A leap of faith nearly 20 years ago has led to a happy, successful life in Gers for Amanda Garnham and her family, as discovers
When Amanda Garnham moved to France 18 years ago, she had four small children, no firm plans about where to settle, limited French and no job. Today, her children are grown up, she has a beautiful home, her French is fluent and she runs a successful PR company, which takes her to places all over the world.
For Amanda and her then husband, it had always been a dream to live in France, and one day when life in the south-east of England just got too much, they decided to make the leap. They moved in October 1997, in two cars with three dogs and four young children. Georgina was seven; Henrietta, five; Giles, three; and Victoria just five months.
“With four children under the age of seven, it was quite a handful,” Amanda remembers. “Not to mention being separated from friends and family and trying to find somewhere to live!”
They had often holidayed in France, and were originally thinking of settling in Charente. “I just kept pushing for a little bit further south, because I had a feeling we were going to like it down there,” says Amanda. And they did. “We came and investigated and fell in love with it – a coup de foudre as they say here.” It was not so much a question of weather, she says, but rather the quality of life.
They rented a house, and her husband, a miller, travelled back and forth to the UK, to bring in some money while Amanda organised schooling for the children and looked for a house to buy.
They wanted an old stone house in Gers, but had no particular area in mind, so they registered with an estate agent, and Amanda also scoured the countryside with baby Victoria in the car looking for a suitable property.
And that was how she found their home, in a village not far from Condom – and just five minutes from their rented house. It was a square Gascon maison de maître, which hadn’t been lived in for 40 years. “It was very sad and neglected,” says Amanda. “It wasn’t a ruin but you couldn’t get to the front door because of the brambles.” Builders ensured they had the basics: a bathroom, kitchen and two bedrooms, and little by little they made it into a family home.
She recalls feeling pretty lonely in those early days, trying to learn the language, and settling her eldest, Georgina, into school. “We’d have all the dramas that go with that,” says Amanda. “She’d say: ‘Oh Mummy! Please don’t leave me here, I don’t understand anything.’ And I’d drive home in floods of tears having dropped her off thinking I was a dreadful mother.”
In 2000, the couple parted company; he has since remarried, lives locally, and sees the children regularly. Amanda earned money from journalism, seasonal work picking strawberries and grapes, and commissions for her hand-painted plates, which she also sold in markets. Financially, life was not easy. “It was very tight,” she says, “to the point of squeezing chickens and saying: ‘Please lay an egg, I’ve got to give everybody supper.’” When she was working, she had to find someone to pick up the children. “I was just permanently juggling everything.”
She got as involved as she could in village life. She recalls being quite despondent at times because although the children were picking up French very quickly – they are, of course, all bilingual now – it was more difficult for her. Then suddenly it clicked.
Amanda had run her own PR firm in the UK prior to starting a family. Before settling in Gers she knew nothing about armagnac, the regionally produced brandy. However, Facing page clockwise from top:
Amanda with daughters Henrietta and Victoria; Flaran Abbey in Gers; Amanda teaching an armagnac masterclass; pigeonniers can be seen throughout the department