Pole po­si­tion

Keen bik­ers Meg Dixon and David Martin­dale switched gears from their busy lives in the UK when they opened a B&B near Le Mans wel­com­ing mo­tor sports en­thu­si­asts, says Ali­son Hughes

Living France - - Contents - la­garenciere.com

Switch­ing gears from busy lives in the UK to open a B&B near Le Mans was the right move for two for­mer mo­tor­cy­cle in­struc­tors

Things moved very quickly for Meg Dixon and David Martin­dale once they had set eyes on La Garen­cière, a con­verted farm in Sarthe. “We had been to France on hol­i­day a few times and had those ‘what if’ dis­cus­sions,” Meg says. “But then we saw La Garen­cière and that was it.”

As for­mer mo­tor­cy­cle in­struc­tors, Meg and David had en­joyed bik­ing hol­i­days in France be­fore, and around three years ago, they started to think they’d like to move there per­ma­nently.

“Sud­denly, watch­ing kids rid­ing round on mopeds in the rain wasn’t do­ing it for us any more,” Meg re­mem­bers. “So we de­cided to take the plunge and move to France,” she says.

That was back in Fe­bru­ary 2014 and by March the cou­ple were wel­com­ing their first B&B guests. Though it sounds like this all hap­pened mag­i­cally overnight, Meg says that La Garen­cière was al­ready an up-and-com­ing cham­bres d’hôtes and gîte busi­ness when they bought it. “It didn’t need a mas­sive amount of work like some prop­er­ties we saw,” she ex­plains. “We weren’t look­ing for a com­plete ren­o­va­tion project. This just needed a bit of up­dat­ing, so it was per­fect for us.” As it was, the cou­ple had al­ready done a great deal of re­search and had worked out ex­actly what they were look­ing for, from the location to what type of busi­ness they wanted and to the ev­ery­day re­al­i­ties of liv­ing in France.

“Orig­i­nally we were look­ing a lit­tle fur­ther south in the Loire re­gion, but this prop­erty was the only con­tender re­ally. It’s in a ru­ral location with enough land for us, yet it is very ac­ces­si­ble,” Meg ex­plains.

Sur­rounded by fields, La Garen­cière is set in idyl­lic coun­try­side, yet it is only five min­utes from the main A28 au­toroute and the par­al­lel D338. It is an easy hour-and-a-half drive from the Chan­nel port of Ouistre­ham which makes it an ideal overnight stop for those guests trav­el­ling fur­ther south, but Meg says lots of guests wish their stay was for longer. “More and more peo­ple tell us they would like to come back and ex­plore this area,” she says.

Le Mans

The very first Le Mans car race was held in June 1906. This was a time when mo­tor­ing was in its in­fancy and on the sec­ond day of the race the cars were towed to the start by Percheron horses. The Cir­cuit de la Sarthe is the long­est race track in the world and is a mix of closed public roads and spe­cial­ist rac­ing track. To­day, many races punc­tu­ate the rac­ing sea­son, the most fa­mous be­ing the 24 Heures du Mans, which first took place in 1923. As its name sug­gests, this is a 24hour marathon test of en­durance and skill, and has since in­spired other ’24 Heures’ no­tably at Spa-Fran­cor­champs in Bel­gium. Le Mans was also the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind the 1971 film Le Mans star­ring Steve McQueen. Not a great box of­fice suc­cess at the time but it now has cult sta­tus among mo­tor en­thu­si­asts.

LO­CAL ATTRACTIONS

Just to the north of La Garen­cière is Alençon, fa­mous for its lace mak­ing, and the plus beau vil­lage St-Céneri-le-Gérei is about 15km away. Known as good walk­ing coun­try, the Alpes Man­celles and the Per­seigne for­est are right on the doorstop and the many châteaux and lazy rivers of the Loire Val­ley are also within easy reach.

But the big draw is Le Mans, 40 min­utes south of La Garen­cière where the fa­mous mo­tor races are held. Many of Meg and David’s guests are mo­tor sport en­thu­si­asts and stay at La Garen­cière dur­ing the rac­ing sea­son and be­yond.

Clas­sic car en­thu­si­asts stayed last year for the Le Mans Clas­sic in July, and there has al­ready been in­ter­est for the race in 2018. Visi­tors from the US who stayed here in 2016 for the 24 Heures du Mans race are due to stay again this sum­mer.

As prac­tised bik­ers them­selves, the cou­ple are aware that at the end of the day many of their guests just want a hot shower, some­where dry for their bike and gear, and a warm­ing meal. With these needs in mind, the cou­ple’s ef­forts in­clude un­der­cover park­ing and a dry­ing room for leathers in or­der to make their guests’ stay as en­joy­able as pos­si­ble.

Although Meg and David didn’t have to do any ma­jor ren­o­va­tion on the prop­erty, they did some work to make sure La Garen­cière was the best it could be. They in­stalled se­cu­rity gates, new fenc­ing, a deck­ing area by the pool and a sum­mer house. They also fixed a new roof and floor in the barn, trans­form­ing it into a venue for week­end cour­ses such as drama, pho­tog­ra­phy and wine tast­ing. “Last year was all about get­ting the place ready, and this year we will be putting our plans into prac­tice,” says Meg.

NEW LIFE It’s a far cry from their life back in Cam­bridgeshire, as Meg ex­plains. “Be­fore, we did a lot of com­mut­ing; now our lives are joined up. We are liv­ing and work­ing in the same place but there is no stress. We might be dis­cussing fences at 10 o’clock at night, but we don’t have those phys­i­cal and time con­straints that we had be­fore – we are our own bosses now. Last Mon­day lunchtime we were sip­ping cham­pagne with friends – that would never have hap­pened back in the UK!”

But there must be some draw­backs or sur­prises that they hadn’t an­tic­i­pated? “There’s more iron­ing than I ex­pected and it’s a lot more phys­i­cal than I had thought,” Meg smiles. “But the lo­cals are a lot friend­lier than I had an­tic­i­pated. This is ru­ral France and ev­ery­one is cu­ri­ous about their neigh­bours here.” But Meg and David have done all the right things as far as in­te­grat­ing goes. They al­ready knew some French be­fore ar­riv­ing in Sarthe and they have made ev­ery ef­fort to make friends with neigh­bours. “A lo­cal farmer used one of our fields for his horses, and he in­vited us to go with him to the Prix de l’Arc de Tri­om­phe in Paris. I have also be­come friendly with a lo­cal English teacher who I meet up with reg­u­larly to prac­tise my French,” says Meg. Although the cou­ple miss friends and fam­i­lies in the UK, Calais is only a fourhour drive away, so it’s not re­ally an is­sue. “To be hon­est the only thing I miss is a good curry,” says Meg, “but we don’t re­ally miss any­thing else. France has so much to of­fer – it’s huge, it has good weather and it’s a very re­lax­ing way of life. “The big­gest chal­lenge has been the pa­per­work. But, be­cause we had done our home­work we were ex­pect­ing to have long waits at the pré­fec­ture and for things not to be straight­for­ward at the first at­tempt. I now carry an elec­tric­ity bill and my passport with me ev­ery­where for ID pur­poses,” Meg ex­plains. Meg says that their new life in France is just as good as they ex­pected, if not bet­ter. “Be­fore we moved here we had a vi­sion of lots of hard work, lots of guests, fun, wine and ly­ing around on the grass. And I would say we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced all those things and more. Two years on, we re­ally feel that we have achieved the right work-life bal­ance that we wanted. When, at the end of the day we sit out­side on the deck­ing and look across the fields, lis­ten­ing to the birds and watch­ing the wildlife, we some­times have to pinch our­selves – it re­ally is just pure heaven.”

Meg Dixon and David Martin­dale

From top: This charm­ing cot­tage pro­vides com­fort­able guest ac­com­mo­da­tion; guests set off for the day

A vin­tage car be­long­ing to one of the guests takes pride of place in the drive­way

Meg and David are ex­pect­ing lots of guests around this din­ing ta­ble in the sum­mer

All of the rooms at La Garen­cière are named af­ter sec­tions of the Le Mans race route

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