My occasional series of interviews with people who have made France their home or have a strong connection to France continues with Mary-Jane Houlton. As so often happens, we came across each other via our mutual blogs. I was immediately intrigued by Mary-Jane’s dual lifestyle: boating on the waterways of Europe and living off-grid in a cabin in the wilds of rural France. So I was delighted when she accepted my invitation to answer my questions.
Mary-Jane has written two books about these experiences, and she has provided the wonderful images below. I’ll let her tell you more about her vie française and her books.
Life on La Lune: Thank you very much, Mary-Jane, 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 France?
Mary-Jane: As for so many people, we moved here on a full-time basis due to Brexit, but we only bought the cabin so that we could continue to spend at least six months of the year on our boat, cruising the canals and rivers of Europe. This may sound bizarre and indeed it is, but that’s Brexit for you. Without residency, we would only have to been able to spend three months in every six on the boat, which would have been very limiting.
We had sold our house in Wales four years ago in order to live a nomadic lifestyle, partly in Europe and partly in the UK, and so tying ourselves down again with a property was the last thing we wanted to do, but it seemed the only way forward. If we had bought a conventional house it would have meant little to us, no more than a means to an end and we would have spent very little time there, but this humble off-grid cabin offered us an opportunity to try our hand at something completely different and has enriched our lives in ways we never could have foreseen.
Out of this unexpected twist in our lives my new book A Simple Life was born, a memoir which follows us as we turn an empty shell into a comfortable off-grid home and also integrate more deeply into French life, coping with a pandemic and the challenges of Brexit.
I understand that in “normal” times, you spend summers on your boat, Olivia Rose. What appeals to you about navigating the waterways of Europe?
I love everything about our boating life, but if I had to prioritise there would be three things that stand out. The first is the sense of freedom that comes from living and travelling on the water. Your house is essentially on your back and so you can choose to stay in one spot for a while or you can move on. We’re very good at moving on, not so good at staying put, and so this life suits us. I called my first book Just Passing Through, which provides a record of our adventures during our first three years on board Olivia Rose, and it sums up the attraction of this life perfectly.
The second point relates to meeting people. I had wondered whether our nomadic lifestyle might leave us feeling lonely at times but, to our surprise and great pleasure, we found that there was a whole community of like-minded wanderers on the canals and rivers of France. We met many people, all of us with the shared bond of loving boats, travelling and a bottle of wine, and some have gone on to become good friends rather than acquaintances.
And thirdly is the sheer joy of an active life spent outdoors. We are much closer to nature, particularly on the canals, where we can almost touch the banks as we pass through, and there is always so much to see.
In the winter you live in what you describe as Le Shack, an off-grid wooden cabin. What does off-grid mean exactly, and how did you find Le Shack?
Off-grid can mean different things to different people. At the hardcore end of the spectrum it really is a challenging life, with no electricity or power at all, where water comes from a well or the river and where you grow all your own food. We didn’t want to make our lives that difficult and so we use solar power, storing the energy in batteries. This provides us with electricity for lights, a small camping fridge and also to charge small appliances such as laptops, kindles and phones.
We cook on a gas camping hob, chop our own wood for the wood burner, heat the water mostly through a solar system and do our washing by hand. We bought a generator as a back-up but hardly ever use it. And the loo is a bucket in the shed – and is nowhere near as bad as it sounds!
We found Le Shack by chance, one of those lucky coincidences in life. It came onto the market just at the time that we were reluctantly looking for a property and it was the only one of this type. We were the first people to view it after the country opened up after the first confinement in 2020 and there were people offering to buy it without even having seen it. Luckily for us, the estate agent preferred to deal with people who had seen the property and knew what they were taking on.
What challenges does your lifestyle pose that perhaps you hadn’t expected?
Between our two lives, one as off-grid land-lubbers and the other as boaters, it is the latter that has provided more challenges. My husband Michael had a nautical background, but I knew nothing about boats when we began, and there was an overwhelming amount to learn. I was nervous of locks, particularly the giant ones on the Rhone – at a depth of 23 metres it feels like a massive concrete coffin – and some of the storms and high winds we encountered took me well out of my comfort zone. However, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I now feel more capable of dealing with the uncertainties that are part of a life on the water.
With regard to Le Shack, it took a while to get used to the outside composting loo. In the early days I had to have a thorough check for spiders before I would sit down, even more so in the dark of night with a head-torch, but now it has become just a normal part of our lives. I have been surprised at how easy it has been to adapt to this lifestyle, but I think it helps that we have been slowly moving towards it for some time. Living on the boat is a partially off-grid life and we love to explore in our campervan as well, so it doesn’t feel like such a big change as it might seem.
The one thing that has been difficult has nothing to do with our lifestyle but more with integrating into a new country. The amount of paperwork and bureaucracy, much of it a direct result of Brexit, has been daunting and time-consuming. I would like to say we are winning, but I’m not entirely convinced yet.
How have local people reacted to your arrival and lifestyle choice?
We live in a very remote area, with only one near neighbour and in a hamlet comprising only five houses, all spread far and wide. Since we moved in, we have spent a large part of our time under lock down or partial restrictions which has not made it easy to meet people and yet despite this we now know most of our neighbours.
The French are an inquisitive people and like to know what is going on in their patch and so we often found that they knew about us before we met them in person. They have all been very welcoming, kind and supportive, freely offering help if we ever needed it. We knew we had been accepted by our closest neighbour when he offered us his gun as he was going away for a few weeks. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with it, as burglars are thin on the ground out here and we’re not fans of la chasse, but it’s the gesture that counts.
Our lifestyle seems to have been accepted without comment, but then this is a very rural area and simple lifestyles are the norm, although perhaps not to the extent that we have taken it.
What’s the most memorable thing that has happened to you in France?
One of the most precious elements of our lives now is the closer connection with the natural world.
We have five acres of field and woodland, and we are leaving it largely to its own devices which means that the wildlife has free rein. We see deer – even a fawn last week – browsing in the field, and wild boar, badgers, martens and fox cubs have all been caught on our trail camera, a marvellous device for opening up a whole new world of animal watching.
I have never seen so many butterflies or wild flowers as we have in our field and there are more birds than I could begin to name. I feel enormously privileged to have this outside my front door and, although I wish Brexit had never happened, without it we would never have bought this little piece of Paradise. What an irony.
What do you like to do when you’re not working on Le Shack or sailing on Olivia Rose?
We go off exploring in our campervan, and of course France provides a wealth of opportunities for us, particularly as we have the Pyrenees on our doorstep. We have become addicted to travelling, whether by water or by land, and although I am very happy in Le Shack, I don’t need to spend too much time here before I am itching to be on the move again.
One of the greatest pleasures in life for me is to see something for the first time. There is a certain magic about it, and although I also appreciate the pleasure of seeing a familiar place through the seasons, it so often doesn’t match the wonder of that first encounter. After more than a year of on-off lockdowns and ongoing restrictions I feel that I have a lot of lost time to make up for!
What’s the most important piece of advice you would give someone thinking of living a simple life?
I would say that it is important to be aware of the realities of this type of life and also to know yourself. It could be easy to get carried away with the idea of a romantic idyll, but there is a side that isn’t remotely romantic! Will you be happy without a fridge-freezer and a tumble dryer? Does the thought of emptying out the composting toilet make you feel ill? Are you prepared to turn your hand to anything, whether it be a leaking roof or a temperamental generator? Are you prepared for those cold winter mornings when the wood burner has gone out and you’re both arguing as to who gets out of bed first to make the tea and get the fire going again?
But if none of that puts you off, then I would whole-heartedly say “Go for it!” We both love this life and wouldn’t want to go back to the easy convenience of a conventional house. This is a sustainable, satisfying and healthy way of living, bringing us much closer to being part of the natural world, rather than apart from it, and whilst it might feel like a huge leap of faith, if it suits you as much as it suits us, you won’t regret it.
Life on La Lune: Thank you so much, Mary-Jane, for answering my questions in such interesting detail. I suspect an off-grid life and I would not be a match made in Heaven, but I can see the attractions, nonetheless!
Available from Amazon. Please click on the Amazon links below, not on the books.
Just Passing Through
A Simple Life
Find out more about Mary-Jane
You can follow and contact Mary-Jane via her website.
You might also like:
Copyright © Life on La Lune, Mary-Jane Houlton (including images), 2021. All rights reserved.