Sing for your supper

How would you like to live in France for months, without spending a centime on food or accommodation? With a working holiday, you can even pick up some skills at the same time, says Lorraine Chandler

After 30 years working as a fireman, you might imagine that Les Pearson from Redcar would have been ready to hang up his boots and retire. However, that was the last thing on his mind when he got his pension in 2010. He and wife Alice, spent a year travelling the world and then decided to buy and convert a barn in Limousin. When the couple were refused permission for the renovation, they set off to travel around Europe in their caravan to see if there was anywhere else they’d like to buy.

While house-sitting in Italy, the couple discovered something that would change their retirement plans. They came across websites for Workaway and HelpX, two organisations which link up farms, guesthouses and other hosts with volunteer helpers, who work some hours each day in exchange for food and accommodation. While both associations operate all around the world, they have a large number of hosts in France.

Prospective volunteers can look at their websites, to find places they would like to work, and contact the hosts that interest them. The work could involve painting, farming, building, cooking, gardening, and a huge multitude of other things. n general, volunteers are expected to stay at least two weeks, but they could stay much longer, in agreement with the host. The only costs involved are website membership, which is priced at €22 for a two-year membership of Workaway, and €20 for a premier membership at HelpX.

“We’d been visiting France for about seven years,” explains Les, aged 51, “but we were really excited when we found the Workaway site by accident. In addition to the free accommodation, we have my pension. We’re very humble in our means of what we want to do. Right now, we’re staying in a wonderful place: Maison Tillac in Gascony. This is our first experience, which we organised through Workaway. We’re staying here eight weeks. It’s a great start and Alice and I have our own room with en-suite facilities.”

Tony and Madeleine Clifford-Winters, the owners of Maison Tillac, are doing a loft conversion. Since Les is a qualified electrician, he’s well equipped to do the rewiring, while Alice is helping out with gardening and cooking. The couple have booked up the next six months of volunteer work experiences, using both Workaway and HelpX.

“There’s always work to be done somewhere,” adds Les. “We’re really being introduced to French culture. There’s a great community feeling, and it’s also an ideal way to learn about good places to buy. We have already met a few people who bought big houses out here, only to realise later the high costs of renovation and maintenance in France. For us, we’re learning first-hand, and who knows, we may end up buying a house here.”

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For 35-year-old Alice, the experience has been very positive too. “I was a bit daunted at first, but I find the whole experience very rewarding. I’m very interested in people. Because of the age gap between Les and me, I might not otherwise have such a great chance to socialise and also to experience the country. I’m re-learning my school French and improving it. Now that I’m older and wiser, I can appreciate the culture here, and I like to help some of the younger people coming through.” Change of life

Wayne Setford had been working for eight years managing an estate agency in Essex, but his real dream was to get involved with sustainable farming. “I was a bit sick of my life: no sunshine and nowhere to grow vegetables,” says Wayne, 31.

“I felt I wanted to learn how to grow. I could have re-trained, but I was more interested in learning through work experience. I had been looking at the HelpX site for years, but it was really just about taking the plunge.”

In 2010 Wayne’s father was diagnosed with cancer, and doctors told the family that it was unlikely that he would live past March 2011. However, against all odds he recovered, and this pushed Wayne to take the step he really wanted to.

“When I told my friends I was going to start working on farms, they couldn’t believe I would do it. But I did. I resigned from my job, let out my flat, and set off for France, having set up two work experiences to start me off.”

His first experience was on a 25-hectare organic farm in Limousin.

“I had driven my camper van from England and arrived there in the pitch black at 11.30pm at night. I found the work hard at first, as I’d been working in an office so long, but I learned so much and had great fun.”

Since then, he has worked for eight different hosts. “I have had some amazing experiences and I’ve experienced real generosity of spirit,” he says. “Yes, you work hard, but you learn so much in terms of trade and craft, and you meet like-minded people who open up their hearts (and their fridges!) to you. I also got to enjoy the French lifestyle because even those who weren’t French had become integrated into society. You start early, but you have long lunch breaks!”

Wayne used his experience to change his career completely, and is now doing what he always wanted: working in a smallholding and teaching centre on sustainability in Essex. However, he plans to spend his holidays working with HelpX.

But Wayne warns that the experience is not for the shy or unsociable. “You’re just plonked down somewhere, and you end up eating, washing and spending all your time with your hosts.

“I was very lucky not to have any bad experiences but the good thing is that if you really feel you’re not happy to complete the experience, there’s no contract obliging you to.”

He praises the HelpX website, where hosts and helpers can read each other’s profiles to find the right fit. “The review process is good, because you can check reviews of hosts. It’s important to read between the lines though, as nobody wants to write a bad review!”

A family experience

Alice Griffin has always been a free spirit. A journalist and author of Tales from a Travelling Mum, she currently lives on a narrowboat with her husband Scott and five-year-old daughter Isabella, not to mention Milla the dog.

“Although we are now back in the UK, we still have dreams of ne day heading abroad for good,” says 36-year-old Alice.

“I think that volunteering with those already living the lifestyle is a fabulous way to see what it might really be like.”

Most people might feel that the volunteer experience would be only for singles or couples, but Alice and her family have volunteered in Spain, France and Portugal.

“The choices are more limited considering we come as a family package,” she points out, “but I just make a shortlist and then contact them all telling them our situation. It’s surprising how many hosts are really open to having a family unit come and stay.

“It can be difficult to try and arrange separate accommodation, but this is kind of essential to us. We wouldn’t want to be staying with our daughter in a dorm with lots of other helpers. It is also useful to target hosts who have a young family. There are definitely ways to volunteer as a family. You just have to do a little more research and be very open with people,” says Alice.

The family’s first volunteer experience was in south-west France on a horse farm. They stayed for a few weeks and helped with general work around the farm, including log splitting and hay gathering. They agreed to pay for their own food in return for all being allowed to stay – but with Scott doing most of the work, as Isabella was only a toddler at the time.

“It’s such a wonderful way to learn about a different way of life, experience a new country and make new, like-minded friends. I do find though that it is best to be up-front and honest about things straight off. Co-living/working can be hard so it’s best to start on the right foot; say that you like to have time to yourself in the evenings, or that (if you are a family) you would like to have some meals on your own. This way no-one feels put out.”

As Alice and Scott are considering moving to France in the future, they found it a useful trial run. “I think that for us we have always had a dream of living a more sustainable, rural lifestyle with land. By choosing hosts who are pretty much living the kind of life we dream of, we are directly experiencing what that lifestyle might be like. You can’t put a price on that.

“Over the years, I have read about people who have given up their life in England to buy a ruin on 10 acres of land in France, only for that dream to fall flat because in reality they really had no idea what it would be like. Of course, sometimes it works out, but it doesn’t always. I think if you have such a dream, you simply can’t go wrong by heading out to experience it first-hand before handing your life savings over.

“Volunteering is a wonderful way to get out and see the world, whether you are doing it to try out a lifestyle or because you want to experience a holiday with a difference – it’s cheaper and more fulfilling – learn a language or meet people.”

Alice says she would advise anyone to get to know the hosts before going. “Ask lots of questions, find out exactly what they expect of you and be honest about what you are happy to give. As long as everything is openly discussed before you go, it should be a wonderful experience.” LF