An early copy of Living France inspired Nick and Nadia Wall to move to Vienne where they now run a tea room. Alison Hughes tells their story
Former deputy editor of our sister title FRANCE Magazine, Alison’s love affair with France goes back some 40 years. This month she meets a British couple who set up a tea room in Vienne
Some 25 years ago, Nick and Nadia Wall were house-hunting somewhat unsuccessfully in the UK when Nadia’s mum, a keen Francophile, handed them a copy of Living France and said, “Why don’t you have a look in France?” The suggestion turned out to be a life-changing one, as the couple’s sights were turned towards France – a decision they have never regretted.
Armed with the property pages of the magazine, the couple had spotted a small derelict house in Néons-surCreuse, north-east of Poitiers, which seemed to fit the bill. “We wanted something that was a comfortable drive from where we lived [just outside Blackburn] and we chose south of the Loire for the sun,” Nadia tells me.
Nick was a joiner by trade and not afraid of hard work and, with the house purchased, their plan was to return in the summer to start renovations, which they duly did. They aimed to spend just the summer in France and then return to the UK, but a chance knock on the door by a British architect who was looking for English-speaking workmen changed their plans and saw the couple doing a series of jobs helping to renovate other people’s properties, as well as their own.
As so often happens, word of mouth meant that Nick was never short of work, either installing swimming pools or doing general building work and he soon teamed up with an electrician and a stonemason and even helped an expat with a building project near Albi.
By the time they had finished renovating their first house, they had accumulated enough money to buy their second, enabling them to rent out the first one while they started work on the next, situated a few kilometres away in Vicq-sur-Gartempe. Despite the house being far from perfect – Nadia had to climb a ladder to the bedroom while pregnant with their son Jack – the couple weren’t fazed by the impracticalities that property renovating presented. Their practical way of seeing the world has helped them to make the right choices since they have been in France ( see the couple’s ‘top tips’ panel to the right), and enabled them to go from project to project without any major hassle along the way. “It would be easy to get carried away by the romantic notion of a characterful property with acres of land, but it is important to stop and think whether you really want to spend all your time mowing the grass or driving 20 kilometres to do your shopping,” says Nadia with
However, it was the beautiful setting of the property they now call home that really won the couple’s hearts. Three years ago Nick and Nadia bought No.15, a beautiful stone house in the heart of the pretty village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin, which they renovated and decided to turn into a tea room. “We drove through this village on our very first visit and loved it, but there was nothing on the market at the time.”
They knew the previous owner, known locally as ‘the cat woman’ as she befriended and housed stray cats. The house was in need of some tender care when they took it on, but they could see the potential. With Nadia’s background in design, the couple were able to transform the old stone property into a stylishly decorated home and tea room.
Situated just near the bridge in the lower part of the village, the house has bourgeois proportions with large windows giving it a light and airy feel. It sits opposite an ancient abbey which was literally chopped in half in 1835 to make way for a new road. As is often the case when religious buildings are demolished, many of the old abbey stones were used as building material for the surrounding houses, including No.15. You can easily spot them when you look across the small terrace at the back of the tea room.
From every window in the house there are views – look one way to the abbey and the other to the river and the mill, with the castle silhouetted above against the sky.
It is not difficult to see why Angles-surl’Anglin belongs to the Association des Plus Beaux Villages de France and why it was also voted France’s 11th favourite village on French TV programme, Le village préferé des Français. Entry qualifications for the association are quite strict ( see fact box on facing page), but Angles-surl’Anglin easily meets them. The village’s setting is dramatic and the history and legends surrounding the medieval castle are fascinating. Even earlier evidence of a settlement here can be seen in the prehistoric sculpted frieze on the edge of the village which dates from the same period as the Lascaux cave paintings.
Angles is also famous for ‘les Jours d’Angles’. Unique to this area, this is a technique of embellishing material with patterns similar to fine lacework and requires extreme patience and skill. Stéphanie Michaud who holds workshops in Angles has won the coveted ‘Meilleurs Ouvriers de France’ (France’s best workers) award for her work.
When setting up a hospitality business in France it is important to consider whether there are enough attractions in the area to bring in visitors (apart from cake!). Angles-sur-l’Anglin certainly ticks that box but it has to be said that Nadia’s cakes are a big draw too.
When they bought No.15, Nick and Nadia already had the idea of creating an English tea room. “I had baked cakes for school fêtes and mine were always the first to sell, so I knew that locals liked them as well as English people,” says Nadia. “Scones and brownies are their favourites. They were a little suspicious of carrot cake until they tasted it!”
The couple needed to create a terrace, which required building work, but they are lucky to have a garden as well that is used for all sorts of events, both French and
Local French people come for a ‘taste of England’ and expats and visitors stop for light lunches and home-made cake
English, such as the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau and celebrations for the Queen’s 90th birthday. The dual nationality aspect of the events is a true reflection of their clientele. Local French people come for a ‘taste of England’ or just for a morning coffee and a gossip, and expats and visitors stop for light lunches and home-made cake. “I think we have been accepted now, as when we bought No.15 someone said that they were pleased it had been bought by local people!”
Every Saturday afternoon a saxophonist (one of Nick’s first clients in the renovation business) plays at the tea room and the whole year is punctuated by seasonal and musical events, such as ‘ méchoui’ (lamb roasts), curry and karaoke evenings, and concerts of all sorts from reggae to jazz.
There is no doubt that Nick and Nadia are here for the long-term and have no regrets about their move. “It’s people that you miss more than places, and now my parents are living out here and both my brother and sister have houses in the area. The only things I miss from time to time is a good English pub and a takeaway,” says Nick.
It’s clear this enterprising couple are not resting on their laurels – they have recently refurbished the three bedrooms above the tea room with a view to offering B&B and there is a distinct impression that this is not going to be the final property the ambitious couple are going to develop. But for the moment, they are happy where they are, with son Jack at the local school, but who knows what the future will bring? If another opportunity arises Nick and Nadia will no doubt rise to the challenge and take it in their stride as they have all their previous projects.
Main photo: Nick and Nadia in their tea room, No.15, in Angles-sur-l’Anglin Below left: The couple fell in love with the traditional stone village house
These pages, clockwise from top left: The house at Vicq-sur-Gartempe is let out as a gîte by Nick and Nadia; view of Angles-sur-l’Anglin; the outdoor terrace at No.15; the village castle; outside the tea room; a watermill in the village
Angles-sur-l’Anglin is a designated plus beau village
The village is renowned for ‘Jours d’Angles’, an openwork embroidery technique
The interior of the tea room has been decorated in a pretty French style