In our Life After Brexit series, we look at how British expats in France are facing life post-Brexit. What are the personal and professional changes and challenges that lie ahead for small businesses, homeowners, and retirees? In our sixth installment, JO Simpson tells her story of moving to France and setting up a chambre d’hôte in Champagne.
In 2015, my husband and I bought a beautiful maison de maitre situated amongst the vineyards of the southern Champagne region in France. We had previously fallen in love with the manicured vineyards and cream-stone houses of Burgundy, and were considering all types of properties there, including an equestrian centre, old stone barns, run-down cottages, and water mills, all surrounded by vineyards. We love the activity and the constant care and attention the vigneron take, proudly nurturing and producing their fruit.
By chance, a property in the Champagne area had been put on the books of a burgundy immobilier, and although my husband had been adamant he did not want to view it (as it had a swimming pool which he said would be ‘too difficult to maintain’) I did persuade him that we should at least view the house as we passed by on one of our regular jaunts to Beaune. I knew that it would be a hard sell if I liked it, though.
On the day of our visit, the sun was strong in the sky, and as we approached the village, through the dappled shade of forests and perfectly tended slopes of vines, I could tell he was starting to soften. However, I knew I couldn’t let this beautiful day romance me into thinking I could fall in love with this beautiful house with its problematic pool. The minute we walked through the gate and I saw the rich red of the roses over the door, and smelt the sleepy smell of lavender on the air, I knew I would find it hard not to fall in love with it.
We entered through one of the heavy metal front doors, painted in a French grey, into the reception rooms which had an elegant yet faded French beauty. They were comfortable and inviting in a shabby chic way. The first floor was a bit of a blank canvas, but had gorgeous high windows which shed a delicate light across the old wooden floors. The top floor, which was a loft conversion with thick oak beams and hardwood floors, lent a more rustic French country feel. The swimming pool, situated up a slope to the rear, was the reason I was afraid to fall in love with this house, but it surprised us both. It had a wonderfully tranquil setting and sweeping views across the valley and its vineyards. The house was idyllic. It had also only taken us four hours by car from Calais, so it was ideal as a destination to enjoy with family and friends, even for the weekend. The minute we left the house, I warily asked Brian what he thought, expecting him to repeat his pool reservations, but he said: ’It’s beautiful, let’s buy it?’
Over the next five years we would travel excitedly to our French home and then back to our tiny 500-year-old cottage in Kent, and every time we left it got harder and harder.
Our days in France were spent renovating the house, making it less shabby and more chic. Pruning the many roses in the formal area of the garden, mowing the grass on the slope which led up to the pool, or just chilling whilst sipping champagne and chatting with friends. Up at the pool is where we often sit, having lunch, sipping a glass, and digesting those amazing views across the vineyards. We often chuckle about how Brian didn’t want the pool, and it reminds us how important it is to keep an open mind.
Whilst spending time in the car travelling to and from France, we talked a lot about the future. Brian worked in the design industry and he was doing a daily round commute into London of five hours. I worked in the payments industry and was travelling all over the UK, visiting customers and managing a countrywide sales team, so things were pretty full-on. We both slowly realised that our hearts were drifting to living permanently in France, and on every trip, it was becoming harder to return to Kent. Our thoughts were wandering towards embracing and experiencing a change of culture, visiting local markets for seasonal produce, sampling new foods, meeting new people, enjoying a different pace of life, and most of all, enjoying more time with each other. We knew we needed to consider how we could achieve this.
We had both only just turned 50, and neither of us felt that we were ready for retirement just yet, it seemed like something we were still just working towards. So we took some time to truly understand our position in the UK, looking forensically at everything we spent our money on, talking honestly about what was important to us, what we enjoy, and what we need in our lives. We calculated that by the age of 55, financially, we could actually consider retiring, but mentally we would need something to occupy us, something to stretch our talents and provide us with the interactions we would desire.
Together we started working on the opportunities that were open to us. Could our French home provide us with a new challenge, and perhaps offer us an additional income? Because we were in such a beautiful part of Champagne, it seemed obvious that we should explore the possibilities of hospitality. When I left school, I had spent two years in catering college, and then four years in the industry, but somehow ended up working in finance. The thought of revisiting my old career was an exciting one.
We considered two routes. We had a sufficiently large barn that we thought would be worth converting it to a gîte, or we could use the house and operate as a chambre d’hôte. We started by investing in plans for the barn conversion. This, however, brought up a number of questions that we soon realised would lead to adaptations to the facade of the barn which could be seen from the house, and we just didn’t want that. We loved the old feel of the barn and we didn’t want to change it. It was expensive to get the plans drawn up, but it saved us from a more costly mistake.
So, our focus went towards the B&B. Firstly we considered our place in the market. What was the competition doing? How busy were they? Who did we think would be visiting the area? After some research, we decided we should aim to create a boutique-style chambre d’hôte, something that was personal and welcoming. Our bright and airy rooms would offer a touch of French charm. We knew we could put our mark into these rooms and have some fun searching around brocantes and flea markets for unusual items to help decorate and style them. We had previously engaged a local plumber to install two new modern bathrooms on the first floor, so the combination of offering an en-suite family room, and an en-suite double room would provide the small, boutique offering we were aiming for.
In 2020, during the global pandemic, we decided it was time to give up our crazy, busy jobs in the UK and move to France for a new way of life. For many reasons, it has not been easy. We had planned to travel and visit our elderly parents every other month, but due to travel restrictions between France and the UK, it hasn’t been possible. With the UK is no longer in the European Union, it has meant that borders are definitely not open. Likewise, friends have also not been able to visit, but we’ve all supported each other in what ways we can through these unprecedented times.
We knew that even if we had been living in England this would still have been the case. We set up FaceTime for our parents and they soon embraced the technology. They actually all agreed that because we were no longer in full-time employment, they saw more of us. They could see that our new life was a breath of fresh air and that we were happy, relaxed and enjoying our new environment. It was comforting for us to know that they totally supported our decision to change our life.
We had never wanted to feel pressure to open the chambre d’hôte by a set date, and actually with the restrictions of confinement and the couvre-feu, it has meant that we have delayed opening until we have sight of easing through France and Europe. We have spent this valuable time renovating the guest and reception rooms, and also creating some useable space in the barn for a separate laundry room. A function that would be important for the chambre d’hôte, and I felt was equally important to keep out of the main house.
We have now completed the renovation of the guest bedrooms, naming them Jeroboam (for four people) and Magnum (for two people). We have also created an atelier (studio) in the loft space in the barn. We will use this as a workroom for projects, somewhere to disappear off to, to do needlework, upholstery, painting, craftwork, etc, a place where we can leave things out, along with a discreet storage area.
We are taking time to ensure our guests’ experience is one we would want to enjoy, in a safe comfortable environment – especially in light of recent events. With the time we had, we spent a month living in each of the guest rooms, trying to understand what guests would need and what was missing. But it’s not just understanding their experience, it’s also about understanding our obligations as an owner of a chambre d’hôte, such as the information we need to collect from our guests, what information is important for us to share with them, care for our village and the impact we may have, the practicalities such as gaining access, parking facilities, do you or don’t you offer toiletries, etc.
The list is quite lengthy when you write it down, but we know that taking time now to consider these items will hopefully minimise any costly mistakes later on. It’s not easy setting up a new venture, and when it’s a different country with a different language and culture, it makes it just that bit harder, but we are loving the challenge.
With setting up a chambre d hôte there are some administrative tasks that need completing, too. Firstly, we needed to declare our chambre d’hôte to the Mairie and register our business with the Registre du Commerce et des Sociétés (RCS). This is to ensure we collect and pay the relevant taxe de séjour, or ‘tourist tax’, along with ensuring we understood our social security obligations, VAT and local rates. And although we are learning French, and have been progressing well since moving here, we would not yet be able to have a valuable conversation with a French accountant, so we have engaged an English-speaking accountant to help guide us through our tax return next year, and ensure we fully understand our tax liability, an area that I wouldn’t be comfortable with if I was unsure whether we were doing it right.
Since arriving in France we have also been working on our social media presence. We already have a list of contacts who have reached out to us via our social media channels, who are interested in staying once we are open. So our first offering will be to invite them to book first. We will then advertise more openly via social media. We have decided to take this route, instead of using one of the booking sites, as we believe it will give us more control and a personal touch to start with. Our view is to step easily into this venture, not charge headfirst. We want our guests to remember their truly enjoyable experience and take away with them lasting memories of the southern Champagne region, somewhere where they relaxed in a friendly, convivial atmosphere. We are now looking forward to opening our business and welcoming our first guests.
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