Follow the path that brought Ian and Cherie Harlow to France from their home and work in London, as they chat with Sylvia Edwards Davis about their new life and business in charming Charente
Tell me about your family and what brought you to France?
Cherie Harlow – We are a family of four, one daughter lives with her husband in London, and one daughter lives with her partner in Melbourne, Australia. Ian’s been in hospitality pretty much all his working life, specialised in finance. My own career is what I call a potpourri, I left hospitality eight years ago to retrain as a life coach, I’ve got a diploma in horticulture and also in interior design – I love to keep learning.
Ian Harlow – We met in Australia, I moved there from West Africa. So, when we first came over to England, we went on a holiday to France to the Rodez area. That was probably in the 90s – our daughters were little. Cherie literally fell in love with France from that moment on, but it wasn’t until 2016 that we bought a property, intended as a holiday home.
Was this the first property that you were interested in?
Cherie – We looked at quite a few, we went three times in one year. We were shown around some places by an estate agent, but nothing appealed. The third time we both loved an old barn, but it wasn’t the right timing. On our last trip we saw three estate agents and one of them, when he asked us what we were looking for, discarded the property that we were there to see and said, “I have a house for you”. It was dirty, covered in brambles and hadn’t been lived in for 10 years. There were a lot of reasons not to buy it, but both of us went, yeah, this is it.
What was it about it?
Ian – The space, the trees, the quiet, and the history of the people who lived here. I’d love to have met them because they were obviously really nice and everything they did, down to the shutters, they did properly. If anything needs replacing it’s just because of its age.
Tell me more about the property…
Cherie – It is a fermette (small farmhouse) where the front part is older, with beam ceilings, three-foot thick walls, and two rooms up and two down. The back of the house is from the 1950s and the walls are about an inch thick. There are two barns and outbuildings.
Ian – It has around three acres of land with a very overgrown garden and two woods, one attached to the garden and one which we didn’t know anything about until around three weeks after we moved in with the keys. Our French neighbour came around and managed to explain to us – we spoke very little French at the time – that we owned another wood and took us around to see it.
Did you have to sacrifice any of your search criteria?
Cherie – Yes. To be by the water.
Ian – Apparently, there is an underground natural stream but I’m not sure that counts. Seriously, if someone had asked me to draw the ideal property, it wouldn’t have looked like this. It was just when we walked through the front door it felt right – it was a weird thing.
How do you manage the renovation process?
Cherie – There’s lots to do, but we are doing it all ourselves bit by bit. The girls helped us smash down the wall of the pantry to expand the main room. We want to keep it as French as possible, not bringing over a very modern British kitchen or bathroom. We will keep the rooms as they are, as long as they’re practical. Electrics is the one thing we won’t do. Ian has even promised me he is going to do a plumber’s course.
Do you both have a favourite corner?
Ian – Yes! Sitting by the oak tree out the front. That, to me, is the most relaxing place ever. You’ll find me there most mornings, no matter the temperature.
Cherie – Funny, because my favourite spot is in the back garden – I have breakfast there and do my yoga.
What is there to do in the area?
Cherie – We are in Roumazières-Loubert in north Charente, between Limoges and Poitiers. In summer we have the River Charente that runs to the back of us. There’s kayaking, walking and lots of cycle routes. There are umpteen châteaux to visit. Cognac is an hour away. Bordeaux is a two hour drive. Limoges is known for porcelain, while St-Junien is known for leather and the gloves they make.
Ian – St-Junien is an especially charming place. Just parking the car and going for a wander around is lovely. It’s very authentic, not too touristy, with good cafés and small shops, and a good Sunday market.
Tell me about work?
Cherie – We are the franchisees for Les Bons Voisins property management in east Charente. We do everything, from mowing your garden to anything that needs looking after so that when you arrive, you can relax from the moment you get to your home. As the name suggests, it’s like the help that you would expect from a really good neighbour. We can also help if you want to rent out the property – everything from booking guests, meet and greet, to changeover. It all came about because we know from experience how important it is to have your home well looked after when you are away. Back when we first bought our house, we did a lot of travelling and we would have housesitters come in to look after the garden, the house, the car and our cat. Sometimes we were away for just a couple of weeks but sometimes for much longer, once up to two years. Most sitters were good people, but we had one or two that we would not invite back, and one that was incredibly stressful, where I found myself sitting at the bottom of the stairs in Melbourne, crying my eyes out. So, one day I picked up French Property News and read a story about a couple that had started a Les Bons Voisins franchise and thought, we can do that with our skills! I mentioned it to Ian and here we are.
Ian – When you come down for your holidays you don’t want to spend the first two days mowing the lawn and tidying up the house. With Les Bons Voisins we cover an area where we can be at any of our clients in 45 minutes max.
Finally, what would you say to someone looking to buy a home in France?
Ian – Be open-minded. Yes, go in with a plan, but be prepared to be flexible. You are not just buying a house. You’re buying into a culture and the history of the place. With my finance hat on, I would also say be conscious of why you want to come to France. There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t even have to think about in England. Septic tanks for one. You must consider the cost. The same with trees – we had never had to worry about tree surgeons before. So come over with a very open mind, for when the idyllic lifestyle, which it is, then becomes the reality.
Cherie – I agree. Be very open because the houses are so different and you can go from one end of the spectrum right up to the other end, and each has its own unique charm.
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