The road less trav­elled

Want­ing a slower pace of life, Su­san and Si­mon Brand swapped Lon­don for the Loire Val­ley, where they now run vin­tage car tours. They tell Ul­rike Lem­min-Wool­frey why they love show­ing peo­ple around this part of France

Living France - - Contents -

Why one Aus­tralian cou­ple left the bright lights of Lon­don be­hind for a slower pace of life in the Loire Val­ley

When you’re bored with Lon­don, you’re bored with life. Or so a say­ing goes. In the case of Su­san and Si­mon Brand, this could not be fur­ther from the truth. Orig­i­nally from Aus­tralia, they left Queens­land for the UK years ear­lier in search of ca­reers that suited Si­mon’s pas­sion for mu­sic and Su­san’s love of tex­tile arts, fash­ion and her­itage and na­ture con­ser­va­tion.

“We found jobs we were dream­ing of in the UK, but af­ter seven years, the her­itage and na­ture con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion I worked for was re­struc­tured and I chose to leave,” Su­san ex­plains. “My new job wasn’t as re­ward­ing, and at about the same time Si­mon’s em­ployer had run out of fund­ing for the project he was work­ing on, so it felt like time to move on.”

Up un­til then they had been liv­ing in rented ac­com­mo­da­tion, but de­cided they wanted to buy a house. Nei­ther of them wanted to go back to the kind of job one needs to af­ford a mort­gage in Lon­don, and they both wanted a change of life­style, pace and lo­ca­tion. How­ever, the cou­ple were taken aback by the house prices in Bri­tain, as Su­san ex­plains. “Even af­ter look­ing at real es­tate in the more re­mote cor­ners of the UK, we were still hor­ri­fied by the prices,” says Su­san. “Af­ter think­ing about Wales, Si­mon pointed out that we spoke more French than Welsh and that per­haps we should look in France. Liv­ing in Lon­don meant that it was re­ally easy to visit France, and af­ter a cou­ple of hol­i­days in Paris and with friends in the coun­try­side, we ap­pre­ci­ated the dif­fer­ence in life­style and at­ti­tudes, and de­cided that it re­ally agreed with us.” MAK­ING THE MOVE

Af­ter a few hops across the Chan­nel, the small vil­lage of Preuilly-sur-Claise on the edge of the Loire Val­ley, caught their eye. There was a lot that ap­pealed to them about the vil­lage, in­clud­ing the lo­ca­tion, be­ing close to three air­ports with reg­u­lar flights to Lon­don, and be­ing within driv­ing dis­tance of Lon­don (in Aus­tralian terms) in a sin­gle day. More to the point, they spot­ted a crum­bling, sprawl­ing ruin of a com­plex that only a few peo­ple, or maybe just Su­san and Si­mon, could see true po­ten­tial in.

“The prop­erty cen­tres on a 13th-cen­tury grain store,” says Si­mon. “We bought the prop­erty in 2006 for just un­der €40,000 in­clud­ing fees, and spent at least twice that on the restora­tion to date. We could have bought a more modern, ready-to-live-in house for some­thing be­tween €80,000 and €100,000, but we were aim­ing for in­di­vid­u­al­ity.”

The house is not yet fin­ished, but at least Su­san and Si­mon have stopped camp­ing on the grounds, as Su­san ex­plains. “The house was not hab­it­able when we started, but that didn’t stop us mov­ing in and camp­ing. When we bought the house Si­mon mis­guid­edly (but con­fi­dently) stated that ‘once the roof is done, the rest is just dec­o­rat­ing’.” But af­ter 700 me­tres of elec­tri­cal ca­ble, 80 sheets of plas­ter­board, 25kg of screws, 26 rolls of glass fi­bre in­su­la­tion, 130 litres of un­der­coat, four tons of sand, and wear­ing out five elec­tric drills and two elec­tric san­ders, the two started look­ing for ways of fund­ing their new ad­ven­ture.

Su­san ad­mits that at first, they were think­ing of open­ing hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion, rent­ing out part of the prop­erty to vis­i­tors, as many ex­pats in France do. But one day, soon af­ter they had moved, Si­mon had to drive back to Lon­don and came up with a new idea. On the jour­ney, he en­coun­tered a Citroën Trac­tion Avant car rally trav­el­ling the other way and af­ter pass­ing around 50 clas­sic cars, his thought process went from think­ing that the cars looked good to de­cid­ing he needed to buy one.

Af­ter that, the B&B idea went out of the win­dow, and they bought a car. And then another. Now they own two shiny black Citroën Trac­tion Avant cars and of­fer be­spoke tours through the châteaux-speck­led coun­try­side near their home with their busi­ness, Loire Val­ley Time Travel.

“Both cars were bought in France from the on­line mar­ket­place Le­bon­coin,” Si­mon ex­plains. “Al­though we bought the first car on our own, by the time we bought the sec­ond we were able to call on the ex­per­tise of the me­chan­i­cal wizard from our lo­cal car club. The first car cost us about €15,000, and the sec­ond car cost con­sid­er­ably less but needed quite a bit of restora­tion work. The real ex­pense with clas­sic cars is not pur­chas­ing them but main­tain­ing them; a real con­sid­er­a­tion when you are us­ing the cars daily for tours.”

UP AND RUN­NING

Nei­ther of the two had been vin­tage car en­thu­si­asts, ex­cept to oc­ca­sion­ally stop and look at a pretty car. Nor were ei­ther of them par­tic­u­larly me­chan­i­cally minded, and with the two Citroëns be­ing the first clas­sic cars ei­ther of them has owned, they ad­mit that learn­ing about the ins and outs of vin­tage car main­te­nance in a sec­ond lan­guage has been in­ter­est­ing to say the least.

The cou­ple also in­sist that the two Citroëns are not just cars; they are part of the fam­ily. “When Si­mon saw the first car he said, ‘Her name is Céles­tine’,” re­mem­bers Su­san. “The name chose it­self, al­though it comes from a book by Gil­lian Tin­dall. The cars hav­ing a name is some­thing we’ve found that our clients re­spond to very pos­i­tively. When we bought the sec­ond car af­ter a cou­ple of years of run­ning the busi­ness, the de­ci­sion to name the car Claudette was taken on a much more prac­ti­cal level. In­tro­duc­ing Céles­tine or Claudette is al­ways a spe­cial mo­ment, giv­ing the tours that cer­tain je ne sais quoi peo­ple are look­ing for when vis­it­ing France.”

Al­though the cars are from a past era, Su­san says the peo­ple on their tours en­com­pass all ages. “Our clients are mainly from North Amer­ica or Aus­tralia, and can be ei­ther pro­fes­sion­als aged 50 to 70 who travel widely and know the ad­van­tages of us­ing a driver and guide; 40-some­thing cou­ples with a teenage child study­ing French who is be­ing re­warded for their study; or 20-some­things who are ei­ther newly en­gaged or newly mar­ried and want to do some­thing ro­man­tic.

“We aim to make our tours feel like a day out with friends – a gen­tle me­an­der through the coun­try­side on quiet roads with a visit to a cou­ple of in­ter­est­ing places, usu­ally a château, a good lunch in a res­tau­rant pop­u­lar with the lo­cals and a visit to a wine­maker to fin­ish the day

off. We al­ways work to­wards an itin­er­ary that feels re­laxed, and all of the tours are in­di­vid­u­ally tai­lored to suit the clients’ in­ter­ests. We of­ten find that clients are in­trigued and ex­cited by lesser-known sites that a French guide might not even recog­nise as some­thing a visi­tor would find in­ter­est­ing. Be­cause of our back­grounds we can cover al­most ev­ery topic that might come up – art, his­tory, sci­ence, ar­chae­ol­ogy, man­age­ment of his­toric sites, French cul­ture, food, drink and cook­ing, agri­cul­ture, na­ture and sport...”

SET­TLING INTO FRENCH LIFE

De­spite Preuilly-sur-Claise be­ing a small vil­lage of 1,000 peo­ple, there is quite a so­cial life there, as Si­mon ex­plains. “There are three fêtes ev­ery year, and the re­traite aux flam­beaux on the eve of 14 July, a march around town be­hind a samba band and flam­ing torches car­ried – some­what iron­i­cally – by mem­bers of the fire bri­gade, fol­lowed by fire­works. There are also at least two town din­ners (fundrais­ers for var­i­ous lo­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions), and a num­ber of in­vi­ta­tions for vin d’hon­neur with the town coun­cil dur­ing the year. There is never any pres­sure to at­tend these events, but peo­ple are al­ways pleased to see us if we at­tend, and we never want for some­one to shake the hand of, ex­change la bise, or talk to.” And de­spite en­joy­ing a more re­laxed way of life in France, Si­mon main­tains that the pair are al­ways kept busy. “To a lot of peo­ple look­ing at our nor­mal day, it might ap­pear that we are a typ­i­cal re­tired cou­ple, whereas in fact there is no such thing as a typ­i­cal day for us. Ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent, and when we have clients it’s a long day – we leave home at 7am and don’t get back un­til 9pm. On days when we don’t have clients, we have var­i­ous ad­min tasks to get on with and itin­er­ar­ies to re­search. Su­san tries to shop for food most days – we have two boulan­geries in town to tempt us – and we have a large vegetable gar­den and or­chard. Dur­ing the win­ter, we have a fire to sit in front of, var­i­ous town events to at­tend, and we visit a cou­ple of restau­rants and wine­mak­ers that are new to us in the name of re­search. There isn’t a lot of dif­fer­ence be­tween our week­end and our week days be­cause of what we do for a liv­ing – of­ten we are work­ing on the week­ends in sum­mer. The only real dif­fer­ence is that there might be a club out­ing to go on, such as those that Su­san’s botany and my­col­ogy club or­gan­ise, or a vin­tage car club event.”

So, de­spite be­ing fed up of Lon­don, they are not bored with life at all, as Su­san ex­plains. “There is some­thing about the French at­ti­tude to life that feels re­ally com­fort­able to us. The lo­cals have been wel­com­ing with­out be­ing ef­fu­sive, but we’ve al­ways been made to feel part of what­ever ac­tiv­ity we join in.

“Af­ter liv­ing on a busy road in Lon­don, we re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate how quiet a small town in France can be. We love hav­ing easy ac­cess to the coun­try­side and hav­ing more abun­dant wildlife than you get in the UK. We are sur­prised that even in a small town like this there are ex­perts in all sorts of things who are will­ing to share their en­thu­si­asms. At 55 years old, we are younger than the av­er­age age in town. A lit­tle af­ter we moved here per­ma­nently we over­heard some­one re­fer­ring to us as “young Aus­tralians”, which cheered us greatly – we haven’t been called that since we were in Aus­tralia in the mid-1980s!”

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Main photo: Liv­ing in the Loire Val­ley means there’s al­ways plenty to do Above: See­ing the area’s fa­mous châteaux with ‘Céles­tine’, the clas­sic Citroën Trac­tion Avant

Sam­pling the wines pro­duced by a lo­cal vine­yard

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