20 March 2014 by Jessica Boston
Meet the Owners: La Belle Maison, Brittany
Penny and Ray McClure swapped the busy pressures of running a business in England for the relaxed pace of a French rural life. Now, they enjoy welcoming guests who want to experience this authentic French lifestyle on a relaxing gite holiday to Brittany. Located in the heart of western Brittany, La Belle Maison offers spectacular rural views and a central location from which to explore the famous brocante and antique markets, and to enjoy delicious local produce and regional cuisine.
Finding the perfect spot in rural Brittany
Penny and Ray McClure had always enjoyed holidays in France, but it was when the lease for their printing business came up for renewal they realised there was an opportunity to make France more than just a holiday destination. “The children were grown up and off at university, we just didn’t want to sign up for another 15 years of the same, hectic life running our business”, says Penny. “We’d had a particularly lovely holiday in France the previous autumn and were very attracted to the relaxed pace of life out there. It was the ideal time to make a change – so we did!”
In no time the business was sold along with their house and the McClures began the search for the right French property to buy. “We were willing to look as far as the Loire or Limoges, but Brittany has always been a favourite of ours and in the end that’s where we concentrated our search.” Right from the start Penny and Ray were certain that they wanted to develop holiday homes with year-round letting potential. “We deliberately avoided the seaside resort areas to find a place we could make into a relaxing home-from-home for our guests, a great place to visit in the Autumn or Spring, not just for Summer holidays”. When they viewed the property they would go on to buy, Penny knew they had found what they were looking for. “We stood behind the longere that was no more than a tumbledown wreck and looked out across the countryside at the incredible view and we were sold!”
Two year restoration
It took two years of hard work before the property was ready to welcome the first guests in 2006. The site originally had the gite ‘La Belle Maison’ and the larger derelict longere building. “The longere needed a lot of work doing, the walls were crumbling, the roof was collapsing and of course it had neither water nor electricity so it was quite a project. It also turned into a bit of a history lesson as we had to delve back as far as the 14th century to find documents proving it had previously been lived in before we could get planning permission from the Mairie!”
In restoring the property, Penny and Ray were able to make the most of the unique building and beautiful location by opening up the back wall with four sets of French windows to frame the view they had fallen in love with, and highlighting the original beams and A-frame inside. “We sandblasted an ancient layer of orange paint off to expose the oak beams and they came up so beautifully, it would have been awful to lose them! Instead we strengthened them with new beams hidden above to retain the original look” says Penny. “We decided to cover the exposed stone walls inside the property so we could insulate properly – it’s worked so well that the house is not only warm in winter but also keeps nice and cool in summer”. The homes were furnished with a mix of things Penny brought over from the UK and picked up at markets and sales in France. “Luckily there is a big garage with La Belle Maison as I spent two years collecting furniture as and when something I liked turned up and stored everything until the gites were ready”.
Exploring the brocante markets
The brocante markets are one of the many attractions of a visit to this area. “We’ve had guests who come specially for the brocante and antique markets. There are lots, both indoor and outdoor within a short drive and I get the annual guide book of all the dates that are available for our guests. The season starts up in early March and runs right through ‘til Christmas. Brocante means bric-a-brac but in practice the markets have everything from expensive antiques to retro pieces and general miscellany. You never know what you might find! Our guests have bought various things that we’ve stored for them; old wooden wine crates stamped with a makers mark, vintage soda siphons and even a huge antique leather horse collar!”
Breton produce and seafood
The other sorts of markets not to be missed are the food markets that run weekly in all the local towns and villages. “The food here is just amazing” says Penny “I do a hamper for guests so they can make a meal for their first night here and everything in it is locally made and produced, from the bread and cheese to local cider, pate and Breton butter – it has salt crystals in it and tastes divine! The cider is made just down the road and guests are welcome to go and take a tour of the farm. We grow quite a lot of our own fruit and veggies too – we’ve even had a go at brewing our own cider from our apple trees. It was fun to do, borrowing a portable press to squeeze the juice by hand and all that, but I have to admit it’s a ‘work in progress’ to make it drinkable!”
There are plenty of local restaurants to choose from, some of Penny’s most foodie guests easily managed to find a different auberge to visit for lunch for every day of their two week stay. “Some of our favourite restaurants are seafood ones, Ray loves oysters and they are at their best in the Spring or Autumn. We enjoy taking a trip to Dinan, a gorgeous medieval city on the river Rance with an inland harbour that has plenty of restaurants to choose from. Another favourite daytrip of ours is Cap Erquy, there is a sandy beach and amazing views from the moors across several bays. We sometimes go to the fish market there and watch the fishermen landing scallops”.
Escape to a simpler life in rural Brittany
The McClure’s holiday properties are perfect for a relaxing break, the rural location is great for nature lovers and there are miles of signposted footpaths, cycle ways and bridle paths to use to explore the area. You can choose anything from a 5km stroll to a full on 26km expedition. “We’ve got maps that people can borrow but the footpaths are well signposted and easily reached on foot from our properties. One of the prettiest routes takes you to the river with the recently restored old communal flourmill that has a working water wheel, it’s a lovely spot for a picnic. And you must look out for the local wildlife, there are lots of wild birds, deer and even boar to spot so keep your eyes peeled!”
The rural idyll is not for everyone and Penny warns that the only ‘nightlife’ to be found here is a glass of wine while you marvel at the amazing stars. The area is so unsullied by light pollution on a clear night you can even see the Milky Way. “A lot of our guests are couples but we’ve also had families with older children who have really enjoyed getting back to a simpler way of life, it’s great to see teenagers can still get engrossed in spotting the constellations in the night sky”.
It is hard to visit just once
The experience of truly living a French rural life for the McClures and their guests is made all the more real by the welcoming local people. The farmer next door waves greetings and invites guests who are interested to come and see his cows milked and taste the fresh milk. The village hall hosts charity dinners to raise money for the local school or chapel restoration projects and holidaymakers are able to go along and be welcomed in supporting the local community. Maybe it’s because you can immerse yourself so completely in the local culture that visitors become so attached to this area. Penny and Ray get plenty of repeat bookings with guests returning time and again and sometimes even buying their own holiday homes in the region. “We’ve had quite a few guests end up deciding to buy their own place nearby”, says Penny. “My sister-in-law actually bought two properties here that Ray and I manage for her as holiday lets. It’s nice that other people feel as happy here as we do and it’s fun to have friends local to us. Some guests like to socialise with us and meeting new people is one of the perks of the job. We always invite returning guests to join us for a drink and pop in on the first day of every let to check everything is in order and answer any questions.”
For Ray and Penny moving to France has been a dream come true. “It’s still busy, especially on changeover days and so on but it’s a world away from sitting in traffic jams and the hectic life we used to have. It’s such a beautiful place to live and because it’s a proper, living, working village it’s not just a summer holiday thing. My favourite times here are in Autumn and Winter, the leaves changing, the delicious seasonal food, the logburner stoked up…it’s perfect. If you’re not tied to the few weeks in July and August by school holiday dates you really should try an out of season break here. It’s so relaxing, such a treat to step out of the rat race even just for a few days. It’s hard to believe we are only 80km from St Malo ferry port, easily reached for a short break and great for us to pop back and see family in the UK. We never stay away too long though, our home is in Brittany now and we love it!”