I’ve known Steph since 2010 but we have never met! Author, editor, blogger, businesswoman, and smallholder– she wears so many hats it’s difficult to keep up. She’s written a popular book, Heads Above Water, about her family’s life in France. Let’s hear a bit about their experiences.
Life on La Lune: Thanks for joining us, Steph. Where did you live before you came to France and where do you live now?
Steph: We moved from the UK to Co. Cork in Ireland in 1992, and in 2006 we came to France. The time was right to move permanently to a country that we really enjoyed. We live in Creuse, the second most sparsely populated département in France, which also has the oldest average age. We helped bring that average down when we arrived, especially as we had three kids in tow – Benjamin (then 14), Caitlin (12) and Ruadhri (5), plus a dog.
Why did you choose your present location and what’s it like?
We’d decided to offer carp fishing holidays. Limousin has plenty of lakes and was also a cheaper area for property. We wanted space and a rural way of life, which we’ve certainly found. The nearest village is about 1.5 km away and has a population of c. 250. Unlike many others, it’s still a living village, with a school, a bakery, a garage, a very good hotel-restaurant and other businesses.
Boussac, the nearest small town, has an amazing 15th-century castle and everyday shops and services as well as a busy Thursday market. For a wider range of goods and services, we go to Gueret, Creuse’s main town, or Montluçon in the neighbouring Allier département, both about 45 km away.
How does your home compare to what you had before?
We left a three-year-old dream house that we’d built ourselves with one acre of land for a nearly 200-year-old hovel with 75 acres! It has three lakes and two houses, essential for our business plans, which had been empty for 40 years. They had one tap and one working electrical socket between them. Now, we have a farmhouse and the adjoining cottage is a gîte.
We planned to renovate the barn but the houses took several years so we’d had enough of large-scale DIY. The barn remains a barn, with all its potential.
The lakes and woodland occupy much of our land. It isn’t cost-effective to farm the rest of it, but we grow hay for our selection of animals. These include llamas, alpacas, sheep, pigs and poultry.
What do you do for a living?
I run the fishing holidays. Chris provides website creation and editing services. We did llama trekking, early on. People showed plenty of interest in the llamas but didn’t want to pay for a trek with one! So now the llamas are merely decorative. We learned early on that you need to be flexible and determined to make a living here and budget carefully to survive until your business gets established.
How did you expect French rural life to be and has it turned out that way?
We didn’t have fixed expectations except that the lifestyle was going to be very different. Day-to-day living in France is quite different from a holiday. In Ireland we were used to septic tanks, winding roads and tiny schools with split classes. We’re even more rural now with one neighbour within a kilometre, and schools and shops are further away. Also we can see the Milky Way much more clearly since there’s so little light pollution. The Maire is in charge of local administration, which keeps you in close touch with the commune.
We had no bathroom or kitchen for several months and did a massive amount of renovation. We lived off savings early on so had to watch every centime. Apart from dealings with schools, our awareness of outside life was slow to have a full impact.
Rural life is dominated by the seasons. In winter it’s very quiet. In spring, there are fêtes, concerts and expos. The roads fill with tractors and you can’t go anywhere without encountering a combine harvester. Wood is our main source of heating and a major factor in our rural year. It takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s very satisfying to be self-sufficient.
What are the advantages of French rural life?
The peace and quiet, the space, the countryside and the extensive wildlife, the closeness to the land and seasons. We enjoy cycling, although French drivers aren’t always as cyclist-friendly as everyone thinks.
You get to know a smaller number of people quite well and there’s a real sense of community. You can get more involved in local life and I’ve been on a couple of committees, but they’re not for the faint-hearted!
How have you addressed any downsides?
The advantages have outweighed the disadvantages. But there’s a lack of public subsidised transport and there are hidden charges for living in the countryside, e.g. paying for waste water removal even though we have septic tanks and soakaways. Our kids had to be weekly boarders at lycée. In winter we can get snowed in, but no school is a positive for certain family members! We stock up with food if bad weather’s coming, and leave the car by the gate.
You can get a bit too countrified. I’ve found myself at the supermarket in wellies once or twice…
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