Noth­ing ven­tured...

One ad­ven­tur­ous cou­ple share their pas­sion for the great out­doors in the Pyrénées

Living France - - Contents - ad­ven­turecre­

When dream­ing of a moun­tain­side hol­i­day in France, most peo­ple imag­ine spend­ing a week or two in a cosy chalet, deep in the Alps. How­ever, when it comes to moun­tain hol­i­days, while the Pyrénées do not get as much at­ten­tion as their more fa­mous ri­val, it is their au­then­tic­ity and un­spoilt na­ture that led Penny, 53, and Andy Walker, 45, to choose this as the lo­ca­tion for their ad­ven­ture hol­i­days.

The out­door-lov­ing cou­ple de­cided to move to France in 2007; some­thing that had long been Penny’s dream. “The idea of liv­ing in France had sim­mered away in the back­ground of my life for years,” she ex­plains. “When I met Andy in 2004, he soon bought into the dream. We were liv­ing in Sh­effield at the time, and city life just wasn’t suit­ing us. Mov­ing to France, with its lower prop­erty prices and so much more space meant we could af­ford a more re­lax­ing lifestyle some­where truly beau­ti­ful.”

How­ever, it took the cou­ple a few years to find their for­ever home; when they first moved, they over­es­ti­mated the ap­peal of liv­ing in a re­mote lo­ca­tion, set­ting their sights on an idyl­lic cot­tage at 800m al­ti­tude in Ariège.

“We made the mis­take of buy­ing in haste,” ex­plains Penny. “The area we chose was beau­ti­ful – per­fect for a hol­i­day let – but wasn’t prac­ti­cal for day-to-day liv­ing or for the ac­tiv­i­ties we found we wanted to do.

“I now rec­om­mend to those con­sid­er­ing a move that they rent for a while first, just to get a real feel for their cho­sen area – to see what the re­al­i­ties of liv­ing there might be. There are al­ways things you haven’t con­sid­ered.”


Even­tu­ally, in 2012, the cou­ple moved to their cur­rent lo­ca­tion in the Com­minges foothills of the cen­tral Pyrénées. “This time we thor­oughly ex­plored the area and rented for a while be­fore buy­ing and knew it was just per­fect for us. We are 25 min­utes from both the au­toroute and the moun­tains so have the best of both worlds,” says Andy.

Here, the pair set­tled on a tra­di­tional stone farm­house, in need of “some se­ri­ous up­dat­ing” and have taken on most of the work them­selves. “We thought we’d be a bit fur­ther ahead with ren­o­va­tions by now,” ad­mits Penny. “But what with work, our own sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, we’ve lit­tle time to spare. That said, we’re mak­ing small im­prove­ments all the time.”

At the time of their move, the pair were run­ning a book­ing ser­vice for B&Bs in France – ‘Stopover Con­nec­tions’ – set up by Penny in 2000. “Start­ing the site gave me the chance to work re­motely from any lo­ca­tion,” she ex­plains. “This flex­i­bil­ity brought me a step closer to my dream of mov­ing to France.”

In fact, Penny’s site was one of the first reser­va­tion ser­vices for hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion on the in­ter­net. And when com­puter ex­pert Andy joined Penny’s ven­ture in 2004, the site went from strength to strength. “Even­tu­ally, in 2007, we felt we were gen­er­at­ing enough in­come to move to France,” says Penny.

As they’d hoped, the pair were able to run the busi­ness for the first few years, while liv­ing their per­sonal dream of an ac­tive, out­door lifestyle in their free time. How­ever, when the mar­ket be­came flooded with sim­i­lar sites, the cou­ple be­gan to re­view their op­tions.

“We still run the book­ing com­pany,” ex­plains Penny. “But we wanted to add an­other string to our bow. As well as hav­ing con­cerns about the flooded mar­ket and the im­pact it might have on our busi­ness, we also felt that be­cause we’d lived in France for nearly 10 years, we had some­thing ex­tra to of­fer.”


“When peo­ple come on hol­i­day, it’s dif­fi­cult for them to know all of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that their cho­sen lo­ca­tion might of­fer, let alone co­or­di­nate a trip on which they can both re­lax and en­gage in some se­ri­ous ad­ven­tur­ing. We set up ‘The Ad­ven­ture Cre­ators’ to pro­vide the sup­port and or­gan­i­sa­tion that peo­ple need to make the most of their pre­cious hol­i­day time and have a re­ally unique and ex­hil­a­rat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We’re both very out­doorsy peo­ple – which is one of the rea­sons we moved to Pyrénées in the first place,” adds Andy. “Be­fore we came, we were al­ready sea­soned climbers and fell run­ners, rode moun­tain bikes and hiked. Hav­ing lived in the Pyrénées for nearly 10 years at that point, we were now also keen on win­ter sports such as ski­ing, snow-shoe­ing (hik­ing with spe­cially made snow­shoes which en­able faster progress through deep

Peo­ple should re­ally con­sider the Pyrénées. They’re wilder, more au­then­tic, less pop­u­lated and more ac­ces­si­ble”

snow). We wanted to share our love of the ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able in our area with oth­ers.”

An­other fac­tor that prompted the for­ma­tion of their new com­pany was the fact that the Pyrénées are of­ten over­looked in favour of the most fa­mous of France’s moun­tain ranges. Hav­ing fallen in love with the moun­tain range, Penny and Andy were keen to en­cour­age oth­ers to visit and dis­cover its de­lights for them­selves.

“Ev­ery­one goes to the Alps,” ex­plains Penny, “but peo­ple should re­ally con­sider the Pyrénées. They’re wilder, more au­then­tic, less pop­u­lated and more ac­ces­si­ble. There’s a strong moun­tain cul­ture with song and dance tra­di­tions, as well as an amaz­ing ar­ray of wildlife from rare bearded vul­tures to a pop­u­la­tion of 37 brown bears!”

Those look­ing for a moun­tain­side ad­ven­ture might also be tempted to the Pyrénées by the com­par­a­tively low cost of stay­ing and eat­ing in the area. “I’d es­ti­mate the cost of a meal out here is about half that of the Alps,” says Penny. “Here you can get three cour­ses with cof­fee and wine for about €15 a head.”

With Andy act­ing as “IT guru”, the pair soon set up a com­pany web­site and, with ex­ist­ing knowl­edge of lo­cal guides, be­gan set­ting up ad­ven­ture hol­i­days for cus­tomers of all ages and abil­i­ties. “As our ser­vice is be­spoke, we can add in any ac­tiv­i­ties peo­ple fancy try­ing, what­ever their fit­ness level and what­ever ap­peals,” ex­plains Penny.

Since the busi­ness started, both Penny and Andy have also had the op­por­tu­nity to try out new ac­tiv­i­ties with their qual­i­fied guides. “Liv­ing lo­cally means we can de­velop proper re­la­tion­ships with the guides we use – and only em­ploy peo­ple who are prop­erly qual­i­fied, in­sured – and, im­por­tantly, great at what they do,” ex­plains Penny. “Our cus­tomers can be con­fi­dent that guides of­fer the ex­per­tise and knowl­edge they need to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing new and en­joy it to the full.”


Although she doesn’t lead tours her­self, Penny of­ten ac­com­pa­nies cus­tomers when pos­si­ble, both to bet­ter in­form them about the re­al­i­ties of an ac­tiv­ity and to look af­ter ex­ist­ing guests. “It’s great be­cause I get to try new things, which also helps me to rec­om­mend sports and ac­tiv­i­ties to cus­tomers. Plus, it’s good fun!” she says.

“An­other sport I’m keen to try is the ‘air­board’ – a Kevlar-coated in­flat­able cush­ion with han­dles. You lie face down and lit­er­ally fling your­self down a ski slope, steer­ing it with your body weight. It’s very pop­u­lar with teenagers, and there’s no great level of skill re­quired – fan­tas­tic fun!”

As well as their be­spoke ‘multi-ac­tiv­ity’ pack­ages, the cou­ple have now de­vel­oped a range of dif­fer­ent hol­i­day ex­pe­ri­ences to suit a va­ri­ety of tastes.

“We now of­fer guided hik­ing hol­i­days, horse trekking in the moun­tains, moun­tain bik­ing, river sports and ski tour­ing to name just a few,” says Andy. “There re­ally is some­thing for ev­ery­one.”

For those who en­joy a gen­tler pace of life, there are also more re­lax­ing ac­tiv­i­ties avail­able. “There’s a lot of un­der­ground ther­mal ac­tiv­ity here,” ex­plains Penny. “There’s a sys­tem of un­der­ground cave gal­leries in Lu­chon from which the only nat­u­ral ham­mam in Europe, the Va­po­rar­ium, has been cre­ated. Our clients also love the nearby Bal­néa spa pool cen­tre, with whom we have agreed spe­cial rates.”

Per­haps the only prob­lem with the pair’s idyl­lic lifestyle is the fact that their thriv­ing busi­ness means they have less time to spend on their own sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. “We try to get out quite fre­quently on our bikes, go hik­ing in the moun­tains and take part in win­ter sports, but when things are flat out, our own ad­ven­tures go on the back burner,” ad­mits Penny.

“How­ever, sim­ply liv­ing in this beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tion – with our Bor­der col­lie, Taff (who is prob­a­bly the hap­pi­est dog in the world) is an ad­ven­ture in it­self. It’s early days for our busi­ness, but we both have a real sense of ex­cite­ment that it’s re­ally go­ing to thrive.

“See­ing cus­tomers ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing new, that they may never oth­er­wise have tried, is a real thrill.”

“We now of­fer guided hik­ing hol­i­days, horse trekking in the moun­tains, moun­tain bik­ing, river sports and ski tour­ing to name just a few”

Left: Ad­ven­ture Cre­ators of­fers moun­tain bik­ing hol­i­days Above: Penny and Andy’s home Be­low: The cou­ple en­joy­ing din­ing out­side

Be­low: Hik­ing in the Pyrénées is a thrilling ex­pe­ri­ence

Above: Penny is a keen cy­clist

Tra­di­tional Pyre­nean singers

The rugged beauty of the Pyrénées

Above: The Va­po­rar­ium (nat­u­ral ham­mam) in Lu­chon

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