Ten years in south-west France
In search of a complete life change James Rolt and his wife Clare discovered what they were looking for in south-west France
A family who escaped the rat race and found paradise in Charente
For many people it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when they knew that it was time for a dramatic change in their lives. For me, however, it is easy: 6 January 2007 – a wet and windy night in the UK and, once again, I was stuck in an endless traffic jam on my way home from work knowing full well that I was going to miss the bedtime of our first daughter who had been born a few months before.
For months we had toyed with the idea of giving it all up – the jobs, the house, the security – and relocating permanently to France to start a new adventure but at that moment, it all became clear.
Luckily, when I called my wife Clare to tell her of my Damascus moment, she was thinking exactly the same thing!
Within a few weeks the house had gone on the market, notices had been handed in at work and, by far the hardest, family and friends had been informed of our decision. At that point we had no house to move to, no jobs lined up and only a sketchy outline of which area of France we wanted to live in. But we knew it was what we wanted even though many people thought we had lost the plot. As one of my work colleagues put it: “Is it possible to have a mid-life crisis in your 20s?”
Ten years of living in the beautiful Charente area in south-west France have passed by so quickly – we now have three daughters, run
pokey UK homes. Although we were very happy in this house for over five years, as our children got older we decided to move into the town of Ruffec. We completely renovated a 300-year-old mill that was in serious need of TLC into a lovely, characterful and comfortable family home.
Managing a team of French builders through a complete renovation with a six-month deadline was both rewarding and challenging – and proof that French artisans can work fast! It’s fair to say though that one month into the build, when we were standing in the cellar of the house looking up through three storeys and seeing the blue sky above as the roof was taken off, I started to doubt our timescales!
Finding work When we arrived in France we needed to find work quickly but we had always dreamt of working for ourselves. Therefore, from day one we threw ourselves into creating our first business – an independent estate agency for which, thankfully, our combined qualifications allowed us to be delivered the obligatory professional card.
Setting up from scratch was tough – especially as the financial crisis hit just a few months after we started. Luckily, we made good contacts with local notaires and another local agent with whom we linked up to work
If you are setting up in business, an appointment with an accountant is an expense that is well worth paying to get things right from day one two businesses and still look back at that decision in 2007 as the best one we ever made. We thought that perhaps 10 years was an important enough milestone to reflect on the move – what has gone well, what the challenges have been and what the advantages are over our old lives in the UK – in the hope that it helps other people who are perhaps toying with the same idea we had all those years ago.
Where to live For us, the choice of area was critical and we looked at various different regions before settling on Charente. We wanted an area that was traditionally French, had a great climate to allow us to enjoy the outdoors life, had easy access to and from the UK for friends and family to visit, and had pretty stone character properties that were within our limited budget.
We knew as soon as we arrived in the area (the first time we had visited) that Charente was right for us and we put in an offer on a large French farmhouse in a tiny hamlet 20km from the market town of Ruffec. In September 2007 we were here – settling into our new home on Katie’s first birthday.
When we moved to France we wanted a complete contrast to our UK lives – the remoteness compared to the bustle of town and city life, the huge living space compared to our together. In fact, this relationship worked so well that two years later we ended up merging the two agencies. CIC Ruffec now employs eight people and, although every year there are always new challenges, we are proud to have just completed our 1,000th sale to another satisfied customer.
Clare has worked in the agency from the beginning and continues to do so but after the birth of our third daughter Jessica, she decided to branch out and follow her long-held dream of training to become a teacher of English as a foreign language with the University of Cambridge. Creating her own company, Yes! Anglais, she now gives English lessons to local French students and adults, in local businesses and also online with Chinese students.
France has been a great place to work and do business. OK, we certainly don’t earn the same salaries as our store management and banking jobs would have provided us in the UK, but our mortgage and costs of living are massively lower too.
There is a misconception that setting up a business in France is impossibly complicated and bureaucratic. Our experience shows that, as in the UK, the most important thing is getting good advice from the beginning – hence an appointment with an accountant is a worthwhile expense, ensuring things are done right from day one.
The Rolts’ home in Ruffec used to be a mill The pretty village of Verteuil-sur-charente The Rolts’ garden Clare and James Rolt, with their three daughters Jessica, Katie and Amélie James and Clare’s agency Clare teaching English The weir at Ruffec Sunflowers bless Charente’s countryside
The Charente river is popular for canoeing A tree house in the garden The family’s kitchen The open living/dining room