Wanting to find a balance between work and family life, Michael and Emma Crane knew they had to leave London. Catriona Burns discovered how running a gîte business in Languedoc-Roussillon has allowed them to put family first
How swapping London for a gîte business in Gard allowed one couple to put family first
It’s just gone midday but temperatures have already reached the 20s in the sumptuous grounds of Le Mas des Oules, the family-run estate of Emma and Michael Crane, and as water from the fountain trickles into the pond below, rose bushes rustle in the last breeze of the famed mistral wind.
As Emma and Michael potter in the garden, their young son Henry plays happily around them. Not so bad, considering it’s a weekday and most people are confined to office desks.
The idyllic scene is a million miles from the couple’s former life among the hustle and bustle of central London where they worked in property renovation. The relentless routine of the capital suited them fine when it was just the two of them, but when their sons Charlie and later Henry came along, the stresses and strains of the big city didn’t quite fit with what they had in mind for family life.
“We had reservations about bringing two little children up in London,” admits Emma. “We had one toddler and another on the way and so we had to find a way to get a work-life balance.”
Having previously visited Uzès in Gard, the pair had already fallen for the charms of the area some time before they began thinking about
making the move, but when they returned to look at properties in 2012, they found that their rose-tinted glasses were still firmly in place. “We arrived in February and it was 22°C,” remembers Emma. “So already, we were thinking ‘this is amazing’. Also, I was five months pregnant at the time so I had nesting hormones,” she laughs.
The couple decided that a gîte business would be their best bet at helping them achieve the work-life balance that they found to be lacking in London, and so focused their property hunt around something that would work as guesthouse accommodation while suiting the needs of their growing young family.
“We looked at three or four properties, but this one really stood out,” Emma says of the converted farmhouse and winery located just outside the quiet village of St-Victor-des-Oules, close to Uzès. “It’s a big enough house for ourselves, too,” Michael says, sitting in the airy, open-plan living area in the family home located opposite the guest quarters nestled behind blossoming flower beds and wisteria-laced walls. “We have our own pool and garden to ourselves which means we have some space from the guests,” he says.
Having worked in property renovation in the UK, the pair were well equipped to transform the building into a luxury getaway for holidaymakers. “It was another project,” Michael says of their mindset to the move. Although it was “up and running”, the building did not sit with Emma and Michael’s vision of what their dream home in the south of France would be.
“It wasn’t our style,” Emma explains. “It was very French, and very eclectic. There was a bit of Indian, a bit of Moroccan – nothing really came together. We wanted to get a theme going and a style for the whole place.”
They may have left the UK behind but they still brought a little bit of Britain back, assigning a team of English builders to work on the property for a total of six months, helping them to convert the property into eight separate houses and apartments, ranging from one to three bedrooms, and eventually converting what was once a restaurant at the front of the property into a function space for special events.
“Once we’d started, we did a lot more than we had anticipated, and once it was underway, there was no stopping really,” says Michael. “We did everything from every kitchen and every bathroom to changing every light and buying in new furniture. In this business, you have to be prepared to be hands-on.”
They mightn’t have foreseen the extent of the task that lay ahead of them, but the couple embraced the hard graft and the learning that they needed to do along the way. “Michael can do everything that needs doing now,” Emma says. “From rescuing a bird stuck up a chimney to fixing a washing machine,” she says.
But rather than be free to chip away at the renovation work at their own pace, they had the added pressure of hosting an upcoming wedding to worry about, which meant they were working to a tight deadline. “We were up against it,” remembers Emma. “We were up all night, putting beds together and everything else. With two little children, it really was a hard
six months… but we did it.”
The pair pulled off the special event in spectacular style and Le Mas des Oules has since become a popular spot for wedding celebrations, the picturesque venue providing the most romantic of settings for the ceremony while its flower-filled gardens offer a scenic photo opportunity. Plus, the ability to take over the entire accommodation provides a welcome excuse for the whole wedding party to take a holiday following the big day.
Emma currently works with a wedding planner but eventually, it’s something they intend to bring in-house, along with other potential projects in the pipeline.
“There’s a lot of scope to do other things in the future,” she explains. “As the kids get older, it gets easier and we can do more things. This year for example we’re going to have welcome drinks for the guests and we’re talking about doing a weekly barbecue.”
All of the accommodation is self-catering, a set-up everyone is happy with, due to the selection of excellent restaurants in the area, particularly in the town of Uzès, a short 8km away. The town’s famed food market and the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site of the Pont du Gard make this a popular place for visitors from all across Europe and from further-flung places like Australia and America, as well as other parts of France. “We have the same French families visiting every year,” says Emma. “They like the mix of nationalities that come here.”
Although the couple hold a ‘family first’ policy, there is no doubt, from the immaculately kept gardens and the pristine infinity swimming pool, that they are every bit as dedicated and passionate about the business they have built up, ensuring a wow-factor feel. “It’s satisfying creating and running a business and when you get a lovely review or someone sends an email saying how much they’ve enjoyed it, it’s all worthwhile,” says Emma.
While the summer season is busy with Saturdays seeing a manic turnover of outgoing and incoming guests, the winter months allow the couple to unwind, as Emma explains: “We like to shut the doors, recharge the batteries and take a couple of holidays during the winter.” However, they seem incapable of sitting still for too long as a new project is undertaken most years. “We add little bits of furniture, update the function rooms and there’s always work to be done to the garden and the pool,” she says.
Of course, the slower pace of life that the south of France favours requires its inhabitants to partake in as many wining and dining gettogethers as possible, something the young couple have fully welcomed. “We have so many British and American friends,” Emma enthuses. “We just got to know one person and from that another and another, so the circle has really grown.” Helpfully, this circle includes families who have children of a similar age to Charlie and Henry and there’s plenty of events in the area to keep the little ones entertained, too. “Although it’s small there’s always stuff going on in the village,” says Michael. “They’re very good at organising events for children.”
Michael and Emma are clearly enjoying the lifestyle the move has afforded them, but the thing they seem to relish the most is the idyllic childhood it allows their two young boys to experience. “The kids have a lovely time here, it’s a brilliant place to grow up,” Emma says. “It’s like England was 30 years ago. They have so much more freedom here. The other day in school, they were baking bread while standing over a blazing oil drum… you’d never get that in England!” she exclaims.
But despite these different experiences that the family are enjoying in France, it’s the sweetness in being able to appreciate the everyday things that has them so besotted with their new home. “When they’re not at school, we’re with the children,” Michael says, before Emma adds, “With the kids, it’s about getting the balance.” It would seem they’ve managed to tip the scales in the right direction.
From left: The peaceful gardens at Le Mas des Oules; Emma and Michael with their two boys, Charlie and Henry
From above: The couple work with a wedding planner to host wedding celebrations at the venue; the infinity guest pool at Le Mas des Oules