IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Lyndsay and Richard Watterson’s new life in the south-west of France has made them stars of the screen, as Catriona Burns finds out during her exclusive interview
We meet the expat gîte owners who are stars of a new television series
Walking up to meet Lyndsay and Richard Watterson is like something out of a film. Standing outside a lemon-yellow house is the sun-kissed, smiling couple, waving to greet me as I walk up the tree-lined path to their home in the heart of the French countryside, surrounded by the rolling hills and vineyards of south-west France.
Our first meeting might not be made for the silver screen but it is part of a Channel 4 series, A New Life in the Sun, a programme about expats forging new lives in sunnier climes. On our screens until the end of February, Lyndsay and Richard are stars of the show. “The production company had an advert on its Facebook page, looking for people who were doing the same thing that we were, so I approached them,” Richard says of how they became involved with the show.
Despite being on a tight filming schedule and running a busy gîte, Lyndsay and Richard are the perfect hosts, chatting over a pot of coffee, unfazed by the camera lurking behind. It is this relaxed mindset that drew them to France in the first place. “We wanted a change of pace,” Richard explains. “I had been in the army for 28 years and I had moved once too often. I think with the last job I just didn’t want to go and then I met Lyndsay who wanted to move to France and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
“It was literally just like that! It’s entirely my fault,” says Lyndsay of their whirlwind move across the Channel. While it was a spur-of-the-moment decision for Richard, the dream of moving to France had been one of Lyndsay’s ambitions for many years, as she explains. “It’s been my dream since I was about 13. I just never met anyone to do it with until now.”
Despite having harboured the dream for so long, when it came down to it, the move happened in a short space of time, but, as Lyndsay explains, there was good reason behind the rush.
“I’ve been an amputee for seven years now and I know I’ve only got so many mobile years left,” she explains. “This is one of the things that I wanted to do and there’s no point sitting around until I’m 65 thinking, ‘Oh now it’s time to retire to France’ because by then I could be in a worse state than I am now.”
Resolved to make the move sooner rather than later, the couple’s only deliberation was where in France they would relocate to, but it would seem that the countryside of the Gers department had everything that the couple were looking for.
“Our plan was to come over to France, be in Europe, where we’re not far Spain, and not far from lovely towns in France, and to be able to go off to ski and have nice trips at the weekend,” Richard explains. “It was all to do with skiing, really, so it was either going to be within driving distance of the Pyrénées or the Alps.”
Narrowing their search to the southwest, the couple travelled out to the area at Easter 2016 to look at properties and their current home, just outside the commune of Panjas in Gers, was one of the last that they looked at. But it seems the decision was not entirely theirs, as Lyndsay remembers. “The dog wouldn’t get back into the car. He found himself a spot by the back door and he wouldn’t move. He still sits there now.”
The estate comprised a considerable amount of land and two properties – one that could be used as the couple’s private home and another that could be rented out as a business opportunity. The pair could see that the property had a lot of potential, though it was in need of a great deal of work, but that doesn’t seem to have fazed them at all. “We’re not here to retire; we can’t retire,” says Lyndsay. “We’re here to have a successful business and make money.”
Rather than employing tradespeople, the can-do pair became pros at DIY, particularly Richard who surprised both himself and Lyndsay with his handyman skill set. “It was a lot of work but I got a real kick out of it. It was great fun to do and there was a real sense of achievement,” he beams.
As Lyndsay shows me through each room of the gîte, named Maison Coeur à Pontacq, it’s clear she’s still enjoying the rewards of her husband’s handiwork. “The bathroom is amazing,” she says. “I
don’t know how on earth he did it… it just amazes me, even now. I still think we had elves in overnight,” she laughs.
But, aside from their gorgeous property, something that the couple relish most about their life in France is the simple pleasure of spending time together. “We just love being together and enjoy having a challenge to work at together,” says Lyndsay. “I also love the open space we have here; it’s unbelievable.”
And it’s clear that Lyndsay and Richard aren’t the only ones to enjoy the sprawling space, as I later learn when their three dogs come bounding across the lawn to the luxurious outdoor pool. “I wish the dogs could talk,” sighs Richard. “I don’t know what they must think.”
“It’s like a safari park to them,” says Lyndsay, of the three-hectare estate that surrounds the property. “They love it.”
The gîte may be in idyllic countryside, but the village of Panjas is only a short drive away. “There’s a boulangerie, a market, a lovely restaurant and a bar and it’s quite lively during the summer,” Lyndsay explains. “We spend a lot of time
“We just love being together and enjoy having a challenge to work at”
there. We’ve made some really lovely friends, both French and English, just by accident – by being friendly and chatty.” Learning the language has also helped the pair to integrate, but this was one of the draws of moving in the first place.
“I’ve always wanted to speak French and live in a foreign language,” says Lyndsay, who uses children’s books as a learning aid. “I’m currently working at about age six,” she laughs. “It’s not complicated, but it’s complicated enough.” Although Richard initially struggled with the language, he, like Lyndsay, has been very creative when it comes to learning French and has found playing the trumpet in a local French band to be particularly helpful. “It’s the best way to learn,” he says. “Music has no barriers.”
The couple implemented a no-holdsbarred mantra when it came to filming the television series. “It’s about life,” says Lyndsay of their heart-on-sleeves approach. “It’s not just about the gîte and working, it’s about life in general. We don’t create situations; none of it is scripted. We’d maybe do something and the cameraman would say ‘can you do it again?’. There’s nothing fake about it. It’s all been real. And it’s been very, very real. It’s been very personal.”
While their move to France has been filled with happiness, the pair have faced some challenges along the way, as Lyndsay explains. “At Christmas I began to suffer problems with my prosthetic leg. As soon as we arrived here I was unable to walk and I spent five months sat in my wheelchair while I waited for a new leg. For me the hardest part was not being able to contribute as much as we’d planned to the restoration process. Suddenly, a lot was transferred on to Richard, and I found that challenging,” she remembers.
But if anyone can come out the
other side even stronger, it’s surely Richard and Lyndsay, who rise to any challenge they are faced with; their sunny outlook seeing them through whatever comes their way.
For their new life in France and their gîte business, it looks like it’s onwards and upwards from here. The luxurious Maison Coeur à Pontacq, which can sleep up to 10 people, has already enjoyed a busy first season, and the pair are hopeful that they will build on this success.
“Hopefully with the television programme, we’ll get a lot of interest and get a good reputation for the gîte,” says Richard. “For the first season, I think we’ve done really well. We’ll just keep chipping away.”
Although the majority of the restoration work is done, the pair are adamant that their hard work will be maintained with a little-and-often approach. “You’ve got to accept that things need replacing,” says Lyndsay. “For example, a shower curtain isn’t going to last years; you have to change things after each season. We want to make sure that every guest who comes gets that feeling that it’s just been finished. That fresh paint feeling… can you get that in an aerosol?”
Despite the couple being open to every and any adventure that comes their way, they plan to enjoy their idyllic way of life here in France for the foreseeable future. “We’ve invested so much of ourselves here,” says Lyndsay. “It wasn’t just a turn of the key – we’ve put our heart and soul and a lot of our personality into the place. It feels like home. I love walking through the front door.”
Having married and moved to France within a year of meeting one another, Lyndsay and Richard couldn’t have imagined living in such a beautiful part of France together not so long ago. But both have embraced their good fortune with open arms.
“Surprises come round every corner,” Lyndsay reasons. “You’ve just got to go with it. I’ve become a ‘yes person’. When you lose a limb, you often hear that you won’t be able to do this and you won’t be able to do that. But I decided you can. You’ve just got to find a way to do it.”
So, can we expect to see any of these surprises in the television series? “There’s everything,” says Lyndsay. “There’s arguing, bickering, there’s him shouting at me, there’s tears along the way... all sorts. It’s just been about life,” she smiles. Whatever’s in store for this inspiring couple, we’ll be watching.
“We’ve put our heart and soul into the place”
Lyndsay and Richard with some of their guests
Facing page, top and
bottom: Richard and Lyndsay on their wedding day in 2015; Lyndsay works on the substantial gardens
Left: The couple talk to Living France’s Staff Writer, Catriona Burns, for the Channel 4 series A New Life in the Sun
Above: The gîte has been furnished with a fresh, modern style
Clockwise from top left: Enjoying the garden’s open space; the couple take advantage of the nearby skiing; soaking up some sun