley are just under an hour away, or head half-an-hour north and you are in Le Mans of 24-hour car race fame.
Had you always wanted to run a bed and breakfast?
Although we knew that whatever property we bought would have to also offer us income earning possibilities, we weren’t originally looking to run a bed and breakfast, but gîtes. The property we bought was a three-bedroom watermill with an attached cottage that was in need of major renovation.
The mill was advertised privately on a website, and we visited it during November – the weather was cold and mizzly and a mist hung low over the fields behind the building. But we loved it and could see the potential.
Initially the plan was to add a couple of en-suite bedrooms to the vast attic space in the main house to form a five-bedroom family gîte and renovate the cottage to offer a two-bedroom gîte.
Was there a lot of work to carry out before welcoming your first guests?
We moved in April 2008 and immediately started work on the cottage. It needed to be completely re-plumbed and rewired, we added a new kitchen and knocked down a couple of walls. Apart from the plumbing and electrical work we did all the work ourselves – Phil was previously in the building trade prior to changing to hard landscaping. Our first guests arrived in the October of the same year – it was my old boss and his family and he freely admitted that he now understood why I had resigned from my old job.
In the main house, we insulated the attic and put up dividing walls to create two large bedrooms each with en-suite shower rooms. The whole house was redecorated inside and out, and we took our first house booking 12 months after moving in.
Outside we created new patios for each of the properties and started a vegetable garden.
For the first five years, during the summer months when both properties were rented out, we lived in a caravan parked in our large barn, and moved back into the main house during the winter months.
We then decided that in order to extend the letting season and make lives a little more comfortable for ourselves, we would change the main house into a bed and breakfast. We remodelled the first floor so that instead of three bedrooms and one bathroom we now have three bedrooms each with their own bathrooms.
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Did you find it easy to get involved in local clubs and associations?
Our property actually has a foot in two villages, Chahaignes and Lhomme. The river that flows through the middle of the mill buildings is the boundary line between the two. We have more links with Lhomme (population approx. 900) as we are closer to it.
We got married in the local mairie in 2009 and a couple of days later had a wedding blessing in our back garden, to which we invited the mayor and the French friends we had made so far. This really broke the ice and since then, we have been actively involved in village life.
Every July there is a village fête which spans three days and Phil started helping with the set-up of this each year, despite not speaking very much French. A couple of years later I was invited to join the comité des fêtes as secretary – a post which I held for a year.
Four years ago when the local elections were being planned, I had a visit from the mayor who asked whether I would be willing to join his list for election to the local council. I agreed and was duly elected – the first Brit. This involves me in a lot of local activities and I’m amazed at how much is done for the community on a local level, from the flower competition for local residents’ gardens, to the four-course meal provided for the elderly residents to the Christmas boxes packed and delivered each year.
We have found it relatively painless to integrate as everyone has been so friendly and welcoming. The local shopkeepers and restaurateurs recognise the fact that we are contributing to the local economy with our guests that stay in the bed and breakfast.
What do you do to relax in-between visitors?
Our potager and the grounds surrounding our mill keep us busy and I also make a wide range of jams and chutneys which I sell at local Christmas fairs and brocantes. There are lovely walks in the area – through vineyards or along river banks and, of course, Phil enjoys the wide choice of fishing lakes and rivers.
During the spring and the summer months there always seems to be plenty of activities in the neighbouring villages, from vide-greniers to comice agricoles (agricultural shows) to pétanque matches. And come 14 July there are massive fireworks displays and celebrations in at least four local towns or villages.
What advice would you give to expats thinking of moving to Sarthe?
Learn at least the basics of the language. Although in the cities of Le Mans and Tours and in tourist attractions people do speak English, it is not common among tradesmen and shopkeepers in this rural area.
Also, if you are looking to retire to this region, don’t be tempted by the peace and seclusion of a remote farmhouse or cottage – as you get older you will find yourself isolated. We are just a 15-minute stroll to the local village.
What plans do you have for the future?
This has been a brilliant lifestyle opportunity (with our large vegetable garden we have become virtually self sufficient), we have immersed ourselves in local village life and have enjoyed meeting people from all over the world and introducing them to this beautiful corner of France.
Three of our gîte guests have fallen in love with the area so much that two have bought holiday properties locally and the third has moved to the area permanently!
When we moved here we had a 10-year plan, which we have more or less completed. However, as we get into our sixties we are seriously considering downsizing and taking life a little easier. We still have two barns and a couple of other attached outbuildings which could be converted to a further gîte or B&B rooms, but we think that perhaps this would be a project for a new owner!
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