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
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.
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.
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