Well who would have believed it? It has now been a whole year since we arrived ‘En France’ and what a year it has been. It has really flown by and we can’t believe that it is now a full year on.

Can you remember those posts soon after 12/12/12 when we arrived and the furniture a few days after that? 

La Grange became the store room for everything while we lived in De Tourelle over the very cold winter months of 2012 and early 2013.

Furniture stacked high

We soon found a place for most of the furniture and started work on making the space our own.Friends and family had come and gone, and the season was soon upon us.

Now set up as our home

Now set up as our home

A fairly successful season and one we thoroughly enjoyed as it was our first at being resident, The pool benifitted from being checked and monitored daily and behaved itself for the whole season. Reluctantly we had to close it up eventually, but lets hope it opens in a much better condition this time.

So what does 2014 hold in store for us? Well hopefully we will be seeing more people staying with us here at French Escapes, we have week long retreats planned that will be fully catered, a new service we will be trying.

Lets hope the Summer weather is as good as July and August were in 2013, and this time can we start the Summer in April please!!! 

The weeks are selling up, so if you are thinking of a French Holiday then go to our site and see if we fit the bill. 

We look forward to seeing you in 2014 and beyond. 

Tony and Janine xx

 

 

 

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Well we have only gone and done it.  We are now living ‘En France’

We started packing the lorry at 10am on Tuesday 11th Dec, and it was finally completed at around 7pm, it was so full that we could not get a lot of the garden stuff in. So all my fruit trees and planters were gratefully received by our lovely neighbours.  The lorry was absolutely full to the brim. So full they struggled to put their own sack trolley back  on it.  We said good-bye to all our worldly goods and started the big clean up of the house. Then the struggle of getting what was left in the Espace. We soon found out that Espace has nothing to do with pots of space, because the car was full before we had started packing it. Poor Junior had a couple of square feet of space, just enough for him to lie down in… He was surrounded by boxes and house plants…

Come 9pm we were just about done and finally closed the door and posted the keys through the letter box. (The estate agent had the master set.) That’s it we no longer had access to our house in Bramley. With a wonderful wave off from our neighbours, we were on our way for an over-night 12 hour drive. Frightened and excited all at the same time and thankfully with Junior settled very quickly, we made our way to the tunnel in the freezing fog which accompanied us all the way through England.

The usual smooth operation that is the Eurotunnel, we were on the train within 30 minutes of arriving at the terminal, and although there was a slight delay with a technical problem on the train, probably due to the extreme cold that night. We were soon popping out at Calais and on our way to Paris.

We arrived at Salles at 10am (French time) after what was a really smooth journey. Junior slept most of the way and was so well-behaved, you would not have thought it was the same dog that didn’t like to travel more than 100 yards in a car. We only stopped once for fuel and gave him a little walk and drink. It was though very very cold. Temperatures varied between -4C in Paris to -12C here in Salles. Thankfully the Renault behaved as well as Junior and did not let us down in any way.

So we arrived and got straight into the Tower House and fired up the heating, put the kettle on and enjoyed a cup of tea. Junior thought all his Xmases had come at once, when he saw the garden….

We had a day to think about what we were going to put where. Our worldly goods would be joining us on Thursday. So just enough time to clear a space in the Barn so we could unload the lorry straight into it. The idea being we have all the time in the world to sort through it and find a good place for it all.

Thursday morning arrived and we called after 10am as we had not heard from them, they had been deployed to an additional drop the drivers had not accounted for, but it did mean they could drop one of the trailers so made it easier for them to get to us, but it did mean they didn’t arrive at us until 7pm. After we fed them we started the big unload, to the annoyance of the new neighbours I’m sure as we did not finish until 11pm, but we did it and then just had the nightmare of sorting through it all starting Friday.

Look what we woke up to.!!!

Barn 2 Barn

Just a few bits that will need sorting and time to find a place for it all!

You would think that as we packed it we would know what was in each box..!!!!

Not a chance we are still looking for some things 10 days on, but thankfully the pile of boxes has gone down quite a bit now.

The first thing we needed to do though was get the Wood Burner out and installed into the fireplace so we can at least get that roaring  fire going and keep us all nice and toasty.

Job's a good'un

Job’s a good’un

Thanks to John we had a day or 2 of wood which gave us time to be brave and order a load for ourselves. 3 steres is cheaper than getting 2 so 3 it was. How much wood is 3 steres? A lot this is how much.

So here we are on Christmas Eve.

It is all feeling very homely and cosy and despite us both having a cold we are so happy and Junior is really settled already. Any regrets? Not a chance. Lets just hope the New Year see’s the Bookings rolling in.

A very merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

Xmas donkeys in Albi.

Xmas donkeys in Albi.

Tony and Janine, and Junior. xxxxxx

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So the decision had been made. After 7 years we had decided that we could not carry on in the same way both financially and emotionally. So the “a vendre” sign was up.

Of course, as was our luck at the time, when did this happen? Yes right at the heart of the global economic collapse. So did it affect us, you bet it did. The Chateau was valued at 100k Euros below what we bought it for 7 years ago. And even at that price we were advised to drop it a further 100k Euros to get interest in it. We could not afford to do that as it would not even clear the outstanding mortgage owed on it. So we put it on at a price we could just about manage to walk away from it and clear any existing debts for it.

Even at this price we had very few viewings, and no serious offers, the main issues being with the size of it, from a management view, or the history of flooding it has… Of course the annoying part of that is the fact that the flooding risk had now been resolved, but we still had to declare the past problems.

To add to our woes, Jane had decided to return to the UK to be closer to her Grandchildren, which left David on his own to see the seasons through.  We will admit we had serious concerns that David would not be able to cope with this on his own, but he reassured us he would have help at hand and would not let us down. He is still good to his word to this very day. We cannot thank him enough.

So it was that we were in a strange position of having to push the rentals while secretly wishing it would sell quickly. Believing that as we were selling it as an on-going business, then any rental agreements would be honoured by the new owners. We were not in a position to stop trading while it sold.

2 years on and with the Euro-zone crisis having deepened, the global recovery having stalled, and the dreaded ‘double dip recession’ biting hard, it was time to yet again look at our options. It was clear that the only way we were likely to sell was to drop the price to un-manageable levels. And then see if we could cover the shortfall by re-mortgaging our UK home. This in reality was not an option, with the UK now in deep recession again and no lending being given out. So we had to come up with another Plan B.

After going out in June 2012 to open up for the forthcoming season, and finding so much work that had to be done, we decided it was time to work out a plan to move. Again we were looking for new managers to see us through 2012. We were not sure David would be able to see the season through due to several health issues, although he did assure us again that he would not let us down. While searching for a back up plan for management possibilities, we were introduced to a couple that ‘had a plan’.

PLAN B.

We have always thought that things would be so much easier if we lived on site permanently. Getting ready for the season could be done over several months, not squeezed into 5 days. A broken tile in the roof could be fixed there and then, not left for several months to do untold damage inside, any problems would be sorted before they escalated into major tasks. We could improve the quality of what we offer, as we would be there to ensure it is cared for properly. And all those big jobs we really want to do but cannot do in the 5 days we generally get there at the book-ends of each season, could be done over the winter months.

What has always stopped us was the frightening aspect of losing all our known income. Becoming totally reliant on rental income to pay the bills and to keep us alive. In the current climate is not a given that the clients will continue to come. So we needed something tangible to give us a potentially different revenue stream.  What are we good at? Running holiday homes, we have been doing it for 7 years now…. So when the chance pops up to do this stuff for other owners, do we take it. ?

We have a ‘cunning plan’, will it all fall into place? Well this is still unanswered.

What we can say is that we have done the U-turn. We have taken Le Chateau off the market. We have put our UK home up for sale, and we are in the process of preparing for the big move.

As far as this Blog is concerned we are now in real-time. We are still waiting for an offer on the UK home, have had some of viewings, but due to market conditions have had top drop the price, but the maths do still add up to make this all possible, albeit a bit too close to the line for our liking…

We are de-cluttering, and have just re-launched the house sale with a new agent. So fingers crossed everyone we will have some good news to publish very soon.

We are off to Le chateau next week to close it down for the season, and hopefully have a few days relaxing. I think we have earned it. Hopefully it will be the last ‘visit’ over there. Our next trip will be for good.. Dog and All.

le Chien!!

Thinking about learning to bark in French

We can then look forward to our trips to the UK..  And more importantly look forward to welcoming all our wonderful guests in person.

Please comment on our Blog if you like it.

We intend to keep this going in a more Chronological fashion so we can keep in touch and report on our progress.

Our very best wishes.

Janine and Tony xxx

and Junior…woof woof

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Pull up a sandbag, or lots of them please…..

Our first full year of running holiday lets had gone well. We had a couple that lived near by that were our managers and dealt with everything pretty well. Unfortunately they decided that the finances just wouldn’t add up and had accepted a full-time job in Toulouse, so could no longer be our managers.

So we were on the look-out for new managers. The word was out and thankfully we soon got a recommendation for another couple that were also near-by.  This all sounded great as it would actually be 2 couples, meaning 4 people to share the load. And as you can imagine there is a lot of hard work involved in keeping this all in pristine condition. So new contract drawn up and things were ticking along nicely towards the opening up for the new season………. Until a few days before we had to return to the UK, the bombshell fell on us that 2 of them wanted to pull out.  After long talks and much stress, we were left with just the 2 who were happy to take it on board. Thankfully Jane and David have been our rock of strength, and we have never looked back. When you read about the things they have had to deal with, you can understand how much gratitude we owe them both.

Did I say Pull Up a Sandbag? Well the irony is just that. FLOODS… Yes we have had a few.

We were aware that the river next to us had very occasionally burst its banks resulting in the gardens being flooded, we are on a low risk flood plain, as you would expect being next to a river, albeit a very quiet stream normally… How can this cause so much painSo we were not that surprised when we found out the river had risen after a very long period of intensive rain. We are talking about 4 to 5 inches a day for 5 days solid…. A lot of rain. What really didn’t help us was the fact that there is a huge lake at the top of the valley that is used for water sports and is the main water supply for the region. The management of this lake was poor to say the least… They decided that with all this rainfall, they needed to open the ‘barrage’  (flood gates) so with a river already at full capacity, they added millions and millions of tonnes of extra water to it…. No wonder we got flooded….

It’s OK though because they have the decency to call the village Marie to let him know they have opened the flood gates… So we had about 10 minutes notice. What they don’t tell you is when they will close the gates so you know the water will not rise any further…

Thankfully just the gardens were under water this time. However we had last autumn planted over 2000 spring bulbs and over 200 lavender bushes to make the gardens beautiful during the spring months. We lost the lot. Well not quite, think we still have 2 alliums that managed to survive.

Over the next few years this became a regular thing. Every Winter usually in early Feb or March we got flooded. In fact over the next 3 years we were flooded a total of 9 times. All but one was down to the ‘barrage’ being opened during the heaviest periods of rain… But there is good news.

After a really bad one where we were hit by some really bad weather, hurricane force winds, lightning strikes, torrential rainfall, and the lake being emptied, which not only tore down trees, knocked down walls, smashed roof tiles, we did actually have major flooding, it was bad enough to flood both houses and the swimming pool resembled a mud pit.  Thankfully Jane and David were there for us all the time. Their devastation was clear to see too, they had worked so hard on everything to make it perfect for the coming season, and it was all washed away in a matter of a few hours. This time we managed to get a ‘Catastophe de Nature’ declared and so the insurance came into its own.  Although did not cover most of the garden damage, but did allow us to re line the pool.

no images were found

Well that was the final one from the river management aspect. They have now done lots of work over the full length of the river to improve flow rates and to stop areas of back-up. And most importantly they now control the lake, so that the level is kept well below the flood alert before any major weather systems come in…

We have also since invested in 200 filled sand bags ready to go,  and flood gates for every entry point to all 3 houses. Over £2000 well spent? Well we don’t know as we have never had another incident to test them thankfully…. and to be honest nor do we.. We are happy to know they are there if we need them.

BUT

We have had one other major flood…. This time from inside. We had long term winter residents and during a really cold snap just as they were away for the day, the main water pipe that runs through the loft on the dividing wall of the 2 main houses burst. It was not noticed for a very long time and by the time the guests returned the houses were saturated, so much so that they were not habitable. Ceilings had collapsed, plaster had come away from the walls tiles lifted, the electrics were shot.  It was apparent that this was real major damage and was not just a case of a big clean up. Again, who were there in the thick of it for us?… Jane and David. We went over as soon as we could to assess where we would go from this disaster. The insurance assessors where quick to react, and soon had builders coming round with de-humidifiers going on full blast for several months before the rebuilding could start.

5 months later, we were back in business and welcoming our first guests for the season.  But we had had enough. We could not take it any more. The stress of all this had got too much, along with Janine being made redundant while recovering from major surgery, resulted in us having a major re-think. We could not longer afford to keep things going, and the rental income was nowhere near being enough to cover costs.

We still loved it here, but the love was now being tainted with too many tears, and financial worries. We decided that upon completion of the repairs we would sell up. So the Chateau went up for sale. After 7 years of our 5 year plan we decided, we had to give up our dreams.

So where did it go next?

Find out in the next chapter.

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So there we were, the new owners, so many ideas of what we can do and what we want to do. Now to start turning those ideas into reality.

First thing and most important was to get it known to the world that we are now in business, so after agreeing a name and buying the Domain names, and with help from some friends the website was born. www.french-escapes.com (and .co.uk) became a reality. But how do we get it out into the big wide world of search engines. Easy answer was to get advertising in place with the big hitters of holiday renting. Taking on board something we learnt on a ‘Gite Management’ course we did last year, we decided to hit the road with Chez Nous. They are the biggest (at the time) and have proved to be the most successful in getting bookings. We had a few others that we soon dropped as they did not perform at all.

We had drawn up business plans for what we thought was every possible scenario. It’s amazing that at the time we had a “worst case” plan done on the Euro exchange rate falling to an unprecedented 1.40.  We were working around the 1.55 rate at the time.

So with what appeared to be a reasonable first year for bookings we decided that our 5 year plan was on the cards. This plan was to be living in La Grange running the other 2 houses as guest homes, possibly all year round. We worked out that we would be able to clear the vast majority of the mortgage within those 5 years with the selling of our UK home adding to the pot. That we would be able to secure enough summer rentals to see us survive the year. Then if we had a really good year we could then start making the improvements and renovations that are still needed.

Without going into details, as it is a full story on its own, lets just say that the best laid plans and all that….  Well the 5 year plan never got off the drawing board really.  The following years proved to be as equally rewarding as they were devastating…

Remote management is stressful believe us.

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So it was on a VERY cold December 15th morning in 2005, we arrived blurry eyed from the over night drive, the car still packed to the roof, at the office of the Notaire. Our friendly agent was there to meet us and act as our interpreter as we still didn’t speak enough fluent French although we were trying our best as quickly as possible.

After many “Sacre blue’s” and the word “merde” being banded about far too often for our liking, apparently down to a description of the properties being wrong. Then what seemed like a thousand signatures by everyone in the room, some 4 hours later… we were the proud new owners of Le Chateau de la Rivière.

Now time to get down there and open it all up, fire up the antique boiler and get it all ready for 11 family members coming over for Xmas.  The previous owners had left in September to return to Malaysia, so they had been shut up for the last 3 months.

As promised and pre arranged by the previous owners, their plumber came along to show us how the old boiler worked. Now I realise this sounds a bit excessive, a boiler is just a boiler, turn it on and fire it up.!! Well that was effectively what the plumber did.  The old beast flared into life and hot water was soon coming out the taps. Nothing in the radiators, just the taps… Is now a good time to say that with this boiler came a hand drawn diagram (labelled in a mix of French and German) which went some-way to explain what the 38 taps and 24 valves did, or supposed to do.

What this doesn't show is the pipework behind this. A work of art.!!

When it was fired up you could see the Euros flying out of the roof!!!!

To say the houses were rather chilly inside would be a slight under-statement, the Olive Oil in the kitchen was a frozen solid lump.

It was apparent that while the boiler was up and running, none of the radiators had been turned on in the boiler room.  So after lots of trail and error and in day 2, we finally managed to get some heat coming through most of the radiators. Pretty sure at some point we were actually pumping hot water out to the swimming pool which was very frozen at the time….

We soon realised we needed some sort of immediate heating, so our first real challenge was upon us. Lets buys a Calor Gas fire, how difficult is that going to be?

We know you have to register things like this to enable you to exchange the gas bottles, but what we didn’t expect was the fact the fire does not come with any connections. And indeed we did not even know what type of gas we had to use…  So we had the fire, but no bottle. We finally worked out with a mixture of bumbled French questions and drawings, and looking at other examples, a connection kit and the bottle to match… Yipee we had some heat that we could see and feel… Although by now with the boiler on 24/7 the inside was finally starting to thaw out a bit…

Just in time for the family gathering to start arriving, at least we could put them all up in a little bit of warmth..

The next problem to over come was how to cook Xmas lunch when only having a small gas bottled oven and a couple of electric grills? Lots of intuition and working across 2 kitchens and Xmas was accomplished very well. Think they all had a great time. !!

It was only as the family started drifting back home and we were left with a few days on our own before the next group arrived, that we sat down and suddenly realised the magnitude of what we have just taken on. We soon realised that Winter lets are not really practical unless they cover the whole Winter period, as heating these houses will not be cheap over the 3 months or so they will need it. But we had no doubts what-so-ever that we had done the right thing, and now had to work on our 5 year plan.

Next: the 5 year plan…..

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In the beginning.

We had been thinking about buying somewhere abroad for holidays and possible business potential. Originally we were looking at the Med coast in Spain around Malaga, but a mixture of not seeing anything we liked that fit the bill and the ‘dodgy’ English ownership laws that existed then, we decided to concentrate on the South of France instead.

In the summer of 2005, after years of research and internet searches, we finally had a short list of properties we wanted to look at in the South of France.

We had 2 weeks to find our dream, our area was wide, we didn’t know actually how wide it was until we noticed the huge amount of driving we were doing, the best part of 3000km over the 2 weeks. We wanted the Languedoc region, but it was just out of our price range, so settled on searching within the Midi Pyrenees, especially the Lot, Aveyron, Tarn and Tarn & Garonne departments. We stayed in a typically ‘French style Gite’ which was our favourite from our research,

It was very basic and needed much improvements.

The views were just amazing

as this would give us a real insight into what running gites is all about. While we loved the area, the complex was built on the hillside overlooking the beautiful Tarn river.

The stunning Tarn river flows through the valley

But it was immense and needed so much work doing to it (in excess of £500 grand on top of the £600 grand selling price….). It was not really an option for us.

We looked at every possible type of property you could imagine. Fully running Gites businesses, converted farm holdings, derelict tumbling down hillside houses, some we liked some were a definite ‘stay clear of that money pit’

But after exhausting our fairly extensive list we were beginning to think we would not find the dream. As a last gasp we called our friendly agent to see if he had anything else on his books that we might like.

After a trip out to the country, and I mean the country, as he lived in a beautiful barn conversion in the middle of nowhere, we looked through his books and came up with another 3 to look at. So off we tottled to the first one.

Our eyes sparkled a bit, when we saw ‘Le Chateau‘, we were shown around by the current owners, a lovely German couple who had it as a family retreat as it was central to their global family. It gave us some food for thought.
We went to see the next one which to be honest was only fit for knocking down, well the bits that hadn’t already fallen down that is.

A project some might say.

Again the far ends of the spectrum of choice…. We couldn’t stop thinking of the potential of ‘Le Chateau’, even while walking around the last one we had made our minds up. We had officially found our dream.

We had 3 days left of our time in France, and had now found the property, all we had to do now was open a bank account, get a mortgage approved and make an offer. Simple..!!!!
Well you know what we did it. We went for another viewing and this time spent a few good hours chatting with the owners, enjoying the wine and revelling in the beauty of Le Chateau de la Rivière.
We put in an offer that was accepted despite being under the asking price. All we had to do now was wait for the machine that is the French house buying process to roll into action…

We agreed to book another few days in August to come over and stay with the lovely Heiko and Ingrid, where we would discuss the finer details of what furniture they wanted to sell, and what the best dates for the Act de Vente would be. It also gave us a chance to have a good look around the area and confirm our thoughts that it is as beautiful as we remembered.

more to follow

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