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.”
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!”