From Brighton to gîte business in Brittany
- Credit: Archant
Bev and Warren Smith bought a property in Morbihan that once formed part of a cluster of farmsteads and they have converted a number of the buildings, including an old cider press, into gîtes
What brought you to Brittany?
We’d always planned to have an overseas adventure and liked the idea of having a gîte business. In 2008 we took three months off work and spent the summer in our VW camper van, travelling down the Atlantic Coast to Biarritz, across to the Med, then back again. Our trip ended back in Brittany and we loved the rolling hills, the amazing coastline, and we couldn’t believe the low property prices. We knew this was going to be the place, and especially so when a year later our son, Freddie, was born. We decided we didn’t want to go too far south because we wanted to be able to drive home and see family, and for them to get to us easily. We knew that if we didn’t make the move when Freddie was a baby we probably never would, so we spent some time researching properties online and then, when Freddie was just four months old, we spent two weeks house-hunting in Morbihan.
What attracted you to Guebernez?
Based on the pictures online, Guebernez wasn’t top of our list and in fact we almost didn’t go and see it, but as soon as we went up the drive we knew it was the one. It was just so charming, the way the buildings were in a little cluster and with wide open countryside all around. It was by no means the biggest property we’d seen, and it wasn’t in a great state, but we just loved the setting. We also didn’t want to be too remote, especially coming from Brighton where you can walk everywhere. It’s only a short walk from the village but still feels very rural.
What do you know about the history of the property?
We know that Guebernez once formed part of a cluster of farmsteads – around 20 in all. The mayor of the village visited soon after we moved in and told us that he believes our large barn, which we now use for parties and to store our wood, could possibly have been used as a chapel for the farmers and their families. It was built with larger hand-cut stones and has a large church-like door, which was not normal for a farm building. Behind it there is an old bread oven, which the community would have used.
Since we’ve been here, a few people have stopped to tell us that their great-great grandmother or another relative once lived here, and telling us which building was used for what. Brittany is, of course, a big cider-making region and we know that Le Pressoir, our smaller two-bedroom gîte, was once a cider press. The old press is still hidden in our garden. What we loved about Guebernez was the charm and character of the buildings so we’ve done everything we can to keep the original features. Many of the bedrooms have exposed stone walls, exposed beams and deep recesses.
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How much work have you done?
In the first winter we added the swimming pool, the sun deck and converted a storage barn into a games room, and did lots of general sprucing up in the gîtes while keeping the original character. We only had two gîtes at first and in the second winter we renovated an old cattle shed into a third. That was a huge job. We used a team of local stone masons, roofers and carpenters and Warren was on site the whole time, assisting whoever needed help. We kept as many of the original features as possible, such as the grand old fireplace. The stones were all over the floor but we managed to piece them together like a jigsaw and amazingly found every last original stone. Sadly we weren’t able to use the original beams as they were too far gone, but we used them to make a pétanque pitch in the garden, and to make a huge picnic table. We didn’t want to throw anything out. During that time we became regulars in M. Bricolage, the nearby DIY store! We managed to keep pretty well within budget for the renovation and get it ready in time for the start of the season. We took pictures at each stage of the renovation and they’re in a frame on the kitchen wall so people can see what we did. It’s a shame the previous owners didn’t do the same. Warren also thoroughly enjoyed designing and planting different areas in the garden, creating a rockery, a ‘secret garden’ within the ruins of another farm building, a vegetable garden and various different seating areas dotted about.
Did you always intend to run gîtes?
We wanted to run gîtes because it would give us more freedom and allow us to continue with our existing careers – I’m a travel journalist and Warren is a photographer. As soon as we got the WiFi connected I was able to go back to work, working from home. Warren was able to drive back to the UK for his photography shoots, mainly in London, and also picked up some work in France photographing hotels and restaurants. The majority of our guests are families as we’re so well geared up for children, from babies to teens, but we’ve also started to host walking and cycling groups in the spring and autumn. This has helped extend our season beyond the school holidays.
What do you particularly enjoy about living in France?
We love the simplicity of life here and the closeness of the community. The locals were so welcoming. I think it helped that from the start we immersed ourselves in village life – Warren joined the local football team and I joined the choir and also the committee that organises charity events in the village. I even learnt Breton dancing for a while. The village school only has 40 children so you end up knowing pretty much all of the families. You have to allow extra time at school drop-off to greet everyone with a kiss on both cheeks and a “ça va?” It’s been wonderful for Freddie to have so much space to play outside. He loves climbing trees, building dens and playing football. And during the summer he has an endless stream of friends to play with when families come to stay. It’s made him very sociable – and good at sharing!