french revolutions

We're making the move back to France to open the best b&b in la france profonde


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Love It When A Plan Comes Together…

Over the next few weeks I shall mostly be a) blogging about the Tour de France 100tours100tales.wordpress.com and b) making plans for our research mission in La Belle France and c) browsing French property prawn (but when don’t I find myself spending an hour or two sighing over properties that I know I could make gorgeous with a lick of fake Farrow & Ball?)

Obviously with redundancy and tightened belts we’ll be fact finding on the cheap – no overnight stays but I’ll be contacting B&B/gite owners in the Montmorillon area to try and arrange to have a chat with them and get a flavour not just of the commercial possibilities but the lie of the land in the area. I’ll be making appointments to view (of course!) and sounding out the possibilities for doing estate agency work (did I mention I absolutely adore nebbing at houses?). And we’ll be having a holiday – visiting Snake Island and Monkey Valley and Eagle Chateau and all the other cool tourist stuff – especially Futuroscope.

I still can’t believe I lived 1 hour away from the ‘French theme park of the moving image’ and never visited. I drove a thousand times through the park itself, a collection of extraordinary buildings united loosely by the brief ‘space age as imagined in the 1970s’. I watched a Tour de France prologue there. I had summer visitors who went and raved about it, especially the evening show that featured a gigantic projection of Gene Kelly singing in the rain, his phantom tap shoes exploding fountains of water wherever they touched. So I’m stupidly excited about spending a day there (budget be damned – at least for a day).

But more, much more, I’m stupidly excited about taking our first concrete steps to shifting the big idea from page to paysage. To standing inside a building and saying ‘you know what…’ To finding the right place in just the right spot. To talking to other Brits out there about the detail stuff – the schools and the doctors and the amenities. To establish the sense of community and the place we might take in it.

So we have the tent (we’re confirmed Glampers now), the Big Idea, and the freedom (summer holidays, redundancy) – I love it when a plan comes together and I’m more excited by this plan than anything for a very long time. The feeling of knowing you’re close to sloughing off the dead dullness of the 9 to 5 in favour of a driving your own destiny is euphoric, like being just nicely pissed on the very best champagne/great G&T/Belgian beers (delete as applicable – or not), like feeling your shoulders drop and the knots in your muscles that you didn’t even know you carried unravelling. I am so incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to do this – for all the uncertainty about our financial future, I know for certain that the road ahead will take us into the heart of la France profonde, to a lovely farmhouse/townhouse/barn conversion with fake Farrow & Ball on the walls and 4 very happy and contented people waiting to greet you at the door.


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Country Living

I sat in my brother’s garden this morning, drinking coffee, listening to the birdsong and watching the friendly robin bob in and out of the back door picking up crumbs.

I love the country – I grew up in a little village in Bedfordshire where we’d go and feed the donkey after school and spend our weekends and those endless summer holidays making dens in the spinney and the abandoned quarry over the fields and far away. We’d picnic by the oak that John Bunyan used as a pulpit and climb through and round it’s hollow trunk. We were always outside, up to no good, living charmed lives. One afternoon we had a ride in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – no joke, friends of my friend’s parents had acquired one of the cars used for the film and were kind enough to ferry hoardes of giggling, over excited 7 and 8 year olds around the village. Later, my son was christened in the old village church on the day a stained glass window was dedicated to the grandfather he’ll never know.

I vowed that any child of mine would have a similar childhood – little village school, fresh air, part of a gang of tousle headed boys making dens. If we’d stayed at La Croix Haute he might have had that – and been a fluent French speaker by now – but stuff happens and you find yourself in Warminster on sea with the dog shit on the pavemetys and the ongoing battle for supremacybetween the buggies and the mobility scooters and a secret cache of middle class chums who couldn’t quite afford Brighton and pretend otherwise and salt of the earth working class school run mums who’d do anything for you. It’s not a bad place to live but it aint the country, Because in the South you can’t afford the country.

It’s another thread in the tapestry of reasons why France is the attractive option – we can trade our big old Victorian semi for a farmhouse, with land, and barns and have cash in the bank to create something special – for ourselves, for our guests. Where you can have coffee in the morning and hear nothing but birdsong.


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Displacement Activity

Well, it’s happened.

Just as I feared, the energy I had several weeks ago when I first lost my job has dissipated. I’ve stopped looking for jobs – let lone applying for them – too many rejections for stuff I know I could do standing on my head. And I like not working – at least, not having to go into an office and deal with all that that entails. I’ve lost some weight, started doing yoga again (thank you pocket yoga), seen friends, been camping, had time for my family, made plans, looked for tents, blogged – classic displacement activity behaviour. And I love it.

The thing about the ‘big idea’ is that I can coast on my local knowledge and previous experience of living in France. I’m so super confident that the plan will just work that all I need to do now is put it into operation because, you know, all those loose ends and pesky niggles like, um, earning money will just sort themselves out when we get there…I keep telling myself to be sensible, that this is no ‘magic bullet’, that times will be tough but I am so damned excited at the prospect of going and never having to work for anyone else again that heart is not just ruling head but pummelling it into acquiescence. It steamrollers all doubts and gives me the falsest sense of security possible – and hallelujah for that. I need some sense of certainty, however wobbly the foundations.

But where was I? Oh, yes, thinking about displacement activity – see how easy it was for me to slack off from my main subject? I used to think of blogging in those terms – something to take my mind of the yawning chasm of ohshitIhavenojobness that occasionally opens up beneath me and threatens to swallow me up in its big black maw. But now I’m not so sure. Now I spend my days either thinking of things it might be fun/interesting to blog about and then actually doing it. Scarily enough, blogging seems to have become the job….

And I love it. It makes me realise that writing is what I really wanted to do all along, just like when I was 7 and stayed in the classroom at break so I could fill exercise book after exercise book with my sloping, untidy scrawl and my inspirational, wonderful, brilliant teacher Mrs Briggs (wherever you are, I salute you – you were the real deal and I was lucky to know you and be taught by you) would tell my parents ‘it’s not how she writes it’s what she writes that’s important’. I won a Whitbread Prize for poetry in my teens (haha, offered by the local brewery, £25 and a tour of the facility). I was always scribbling stuff. And then I stopped because life took over and that’s the thing with life, isn’t it? The habit it has of just taking over and making the important ephemeral, peripheral, inconsequential.

When my dad died I made a promise to him. I sat next to his body on the bed. It was Christmas Day, his favourite day of the year. I found the soft place on the crook of his arm – the part of him that still felt human, that could be warmed by my touch. I told him I’d write for him.

Sorry it’s taken such a while, dad – but I’m glad I finally kept my promise.


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1903 STARS & HANDLEBARS

 109 years before the Sun newspaper gave away cut out and stick on Wiggo sideburns, the riders of the 1903 Tour de France were collectively rocking the finest facial hair seen in the peloton.

The history of that first race is told well here but here’s something to ponder: the average speed for the 2,428 km was 25.679 km/h – that’s like me riding from my house to Beachy Head in an hour (yeah, right) and then maintaining that same speed for another 94 hours. Like riding 6 Classics back to back, and not the 200+ kilometres of today’s races but the 400+ km of Bordeaux-Paris.

The first lanterne rouge was Arsene Millocheau who finished 64 hours behind Garin. That’s nearly 3 days slower – and remains, incontestably, the biggest margin between the winner and the last placed man in the race.

But just imagine it – getting on your bike outside the Au Reveil Matin one early July morning and riding into the unknown…

1904 THE TOUR DE SCANDALE

15 years before the Black Sox scandal rocked Baseball, the Tour de France was hit by a scandal of its own – the first of many (starting as it meant to go on, perhaps). But whilst the Chicago White Sox cynically colluded with organised crime to fix the 1919 World Series, the cheating in the second Tour was far more prosaic. Hot favourite – and defending champion – Maurice Garin takes the train and is stripped of the win in December 1904. In fact, the top 4 finishers on GC are all investigated and banned, handing victory to the Tour’s youngest ever winner, 19 year old Henri Cornet (race rule 3 stated that all minors needed written permission from their parents to ride).

Lucien Pothier had finished 2nd to Garin again but now received a lifetime ban – at the age of 21 he was out of the sport for good. But why? The official communique of the Federation Velocipedique de France  states contravention of rules 5,6,7 & 8 of the Tour which state:

5) All types of bicycles are allowed on the condition that they are driven solely by muscular force

6) Trainers, soigneurs and other followers are forbidden

7) No support cars of any type – any rider with a service car will be disqualified

8) The rider must stay with his bike and cannot receive assistance of any type

In these days of ‘sticky bottles’ and ‘magic spanners’, where bikes are scanned on the start line in the wake of the does he, doesn’t he ‘Cancellara has a silent motor in his bike’ rumour and there’s a flotilla of following vehicles and an armada of support personnel, these rules seem absurd. But that view reckons without the steely will of the ‘Father of the Tour’ Henri Desgranges.

Desgranges believed that the ideal Tour would finish with only one rider, the coureur supreme. He believed in the self sufficiency and discipline of sport – suffer and sweat! – he most emphatically did not believe in collusion or team work. Desgranges would look at the 2013 Tour and despair at the rest days, the massages, the team support – though perhaps not the caravan. He invented a sport – bike stage racing – to find a solitary superman. Instead, he set in train the event that would lead to the development of that most curious of sportsmen – the domestique, with little hope of individual glory, his job only to support his leader.

And what of Lucien Pothier who would be that superman? He was banned for life for being paced back to the peloton by a team car (a piece of tricherie for which he was fined 500 francs). The ban was later limited to 3 years and he was at the start of the 1907 Tour, but he abandoned on stage 4.  He would never win the Tour de France.

1905 HIGHS AND LOWS

Bref, les ris, et l’amour

Et la toute-puissance,

Les plaisirs les moins courts,

Plaisirs de la science,

Tout ca ne vaut pas le Tour

(Franc-Nohain L’Auto, 19 July, 1905)

Highs: the Tour discovers the mountains – Ballon d’Alsace, cote de Laffrey, col Bayard; at 17 years and 3 months Martin Soulie becomes the youngest rider ever to finish the Tour (he was 12th)

Lows: the infamous stage 1 tack attack – 125 kilos of nails were spread across the roads between Nancy and Besancon causing widespread chaos – Dortignacq punctured no fewer than 15 times. Police traced the purchase of the nails to a Parisian shop but the culprits were never found. Some things never change – remember similar scenes in the 2012 Tour?

The tacks may have punctured tyres but they couldn’t puncture the race. Desgranges may have declared “The Tour de France is finished and it’s second running will also be its last” but changed his mind and decided to start a crusade to rescue cycling – fast forward to 1999 and another “Tour of Renewal” in the wake of the Festina affair. Scandal and rebirth, the endless cycle on which the soap opera of the Tour is firmly based.

The 1905 winner was 24 year old Louis Trousselier – Troutrou to his friends and ‘le fleuriste’ to the cycling press on account of his parents owning a Parisian florists. Troutrou was supposed to be doing his military service – instead, he was pedalling round France en route to winning the race. It’s rumoured that he gambled away all his prizes and lucrative post Tour contracts in a game of dice, declaring that he could always win them back next year. He never rode as well again.

 1906 RIDING WITH THE BLACK DOG

“When champions stop, there’s no one to be with them, so it’s particularly hard to go from climbing a podium to facing the grind of daily life. It’s not surprising that they go into the abyss.”

The list of professional cyclists with depression is a long and largely tragic one. Some, like Obree and Wiggins, have overcome and gone on to greater things but many – Pantani, Vandenbroucke, Claveyrolat and Jimenez to name a handful – never escaped the black dog and ended their days as suicides.

Rene Pottier, the ‘first king of the climbers’, was the only rider in the 05 Tour to pass the summit of the Ballon d’Alsace without having to get off and push his bike. In 1906 his domination was complete – he again won on the Ballon d’Alsace (by 48 minutes), took 5 of the 13 stages (4 on the trot including a 220km solo breakaway into Dijon) and secured the overall victory with a win on the final stage into Paris. Troutrou fought manfully to retain his title – “il petait le feu” – he was farting fire but it was Pottier’s race. The unofficial ‘King of the Mountains’ had slaughtered the opposition and stood triumphant on the top step of the podium in the Parc des Princes.

6 months later he was dead.

His mechanic found him hanging from the hook used to store his bike. His brother spoke of his being unlucky in love. There were whispers that his wife had started an affair while he was away riding the Tour. The real reasons for his suicide were never established. Perhaps, like so many others after him, he simply got tired of riding with the black dog always on his wheel.

1907 /8 THE MARK OF THE LION

We used to have a family friend who insisted on pronouncing Peugeot ‘Pegwatt’. Drove me up the wall. But regardless of how you pronounce it, Peugeot le marque au lion dominated the early years of the Tour de France.

1905 the Double with Trousselier and Aucouturier

1906 the first 4 riders were on Peugeot bikes

1907 The domination continues – the first 5 riders on GC rode Peugeot

1908 The domination of Peugeot- Petit-Breton is complete as he becomes the first rider to win the Tour twice (and the first 4 riders are again on Peugeot bikes)

All in all, Peugeot won the race 10 times – not bad for a manufacturer who made their first bike, a penny farthing Le Grand Bi, in 1882.

Lucien Petit-Breton ‘the best routier in the world’ became the first rider to win the race twice – though Maurice Garin maintained to the end of his days that he deserved his 1904 victory.

1908 was the last in an unbroken run of French victories – les jours de gloire were at an end. 1909 would see the end of the French stranglehold on the race and the rise of a new manufacturer to challenge the mighty Peugeot.

Turns out Peugeot was founded by  Jean Pequignot Peugeot – and Pequignot does sound awfully like ‘Pegwatt’


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I won’t pretend that this will be an exhaustive – or even at all useful – list of things to think about if you, like us, are dreaming the big French B&B dream. You’ll have gathered by now that I tend to charge at things somewhat arse about face (business plan? What business plan?!) and am reliant on what I’ve learned in my previous life in la france profonde. But someone asked me on twitter today how I was searching for the ‘dream B&B’ and I realised it wouldn’t be daft to blog about some of our thought processes in finding the region that’s right for us.

Clearly I’m all excited about having an area to concentrate our search and it undeniably offers a great deal to potential guests. I know enough of the Vienne, if not Montmorillon itself, to know what’s on offer and that it fits really well with what we envisage developing (the ‘Big Idea‘). But I lived just up the road for 7 years – what if you have the idea but not the detailed local knowledge? I can’t promise that the following is in any way exhaustive but hopefully will offer some pointers for the start of your search:

  • What’s your USP? What do you want to offer and what market are you appealing to? If, like us, you want to appeal to a specific target audience (cyclists and their families) you need to think about the areas that are attractive. I know most hard core cyclists will focus on the Alps and the Pyrenees, but those markets are also well served. Appealing to families too – and persuading cyclists to try different trails and terrain – is part of our reason for looking at areas that offer a wider range of activities. We’re even thinking about keeping chickens just so we can offer fresh laid eggs for breakfast 😉
  • How are your language skills? A surprisingly large number of French people require overnight accommodation – only about 1/3 of b&b users are English tourists. If you don’t feel comfortable then think about running a gite instead, or focus on the traditional tourist areas – Brittany, Charentes, Dordogne, Provence.
  • Is having access to an ex-pat community important? Kind of relates to the above. For me, there are pluses and minuses – I’m comfortable enough in my language skills that I’m happy to be in an area where English isn’t widely spoken. But I also remember what a godsend knowing fellow Brits was in the weeks and months after my dad died. If you’re planning on doing renovation work you may feel happier dealing with English builders (and they’re everywhere) but check they have a SIRET number – you can be heavily fined if they don’t (and the locals may really resent you using non-French tradesmen)
  • Are you easily accessible? We’ve looked at Champagne as it’s close to the Rhone corridor for tourists heading to the sun and it’s easy to get back to the UK. The area we’re focusing on currently is close to 2 airports, the TGV and a major autoroute but it’s more of a destination than a stopping point en route to somewhere else. We’re hoping that what we’ll offer will mean that we won’t be dependent on passing trade but it’s another calculation that you need to make. Likewise if you feel you’ll need to be able to get back to the UK easily/cheaply.
  • What’s your budget? I know this is a really obvious one but We have a really limited budget (talking tiny, teeny, not really quite enough). If we didn’t the search would be a doddle and France would be our oyster. But we don’t so we’re looking at areas where the property is cheaper like Deux-Sevres/Champagne/Limousin/Berry. There are bargains to be had everywhere if you’re prepared to look hard and get your hands dirty. If money’s no object, then it’s really a case of what takes your fancy taking into account accessibility, language skills and your ‘big idea’

My advice? Think hard about your project, grab a map and some marker pens and a big roll of paper and start mapping out the areas that match your criteria. I like the following sites for browsing property porn as they have a good range of properties at all price points and, in the case of French Connections, useful property guides to each area:

Green Acres

French Property Links

1st for French Property

JB French Properties

French Property Centre

French Connections Property Buying Guide

Right Move French Properties


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Please Consume Responsibly

I’ve always liked the Euro approach to drinking – remove the taboo and you’ll promote responsible alcohol consumption. I have very fond memories of my parents attempts to replicate this by allowing us wine with food on holidays – though ‘food’ was often a moveable concept that included swigging cider with a picnic and Montlouis fizz with a hunk of bread in the back of the car. We’d be gloriously pissed as farts as we motored to our destination, singing those annoying car songs that drive the abstemious chauffeur to distraction after 57 choruses of ‘We all live in a Yellow Submarine’. Happy days and never a hangover between us.

Living in deepest, profoundest France exposed me to l’heure de l’apero when neighbours would invite us round for nibbly things – because you always drink with food – and the contents of their drinks cabinets which usually included a few homemade delights like epine (a kind of nascent sloe gin made with the young shoots of the blackthorn) and quarante quatre (pierce an orange 44 times then place it, with 44 sugar lumps and 44 coffee beans, in a jar. Pour over 1 litre of alcool des fruits or vodka and leave in a dark place to macerate to your satisfaction). I’ve enjoyed a decent, local rose enlivened with pink grapefruit syrup (try it, if you can find the sirop) and that 1 euro fizz from the supermarche? It’s not bad at all with a slug of cassis or mure (cherry and rose syrup work a treat too).

Want to trade up on les bulles? You can do much worse than Blanquette de Limoux (the oldest sparkling wine in the world). If you find yourself in Montlouis, visit the cave cooperative on the banks of the river and try their fizz – the very same that we slugged out of plastic picnic cups and got mullahed on all those years ago. Or you could do worse than head for Saumur, and pick up some sparkling  white and rose – the latter is how we toasted at our wedding and an exceptionally good time was had by all. Along with the gallons of Sauvignon Blanc from our local vineyard Trahan and the rose from Chateau Oiron – deliciously drunk we stumbled around to Groove Armada and called it our first dance ‘If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air…

I’m no connoisseur of ‘faine wines’ – I’ll take it ice cold, on a hot summer’s day, beneath the shade of a walnut or an apricot tree. Interestingly enough, the French are drinking less wine – I’m not suggesting that either a) I’m a lush or b) I’m on a one woman mission to turn that statistic around. But what could be better than a glass to punctuate the headlong rush of life, a comma in the dizzying  dash of another 24 hours, a moment to kick back and breathe. “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou” as Omar Kayam so perfectly expressed it


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Tour d’Amour

It’s an early evening in July in  the mid late 80s. I’ve had my tea and now I’m sitting in front of the TV tuned to Channel 4. The ad break finishes and the first notes of an iconic tune ring out through the speakers.  Written by the sublime Pete Shelley, with whom I will years later share a table at Chartiers and be too awestruck to talk to. It references Frere Jacques and is the soundtrack to my summer evenings as, for 30 glorious minutes, I watch C4s highlight coverage of the Tour de France

Half an hour of Indurain attacking on a Classics type stage with Bruyneel clinging to his wheel like a limpet, Chiapucci busting every muscle in his compact climber’s body to take that most famous victory at Sestriere, Roche going into oxygen debt at La Plagne  to keep his Tour hopes alive, Poli hauling his gigantic frame over the fearsome Ventoux ahead of the chasing peloton, Delgado’s ‘did he, didn’t he’ failed test, the Tashkent TGV taking out the barriers on the Champs Elysees and on and on – the exploits, the climbs, the drama, the indelible memories coloured Yellow and Green and Polka Dot.

Those few precious minutes every July evening were my first proper glimpse into the extraordinary world of professional cycling. A world that continues to fascinate and repel in almost equal measure. Romantic, certainly. Tawdry, definitely. It had the appeal of tinsel left too long in the Christmas box – shiny and glamorous but just a little brittle and tarnished round the edges. But somehow I couldn’t help but fall in love with it, tainted as I knew it was – and, really, you only have to scratch a little way below the surface to know that all was not exactly as it seemed: all of the riders mentioned above have been caught up in the soap opera of doping. But I kept coming back, rotten as it was. I just loved the whole culture of it, loved that Barthes had written about it and later, when I graduated to standing on the roadside, loved the caravan and the bonhomie and the feeling of France en fete.

I try and write about cycling here and have written over the years, even podcasted – but my love affair really ignites when I’m standing on a French roadside and I hear the helicopters in the distance and feel the rumble and the roar as the peloton approaches. It’s the reason it has to be France – to get my fix.

I remember when I was at La Croix Haute, my neighbour Pierrette would wear something yellow every day of the race. She had started when at school and had kept her personal tradition going. We would watch key stages together and, if the result was to her liking, she would run up and down the lane clanging her huge cowbell before we dissected the day’s events over rose. It’s that kind of love for the sport – and of course talking wine soaked wisdom laced with downright wonderful bollocks – that I’m looking forward to sharing with new neighbours.

And it’s why our new venture has to be cycling themed – because I love this beautiful, dirty, wonderful sport of cycling with a passion and I love to share my passion for it. I remember once during a family holiday years ago stopping at a little rundown cafe on a dusty road in the plateau of the massif central that turned out to be a shrine to every edition of the Tour de France. The proprietor made filthy coffee on the stove and spoke to me in his gauloise stained voice of riders whose names I knew but had never seen. He bought them all to life for me as he pointed out their stained and faded photographs. I was completely, helplessly enchanted then and have been ever since.