16 December 2011 by Jessica Boston and John Mills
Meet the Owner: La Petite Grange, Charente Maritime
John and Penny Mills bought their farmhouse property in Charente Maritime 20 years ago as a holiday home. They wanted somewhere that was within easy reach of their Oxfordshire home, yet far enough south to benefit from a mild, sunny climate.
Positioned around four and a half hours drive from the port of St Malo in a micro-climate that makes it the second sunniest region in France La Petite Grange fit the bill perfectly.
The property is situated in a beautiful location with rolling hills covered in sunflowers and vineyards stretching 40km to the coast to the west, and taking in a vista of the forests of Dordogne to the east. The village of Chevanceaux is just 1km from the property and offers all the basics including two bakeries, a bank, pharmacy, and restaurant.
Converting the Farmhouse for Guests
John and Penny fell in love with the area and on their retirement 14 years ago they decided to move to France to live at their holiday home full time! The Mills’s home is an 18th century Charentes long house that was extended lengthways to incorporate outbuildings and barns as the farm’s requirements grew. Friends and family visited regularly but became concerned they were imposing, so John decided to convert the end of the traditional Charentes long house into a one bedroom self contained holiday home for guests to use.
Today Penny and John live in the restored farmhouse while the extended sections have been renovated into a walled garden area with the holiday property at the end. The conversion has retained many original features including beams and stonework, and there is a patio and barbecue area plus solar heated pool outside.
“We like to invite guests to have a meal with us on their first night” says John “it’s nice for them after a day of traveling and it gives us a chance to get to know them and see how we can make their holiday extra special. We’re happy to give guests privacy and solitude, but equally we’re on hand to offer ideas and advice about the area, and share a glass of wine or a game of boules.”
“Quite often we keep in touch with guests who come year after year and become good friends; it’s a real perk of renting out the property that we get to meet so many new people and it certainly keeps life interesting!”
Gastronomy in Charentes Maritime
The Charente Maritime area is a paradise for food and wine connoisseurs with the famous wine producing regions of St Emilion and Cognac. Soon after buying the property John was pleasantly surprised to discover that their neighbouring farm produced cognac and ‘pineau’ a regional speciality both made from their own grapes. “If guests are interested we can take them to the farm for a tour and tasting session” John offers. “It’s only 150 yards up the road and it’s a great opportunity to see how small producers make these delicious spirits using traditional methods.”
Holidays in Charente Maritime are ideal for couples who enjoy a quieter pace of life and appreciate the gastronomic heritage of the region. “From authentic local restaurants to excellent fish restaurants at St Georges de Didonne on the coast and fine dining at the Chateau Chalais run by the ex-Maitre d’ from the world famous Maxims, this area is perfect for lovers of good food and wine” says John.
“The pace of life is slower here, you can drive for miles without seeing another car, there are opportunities for horse riding and golf and we keep bikes at the property for guests to use to explore the mountain trails. The real joy of the area for us is in the beauty of the scenery, the friendly locals and the amazing local produce available at the markets and restaurants.”
John Mills’s top tips when visiting Charente Maritime:
- Visit the cave church at Aubeterre. For a really amazing experience visit this incredible church that was carved out of the mountainside by monks in the 12th century; the vast chambers are truly awe-inspiring.
- Eat at the local restaurants. One of our favourites is a fantastic local restaurant 20 minutes drive away in Bardenac; there is no choice, just an eight course set menu at a very reasonable price with local wine provided free of charge – a really authentic experience.
- Try the local spirits. Aside from the more famous wines of St Emilion and Cognac, try the lesser known regional specialties such as ‘pineau’ – still made by small producers using the traditional methods.
- Take a trip to Spain. Guests are often surprised to hear that Spain is only 3 hours’ drive away through the Pyrenees. Enjoy the dramatic scenery on your journey to visit Biarritz or spend a night in St Sebastian.