Whole lot of love
Caroline and Chas Sharp swapped London for Lot where they now run a successful restaurant, pottery-painting workshop and gîte business, as Anna McKittrick discovers
A desire for a change in lifestyle is often what lures Francophiles across the Channel and such was the case for Caroline and Chas Sharp, who swapped south-west London for the beautiful department of Lot. The couple, who moved with their two young daughters, Evie, now eight, and Lilah, now five, have been happily settled in the small village of Vire-sur-Lot, a 10-minute drive from picturesque Puy l’Évêque, since 2009.
For the Sharps, finding the right location in which to launch their own business was paramount, and once they had decided that France was where they wanted to live, they went on a scouting mission to find the perfect property.
“We thought about setting up a business in the UK, but we weren’t sure what we wanted to do and then Chas suggested France because he’d lived abroad before and speaks French. We decided we’d have a look at setting up a gîte business, but we wanted to do it slightly differently and go more upmarket,” says Caroline, whose background is in media and advertising. The couple originally looked in Dordogne but decided it wasn’t quite right for them; they wanted somewhere that was more undiscovered so they could do something unique with their business venture. The location for their French move was decided as soon as they laid eyes on Le Caillau – a 300-year-old winery set among the Cahors vines in Lot. “It was the first property we came and saw, and that was it; we immediately fell in love with it,” reminisces Caroline, who says their decision to move to Lot was the result of finding their ideal property there.
For Caroline, 36, and Chas, 45, buying Le Caillau, which until 30 years ago was still a working vineyard, gave them the unique and character-rich property they so craved with the numerous connected outbuildings providing so much scope for their planned business. The property, which they bought from an American couple, was in quite good condition aside from one of the barn roofs, which immediately needed their attention. “Unfortunately, as the previous owners didn’t spend much time here, the main roof was collapsing and water was getting in. We knew we had to get the roof done straightaway, because it’s so important to make sure a building’s watertight; otherwise you’re in big trouble,” says Caroline.
Once the exterior of the barn was repaired, the couple set about transforming the vast space into a café and atelier. They replaced all the doors and windows, put in all the plumbing and found a local mason to help. While Chas and Caroline initially planned to set up a gîte business, their first venture in June 2010 was the café and pottery-painting workshop, which combined Caroline’s love of baking and craft.
“I had a small mobile pottery-painting business in London and I used to do children’s birthday parties,” she says. “We brought all the stuff out here with us and I realised that there was nothing like that around here. There aren’t many indoor activities, as it’s so set up for the summer. I also love making cakes, so I thought it would be lovely to have a café and pottery-painting atelier.”
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Aside from cakes, the café also offered baguettes and salads, and proved to be so popular that after the first season, Caroline employed a local chef to help her cope with the demands of cooking and baking. With a new chef on board, they moved away from snack-style food and transformed it into a restaurant, offering delicious yet simple menus. “We very quickly got a good reputation. The food’s really different compared with the other local restaurants. We use a lot of fresh herbs and spices and there are a lot of Thai influences, which many people round here haven’t tried before,” enthuses Caroline.
Baking remains Caroline’s domain; she enjoys trying out different recipes depending on the season but sticks to some favourites too. “There’s no set menu but there’s always a lemon drizzle cake, which is the first cake I made. People are now disappointed if they come along and there isn’t any,” she laughs.
The restaurant is open from March until the end of October and, during the peak summer months, unlike others in the region it serves food throughout the day rather than just 12-2. The restaurant, café and atelier are very laid-back, and Caroline says that’s how they wanted it to be; especially given their serene surroundings. Customers aren’t restricted to a prix fixe menu and can choose exactly what they fancy, whether it’s just a starter and a glass of wine or a slice of cake and a pot of tea on the terrace. Of course, there’s always the option to paint a piece of pottery at the same time.
“Being open all afternoon during the summer months has worked really well and we’ve been full from when we open till 11pm. Last year, we had a moment when we felt we’d got it right. Outside we had a table of local French just having coffee, then we had another group eating cakes and painting pottery and then there were some tourists eating and drinking lots. Everyone looked so relaxed and happy. We then realised that we’d achieved exactly what we’d wanted to,” says Caroline, who has chosen a calming and rustic décor throughout to reflect their outlook.
It’s taken a lot of work and dedication, but the Sharps have been incredibly motivated to make their new venture a success. They’ve transformed the property, much of which was an empty shell when they bought it, into a welcoming space for both the family and guests. After renovating the main barn into the restaurant and café, the couple set about converting another barn into the gîte accommodation they initially dreamt of. The two-bedroom luxury gîte has been welcoming guests since August 2011. There is still plenty of scope to develop the gîte business further, and they have plans to create an additional four-bedroom holiday home, but Caroline says that’s a project for the future.
“We’ve only just got back on our feet after three years of renovating, so we’re going to have a year of just living and working and then we’ll start looking at phase two and there could even be a phase three and phase four after that,” she says. However, it’s not just physical hard graft that the couple has channelled into the business. Chas’ experience as a marketing director has also paid dividends in promoting Le Caillau, both through the website and social media, and by spreading the word in the local community.
The family has settled into the gentle rhythm of south-west France, which, although a far cry from Teddington where they moved from, is a way of life they have taken to. “It didn’t feel like a massive move. I suppose, because we were so excited about what we were doing, we didn’t miss anything,” says Caroline. “I wanted to do more outdoor things and grow vegetables, so having all this space is amazing.”
Swapping their 10-metre north-facing garden in London for more than three acres of outside space at Le Caillau is something all the family can enjoy; from Caroline’s potager to the trampoline, swings and a swimming pool that keep both the girls entertained.
Caroline and Chas wanted to live somewhere with year-round appeal, and their little corner of Lot provides just that.
“One of the things I really like about the region, is that there are a lot of French who live here. There are British and Dutch with holiday homes who go back in the winter but generally things just carry on. We didn’t want to be isolated and left in a ghost village for part of the year. It’s definitely a French way of life round here,” says Caroline.
The couple’s daughters are settled in local schools and have picked up a second language with ease. “They speak French like French children; you wouldn’t know that they’re English. The schools in the area are very French with only a few English in their classes.”
As the Sharps approach their fourth year in France, Caroline says they have no regrets and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “The only downside is that it’s not physically possible to distance yourself from the business, but my commute into work is now only 30 seconds.” You certainly can’t argue with that. LF