Real life: running classic car tours and a B&B in Charente
Nick and Sally Brimblecombe live life to the full in beautiful Charente where they run both a chambres d’hôtes and classic car tours, as Stephanie Sheldrake finds out
Moving to France had long been a dream for Nick Brimblecombe, and at the start of the new millenium he and wife Sally decided it was now or never. Their children had grown up and moved away from home; they had finished renovating a farmhouse where they lived in Suffolk and were faced with a dilemma: “We asked ourselves: ‘Are we going to grow old here, or do we still have another big adventure left in us?’” says Nick.
The adventure was certainly going to be big, when in 2005 the couple bought an abandoned former cognac distillery in the heart of the Grande Champagne vineyards in Charente, an area renowned for producing the department’s celebrated cognac spirit. The plan was to renovate and transform the complex of 12 buildings into chambres d’hôtes accommodation for B&B and self-contained holiday cottages. The move to Charente also enabled Nick to indulge in another of his passions; classic car hire – something that he had been involved with since the early 1990s.
Nick fell in love with the French way of life in the late 1960s while still at school, when his father bought a neglected house in Dordogne. “He paid £750 for it as I remember. We spent all our holidays working on it as it was in a pretty bad state,” Nick recalls.
“Back then, the Dordogne was in another century – our neighbour ploughed their field with an ox. I was smitten by the life which looked terribly attractive. The houses were falling down and the young weren’t staying in the countryside, so I suppose it was ripe for foreigners coming in and buying up properties.”
After Nick graduated in the early 1970s, he took a job working for an estate agent selling properties in Dordogne to British clients. When the housing market dried up in 1973 with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Nick turned from property sales to lettings, and once again found himself at the helm of an exciting new trend in gîte and rural holidays in France.
Nick, along with a business partner in France, created a holiday lettings business: “In 10 years we went from a handful of properties to 500 all over France. I spent that next decade travelling across France in search of properties.” In the mid 1980s, Nick decided to sell the business to a large holiday lettings company. “I didn’t really enjoy the business getting bigger and bigger and not being so involved in the product. The bit I most liked was the contact with the owners and sniffing out properties. I decided to specialise a bit more in the unknown bits of France,” explains Nick.
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Despite having spent several years working in France and enjoying its way of life, Nick had not put down permanent roots there. He had noticed a rise in the popularity of historic motor sport and in 1992 had started a business in the UK, the ‘Grand Touring Club’, which organised rallies and tours for people with classic cars to historic motoring events. “We were one of the first at that time to offer classic car hire in the UK,” he explains. He consequently became a founder and life president of the Historic and Classic Car Hirer’s Guild.
Nick also became involved in the Circuit des Remparts, a historic motorcar race held in Angoulême, and became the largest organiser of participants from the UK to the event. He also started a programme of hiring Citroën 2CVs with an organiser friend.
By the early 2000s however, Nick and Sally had an alarming but opportune wake-up call. Nick was suffering with health problems and in 2000, the news came that he needed a heart operation. “Things like that make you realise that unless you get on and do things in life, you never will. It wakes you up a bit.”
Moving to France had long been Nick’s dream. “Sally was supportive and lovely enough to go along with it as well. We planned the move over three to four years. We started looking quite seriously in 2004.”
Choosing the right location was very important. Nick knew Charente well due to his involvement with the Circuit des Remparts. “I guess some seeds were sown back then,” says Nick. “We just loved the unspoilt landscape in the Grande Champagne area; we loved the architecture and the light. We also like the fact we’re close to the coast – we go quite a lot in the winter when it’s deserted.”
It was Nick’s old friend that he’d worked with on the 2CV programme who found the property they ended up buying – a complex of 12 buildings dating from the 18th century, built around a beautiful enclosed courtyard, with extensive grounds in the sleepy hamlet of Criteuil-la-Magdeleine. “He rang me up and said, ‘I’m standing in the courtyard of the property that you’re going to buy and you’d better get out here quickly’,” remembers Nick. When the couple arrived, they quickly saw its potential. “It took about five minutes for us to know that we were standing in the courtyard of the property that we were going to buy. It was in a pretty awful state, which we’d not planned. We took on a ruin. The property wasn’t expensive but the property price is a very small part of the overall cost of doing it. We were embarking on a major renovation project,” says Nick.
The couple gained inspiration for the property’s name from the little lane behind the property and an adjacent piece of land called ‘Le Paradis’. “We asked a few locals to see if they would mind us calling it ‘Le Logis du Paradis’. There are several layers of meaning – in this part of the world, ‘le Paradis’ is where the oldest and finest cognacs are kept and, of course, it means heaven – it was our dream.”
With their Suffolk house sold, Nick and Sally moved to France in October 2005, and spent the first six months surrounded by dust in a house with no heating, no kitchen and broken windows. “It was magic, it was great – we really enjoyed it!” says Nick. “We found local artisans and built up a strong network of tradespeople: menuisiers (joiners), electricians, plumbers, maçons (stonemasons) and so on.”
The couple renovated the 18th-century ‘logis’ (the main house), making five luxury guest suites. Next, they created a large garage for the old cars, and two cottages in the former stables. They transformed the big chai outbuilding into a function room that can seat up to 120 people for a sit-down meal. The roof of the former cognac distillery had collapsed, but the alembics – the copper stills – were still intact, so it seemed logical to Nick to turn the room into a bar. “The bar opens out onto the garden and terrace, so it’s ideal for functions.”
Functions form an important part of the business, and the couple prefer to host one large function, rather than trying to fill individual rooms every night. “We do like renting the whole place out. We have a total sleeping capacity of 27 here,” says Nick. “Functions are good because we’ll put on the whole thing – we can organise marriages in the chapel opposite, the catering, the music, and activities such as clay-pigeon shooting.”
“We get a few bookings from people who are house-hunting and want to pick our brains,” says Nick. With 40 years’ experience of working in different businesses across France, Nick is happy to talk to guests further about their plans and pass on his advice.
He also continues to indulge his passion for classic cars, and today has a fleet of 15 vehicles that guests can hire during their stay at the Logis, including a 1961 Citroën 2CV, a 1969 MGB roadster and Lotus Elan S2. “Part of what’s unique about Logis du Paradis is that it’s one of the very few places in France where there’s a fleet of cars you can use,” says Nick.
When the couple moved to France, Nick’s son, Thomas, took over the Grand Touring Club business, but Nick continues to be involved on a consultancy basis. He runs some of the motoring tours and has continued to be involved with the Circuit des Remparts. Current projects closer to home include taking over the empty garage in the next village, as a base for their classic cars.
Nick is also working with the Hôtel de France near Le Mans to offer holidaymakers the chance to have a two-centre holiday, driving a classic car from one location to the other. “I’m also organising a three-day event in the Grande Champagne area, which may or may not come off this year, including reviving an old hill climb that was used in a rally in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Taking an active role in their community has enabled Nick and Sally to fully immerse themselves in French life. Sally is the president of the twinning committee (Criteuil-la-Magdeleine is twinned with Heacham in Norfolk) and Nick has been an elected conseiller municipal since 2008. Nick also sits on the board of management of the Grande Champagne tourist office. As if this wasn’t enough to keep Nick and Sally busy, the couple run a small cognac négociant business ‘Les Compagnons du Cognac’, which promotes the smaller, family producers of cognac in the Grande Champagne.
Being involved in so many different projects, Nick and Sally have made their move to France every bit the big adventure that they hoped for, and despite the hard work that comes with it, they wouldn’t change a thing.