Ma Vie Française #10: Beth Haslam, finding a French estate

This week, I’m excited to introduce Beth Haslam in my continuing series of interviews, Ma Vie Française. Beth lives in broadly the same part of the world as me, although we have never met. I hope we can rectify that one day, Covid etc. permitting.

Beth is the author of a highly successful and entertaining series of books, Fat Dogs and French Estates. They tell the story of Beth and her husband’s searches for a house with land in France and their adventures once they got here. Book 5 will be out in January and is on pre-order on Kindle in all Amazon stores.

The links to the other books are below the post – all the first four are in paperback, and there’s still time to order for Christmas.

Without further ado, let’s hear about Beth’s life here. She has useful advice for people contemplating a move to France.

Life on La Lune: Thank you very much, Beth, for agreeing to appear on the blog. The first question I ask everyone, because readers are always keen to know, is what led you to move to rural France and how long have you lived here?

Beth Haslam: Thank you for this welcome, Vanessa, I’m honoured to appear on your blog.  

Why move to France? It was an easy, though not an automatic decision. As semi-retirement beckoned Jack, my husband, and I decided to buy a second home. I’m a passionate nature lover and had always loved the thought of walking the dogs and watching wildlife on our own land. Jack, a mechanical engineer, did not share these thoughts at all. However, as an obsessive maker and mender of innumerable oily objects, a chunk of land to store them on suited him well too.

We quickly ruled out the UK, because of its unreliable weather and the comparatively high cost of land. Europe was the answer.

Portugal and Italy are countries we know well, but France, which suited our moderate language skills, ticked the majority of our other boxes. These included being easily accessible, and reliable weather in the southern locations. We are now in our twelfth year and haven’t regretted our decision one bit.

You wanted to (and did) buy a country estate. How difficult was it to find one that met your criteria?

It was far more complicated than we ever imagined. I was chief estate finder and researched online from our home in the UK. I soon realised that bags of enthusiasm for the task wasn’t enough. My French language proficiency wasn’t up to the standard required for pithy business discussions. This led to several early misunderstandings with estate agents.

A key stumbling block was our specification. We wanted a small house with a fair amount of land. As it turns out, most properties with lots of acres are châteaux. I should have thought of that!

Chez Haslam

Having been brought up in large houses, the very thought of rattling around in a dusty mansion gave me nightmares. Jack has absolutely no interest in them either. Whilst we were clear about this, the agents I worked with thought we were hopelessly misguided and tried their level best to persuade us otherwise.  

The other, reasonably minor point was that we didn’t want a swimming pool. It was another concept our advisors thought was bizarre. And being mostly French, they lost no time in telling me how unwise we were. Accepting that ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist, inevitably we ended up with a compromise.

I understand you have created a wildlife haven on your land. What challenges did this present?

That is probably a generous term for what we’re trying to achieve, but we are doing what we can for the native wildlife plus one other species. Approximately 120 hectares (300 acres) of our land is fenced. This, as anyone living in France will know, gives us a considerable advantage in that hunters are not allowed access unless by permission. We do not provide it.

The majority of our land is deciduous forest laced with streams and pastures. This means the indigenous wildlife can self-sustain. Larger beasts such as wild boar and deer come and go via the stream beds, although our observations have shown that many of the same animals return.

We regularly plant crops such as sorghum, sunflowers and alfalfa, which help sustain hedgerow birds and provide extra fodder for the furred inhabitants.

Perhaps ironically, our main trials came from trying to re-introduce rabbits, and also our efforts in encouraging pheasants to naturalise. In truth, we have had several heart-rending mishaps.

I’m happy to say that we have learnt by our mistakes and whilst there will always be complications, we now manage a small population of each, whilst providing a modest sanctuary for the other species.

You have written a highly successful (and continuing) series of books about your French experiences, Fat Dogs and French Estates. Given the number of books about moving to France, what inspired you to write yours and what would you say is the secret of their success?

Thank you for being so kind about my series. I’m not sure how successful they are, although I am always heartened by pleas for more stories about our lives here.

When we set out, I had no intention of writing about our trip. Surviving near-death encounters, coping with crazy aristocrats and viewing extraordinary domaines across the southern belt of the country changed all that. Jack, musing over a gin and tonic one evening, made a telling remark. “Our experiences are so unbelievable you should write a book about them.” So I did.

The relative appeal of my books was probably sparked by the unusual type of property we set out to buy, and the weirdest things that happened when we viewed them. The combination of taking our dogs with us, Jack’s tantrums (which many readers relate to), and getting ourselves into endless scrapes also seems to have fuelled folks’ imaginations.  

Your husband, Jack, is a major character in your books and is often described as irascible and grumpy! How does he respond to your portrayal of him?

Ah, Jack. Well, of course, he is deeply wounded. So then I give him carte blanche to alter any of the bits in a book which directly involve him. He faffs around and ends up making himself infinitely more petulant. That’s my wonderfully misguided husband for you. Oh, and actually, he’s a total softie underneath that tough façade!

What has surprised you about la vie française that maybe you weren’t expecting?

We had not appreciated how charming our rural community would be. Nor did we realise that we had bought a domaine with such an important local history. This certainly affected how we were received in the early days.

The locals have gone out of their ways to welcome us. As l’anglais, we honestly hadn’t expected such courtesy and kindness.

Another refreshing discovery was the simplicity of life. Markets with uber-fresh produce buzz with weekly gossip, while fêtes celebrate farming traditions and the season’s fruits.

Gifts, mostly farmed produce, are often left on our doorstep by neighbours. We usually have no idea who gave them, and nothing is ever expected in return.

We are now immersed in a community that hasn’t altered much for the past thirty years. Friendships and living in tune with nature are vital here. It’s the kind of gentle, supportive environment where everyone turns out for births, marriages and deaths too. We cherish the lifestyle.

What’s the most amusing thing that has happened to you in France (either in your search for a property or during your life in France)?

Gosh, there are so many! One conversation that still has us chuckling took place at our favourite local auberge. We had just finished our meals and were joined by a wonderfully entertaining couple, Jacques and Murielle. Nutty as fruitcakes, they had a story to tell which I share in Fat Dogs Part IV. Here’s an extract:

Jacques held up his hand.

“We have a hunting story,” he said.

“Please tell us,” replied Jack. “I’m sure it’ll be much more interesting than the drivel we’ve been listening to recently.”

“Well, I was in the bath,” announced Murielle.

That stopped us in our tracks.

“Oh?” we replied in unison.

“Yes. And a fox walked in.”

“Did it? Are you sure?”

“Yes, a big one. Jacques! I shouted, there is a fox in my bathroom.”

“You are crazy! I cried,” said Jacques, warming to his role.

“But there is, it’s standing looking at me.”

“So,” continued Jacques, “I rushed in, of course, convinced she had gone mad, but no! There it was, a big fox.”

“Really?”

“Yes! I told her to stay there and went to fetch my shotgun. I took a shot at it but missed.”

We gaped, gripped by the story.

“He did,” chipped in Murielle, who had evidently avoided being mortally wounded in the crossfire.

“Dammit! I said to myself,” Jacques quipped with a devilish grin. “Now it had jumped over the bath and was disappearing through the window, so I shot at it again.”

“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Jack, thoroughly impressed. “Then what happened?”

When you’re not writing or working on your land, what do you like doing best?

Christmas market in Auvillar

I love exploring! Long rambles with our dogs are my idea of heaven, as are discovering the beautiful ancient towns in our area. Pottering around fêtes and expositions are blissful too.

Ready for a walk

What’s the most important piece of advice you would give someone thinking of moving to France?

As a couple of business people, we thought we had everything nicely organised. We had no idea how different things would turn out to be. I would say, be brave and follow your aspirations, but have a plan. Be flexible and expect the unexpected.

Try your best to learn the language and immerse yourself in the culture. Surround yourself with locals and celebrate their local customs. Before long they’ll become part of yours too. Your life will become enriched, and you’ll end up firm friends with utterly delightful people.

Thank you very much for accepting my invitation, Beth, and for your fascinating answers. I love the anecdote about the fox. Imagine shooting at one inside the house!

It’s a great pleasure, Vanessa. It has been lovely to chat about my Fat Dogs and our charmed lives here in France.

Connect with Beth

Website

The Fat Dogs series

You might also like:

Ma Vie Française Interviews

Copyright © Beth Haslam, Life on La Lune, 2020. Photos © Beth Haslam. All rights reserved.

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