13 September 2012 by Jessica Boston
Meet the Owners: Saule des Bois gites in Poitou Charentes
Owning and letting holiday property in France doesn’t seem to be a natural progression from a career in agricultural engineering, but for Alan Peel and his wife Dorothy the disasters that befell UK farming at the end of the 90s provided the perfect catalyst for a change of direction.
“BSE and the foot-and-mouth crisis had put such a strain on the farming industry, so being self-employed it was a risky time for us. It gave us a final push to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. Our children were grown up, I was turning 50 – it felt like we had the freedom to take some risks and see if we could find a way to make money and enjoy a more relaxed, rewarding lifestyle.”
Property-viewing in France – an eye-opener!
Having decided that tourism was the way forward Alan and his wife set about investigating options for campsites and caravan parks in the UK, until a chance advert from a local estate agent with two attractively priced French properties led them to cast the net further afield.
“Once you start looking the internet provides almost limitless French properties to choose from. We quickly found however that arranging a viewing doesn’t guarantee the property is still for sale! The immobiliers always have other properties in mind to show you instead so you have to keep a very open mind.
We made several trips to France to view property that ranged from a 14th Century Baronial hall in Vienne, a terrace of gites on a pig farm in the Dordogne and a restored water mill near St Maurice. We fell in and out of love with various properties as we considered practicalities including flood risk, décor, piggy neighbours, income potential, weather and owners with negotiating skills that left much to be desired.”
Poitou Charentes – the perfect location
Ultimately a property that ticked all the boxes came up; ‘Elm Wood’ was a collection of gites in Poitou Charentes, an area that enjoys some of the best weather in France, there were four gites and a farmhouse set in beautiful gardens that included a carp pond and swimming pool. A deal was done, their house in Somerset was sold and a new chapter began.
“When we arrived to move into the farmhouse the previous owners were still there so we spent our first night in one of the gites! They departed the next day and in the rush left a selection of unidentifiable wines in the cellar and half a boeuf bourginon casserole in the fridge – a fine, if slightly delayed, homecoming only slightly marred by the discovery that the wine cellar was also home to a large, cantankerous adder! The presence of the snake and the quality of the wine, which ranged from excellent to undrinkable, certainly added a frisson to proceedings!”
An introduction to French bureaucracy
The properties were already working rentals and arriving in September meant Alan and Dorothy had the winter to prepare for the following summer season. There was general maintenance and updating to do and plenty of paperwork to organise.
“At this point I had to rely on rusty O-Level French and the bureaucracy was quite impenetrable – there seemed to be a lot of photocopying of certificates and initialling of documents for the smallest thing. Even paying the phone bill to get it reconnected was a challenge as we needed first to open a French bank account.
My finest discovery was that appointments made for 11.45am provided your best chance of getting business wrapped up quickly and effectively – lunchtime is sacrosanct and it appears that all manner of corners can be cut when the enjoyment of the midday meal is under threat!”
11 years running the Saule des Bois gites
It’s now 11 years since the Peels took on Elm Wood, now renamed to the French ‘Saule des Bois’, and they have fully embraced the Francophile lifestyle. Over the years they have continued to update and modify the properties, most significantly in combining two gites into one to offer a larger rental and more flexibility for visitors.
The gite business is going strong with many guests returning year after year to enjoy the hospitality of Alan, Dorothy and Calva their dog.
“There are three families that have been coming for all the 11 years we’ve been here! We’ve become close friends and have seen their children grow up and even attended their weddings. All our guests have been charming, in our experience you don’t seem to get unpleasant people choosing self catering gites, it’s a relaxed choice of holiday.”
“We love it here” says Alan “obviously it can be hard work during the season but to be honest when people are in the holiday spirit it’s natural to enjoy sharing this place with our guests. It’s a great way of life, I take Calva on walks in the forest every morning and sometimes we see wild boar or deer. The weather is great and I love the café culture where you sit and watch the world go by with a coffee or glass of wine, simple pleasures really I suppose!”
Home-grown food & a choice of great restaurants
Alan and Dorothy have cultivated a thriving vegetable garden that guests are often able to enjoy with freshly harvested salad and vegetables supplied in season. And if you fancy a break from cooking Alan is happy to recommend a local restaurant,
“We are so lucky with the choice of restaurants around here, the standard really is high. We like Les Routiers restaurants for a great value lunch, Les Pyramids at La Creche is a favourite and is renowned for the seafood buffet, it only costs around €12 each for a three course meal including a glass of wine.
If you want fine dining Logis Saint Martin offers Michelin star style food that’s a treat for any gourmet lover. Families can have a relaxed meal with options to suit the fussiest children at Magdalena, a popular Italian/French restaurant in Montrouge – there really is something for everyone.”
For Alan and Dorothy life in France has proved a great success, living and working together they have been welcomed into the local community and carved a niche for themselves.
“I think we have found the local people more friendly than we would have in some areas of England” comments Alan “of course we’ve been here over 10 years now so we’re fully immersed in village life! There are lots of community events and groups and I’m involved in the Amateur Dramatics society and the Choir.
We’ve made a fantastic life for ourselves here – I’d definitely recommend it but people should be prepared to work hard and be brave to succeed. I also think that if you plan to run a business together it helps if you already know that can work, Dorothy and I are a great team and see ourselves staying in France at Saule des Bois for the foreseeable future – after all why would you want to leave all this behind?”
Alan Peel’s top tips when visiting Saule des Bois
- Visit the Marais Poitevin This area of natural marshland, rivers and canals is a beautiful, peaceful place to spend a day. Hire a rowing boat to explore and make sure to take a picnic – there are picnic tables available to use in some of the fields, and it’s also a great spot for fishing.
- Eat oysters at the market The Saturday market at St Maixent l’Ecole is a real slice of French life, locals and visitors alike can take in the hustle and bustle and try delicious local food – we buy fresh oysters and wine for a pavement picnic that can’t be beaten!
- Take a tour at Martell in Cognac Find out the history of this world famous brand with a guided tour that includes the museum of Jean Martell’s house, founder of the brand in 1715, and demonstrations of production methods as well as an enjoyable tasting session.