Living France

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


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.”


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...”


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
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
Sampling the wines produced by a local vineyard

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