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

Living France - - Contents - lemas­des­oules.eu

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

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