To the sound of birdsong and with the wind in the trees, Sara Humber tells Anna McKittrick why she fell for this tranquil setting in the Gironde countryside
A1970s Airstream isn’t something you often come across in the French countryside, but if you head to the department of Gironde in south-west France, you’ll discover this beautifully renovated caravan in all its glory. Sara Humber, the Airstream’s owner, had long dreamt of buying a vintage caravan but it wasn’t until she came to renovate a derelict property and she needed somewhere to stay that her quest to find one began.
“I didn’t believe in being off-site, so I started looking at mobile homes but they were all plastic. I’d long since wanted an Airstream so we looked on eBay and found one owned by an American living in Spain,” remembers Sara, who says it was quite a brave move to buy it without first taking a look at it. The gamble paid off, however, and it was love at first sight when she laid eyes on the silver Airstream Sovereign, which originated in Jacksonville in the United States.
Sara, who has lived in France since 2003, wasn’t even looking to buy a new property when a local French immobilier told her about an unusual property that had come onto the market. Her interest was piqued and she went to view the place, which was just 20 minutes up the road in the commune of Cazaugitat, even though at that stage her own house wasn’t for sale.
The property, which Sara describes as a fallen hamlet, had to be accessed by climbing through a small gap in the perimeter fence, but as soon as she was inside she discovered Girard, a peaceful, if neglected, former hamlet set in 50 acres of land. Sara knew she’d found something special and even though the market was against her, she decided to take a gamble and bought it in 2009.
Sara’s love affair with France began more than 20 years earlier when she travelled around Europe in her early twenties. After finishing school, Sara pursued her passion for horse-riding and became a professional three-day-event rider. A terrible accident, which left her blind in one eye, cut short her sporting career and tragedy struck again when Sara’s partner, a fellow rider, died while competing at Burghley Horse Trials. Sara says it made her realise that life’s too short and that’s when she decided to go on a European adventure.
“I just packed the car and drove over to France. I spent quite a bit of time in Bordeaux and that’s when I fell for this part of France,” recalls Sara, who returned to Sussex when she was 27 to study English at university.
“It was definitely the next best thing to being a professional sportswoman. I was passionate about it and loved studying. If you go to university when you’re older, you’re more committed and it was an absolute pleasure to study a subject I loved,” says Sara. It was her love of writing and a desire for her daughter Grace, then five, to grow up in the countryside that led her to go back to France to search for a property.
Having spent time in south-west France and around Bordeaux, Sara concentrated her property hunt in Aquitaine. “I thought I still needed my mini London, so being near Bordeaux was perfect, and I didn’t want to be too far from the coast either,” remembers Sara, who bought a stone house near the village of Savignac-de-Duras on the edge of Lot-et-Garonne in 2003. Sara renovated the property and lived there for three and a half years before moving a few kilometres away to the neighbouring department of Gironde, where she converted another house just outside the town of Monségur. It was while she was living in her second property that she discovered the oasis of calm that is Girard.
The hamlet, which is made up of five ruins, had been abandoned for 20 years when Sara, and her French husband Stéphane, took on the challenge. Their plan was to renovate one of the properties, the farmhouse, into a family home and tame the overgrown land, which took the couple five months to clear. When Sara and Stéphane bought Girard, it was surrounded by a high fence, something of a rare sight in rural France. Sara says the local maire told her that there was talk of the French Resistance hiding on the property and escaping down an old track, but there are other locals who say the previous owner was just a very private man. The perimeter fence meant that over the years, the untouched land has evolved into a safe haven for flora and fauna, which was a boon for nature-loving Sara.
But it wasn’t just Sara who was captivated by the wildlife and peacefulness. When friends visited, their first observation was often about the sense of calm that prevailed.
Sara and Stéphane decided they should share the inspiring space with others, be it writers, artists, birdwatchers or anyone who just wanted to escape from it all; and that’s how The French Retreat was born. They decided to restore the Airstream and transform the inside into something special. Sara wanted the interior to have all the creature comforts while benefiting from the secluded location. During the four-month refurbishment, they designed the interiors to ensure it maximised space without compromising on style.
The result is a luxurious one-bedroom haven with wooden floors, a fresh white colour palette and chrome accessories that come together to create the contemporary loft-style interior that Sara envisaged. Mod cons are a key feature and the caravan benefits from a fully equipped kitchen, is connected to mains water and electricity and has wifi.
Along with converting the Airstream, Sara had the idea of creating a writer’s cabin, which is only a short walk from the caravan. The design of the cabin was inspired by the fishing huts and oyster cabanes dotted along the coastline of the Bassin d’Arcachon.
You can tell that Sara herself is a writer as she’s thought of everything you might need to be self-sufficient in this creative hub; from wifi to a printer, paper to a mini fridge and not forgetting the antique iron bed which is ideal for afternoon siestas. The desk is perfectly positioned in front of the window offering inspiring views of the pastoral landscape and the ever-present wildlife – from the menagerie of bird species to the deer that roam past.
Sara says the weather gets extremely hot in the summer so last spring, they installed a natural swimming pool, which is shaded by a large acacia tree. The pool is chemical free and uses aquatic plants to act as natural filters and oxygenators.
Having a natural pool ties in with the ethos of The French Retreat, which aims to embrace the peacefulness of the surroundings. Along with the pool, guests also have the use of Lemon, a vintage Citroën 2CV, during their stay. Lemon is the same age as the Airstream, and Sara says that offering guests the chance to drive the iconic French car along the country lanes of rural France is proving hugely popular.
While there is plenty of scope for further development at Girard, Sara and Stéphane are keen to keep the intimate and tranquil feel they have created. “It’s so nice to see people wandering around the grounds and walking through the ruins,” adds Sara. And when guests aren’t staying at Girard, Sara loves nothing more than retreating to the cabin to put pen to paper.