A luxurious offering for vegetarians

cottage largeTrevor Bridge describes how he and his wife Jocelyn spent five years setting up, running and finally retiring from providing luxury accommodation for vegetarians in rural Charente.

After many years holidaying in France, Jocelyn and I bought a second home here in 1999. We soon realised that we had fallen in love with the country and its way of life and, as it was becoming more and more difficult to return to the UK at the end of each holiday, we considered moving permanently.

I had founded a Landscape Architectural company in the UK 20 years previously and at 55 I felt too young to retire, but wanted to reduce my workload and enjoy life more. In 2005, when broadband became available in our French village, we were able to turn our dreams into reality and made the move. I linked directly to the office computer in Ashton-under-Lyne and so was always on hand – sometimes I worked a full day, at other times I didn’t have to. I would fly back to the UK about once every five or six weeks, staying in a flat above my office for a week attending meetings and visiting sites.

Jocelyn had a full-time job in a local authority conservation department in UK and was afraid that giving it up and moving to rural France would leave her with little to do. We have both been vegetarians for many years and when we started spending our holidays in France it was very difficult to find suitable accommodation. Although in the meantime things have improved, it is still not easy. Le Fayard, our little farm close to St Claud in the Charente, has a separate cottage and she decided that she could fill a gap in the market by providing luxury accommodation for vegetarians and vegans.

Surrounded by gently rolling hills, woodlands, meadows, lush green valleys and sleepy villages, we knew we were in the perfect location for walking or cycling. The nearby towns of Cognac, Limoges, Angouleme and Poitiers are superb for sight-seeing, shopping and exploring. Coupled with our knowledge of the area and veggie friendly places and pursuits, we felt that we were in a position to cater for this specialist market and so set about making it work.

We had already renovated the farmhouse at Le Fayard, but the cottage, although structurally sound, had not been lived in for years and was being used as a store for farm equipment and junk. It is typically Charentaise, very pretty, built in honey-coloured stone with many original features, but much work was needed.

bedroomWe wanted the cottage to be ready for when we moved out to France and so the excellent local builder who had renovated our house was brought back on board. His knowledge of traditional buildings proved invaluable in helping us design the work. The transformation was more than we’d ever hoped for and the craftsmanship is remarkable. We kept the traditional parts of the cottage such as the limestone flag floors, the exposed stone walls, the ancient stone sink and the beautiful old timber beam fireplace. We felt that retaining the earth floor in the half of the ground floor where the farm animals were originally kept (to provide winter warmth for the family) was taking things too far so we put in a locally sourced chestnut floor. Upstairs had been the hay loft so this was converted into three modern bedrooms and bathrooms. Double glazing was installed throughout and the cottage was insulated to a high standard.

Our aim was to provide accommodation that we would want to stay in if we were on holiday. We also wanted to aim for the luxury end of the market where we felt there was less competition. We therefore provided high quality furnishing and décor in the cottage. We steered the accommodation towards self-catering with a well-appointed kitchen with modern appliances and utensils, marrying rural living with modern comfort. It was ideal for year round holidays with the limestone floors and shutters providing coolness in the heat of the summer, and comfy sofas and a wood-burning stove giving warmth on a winter’s evening.

We wanted to create an overall environment where vegetarians and vegans would feel comfortable. Many vegetarians feel more at ease knowing that kitchen appliances and utensils have not been in contact with meat. We looked at the way we lived, what products we used and, just as importantly, what we avoided. The soaps and cleaning products in the cottage were all vegetable-based and environmentally friendly; there was no leather; no feather pillows; and the cookery books were vegetarian or vegan. We paid much attention to detail, even to the extent of making sure that books and guides in the little library would be useful, but also would not offend our guests. In France it is not always easy to source suitable products, but we felt that by doing so we could make our guests’ holiday more relaxed. Admittedly, it did take a lot of time and effort to find suppliers, but we considered it an important part of our service.

dining roomBy living close by, we were able to help our guests get the best out of their holiday, but importantly, we were also able to provide specialist knowledge of suitable places for vegetarians to eat and shop. We carried out a great deal of research finding places to buy vegetarian wine, which French cheeses are suitable and what is put into the bread in the local boulangerie. We found a chateau close by with a separate menu for vegetarians, offering a rare opportunity to enjoy the ambiance of a truly French eating experience in spectacular surroundings. We built up a close relationship with our village restaurant who were more than happy to provide at least one suitable dish if given 24 hours notice.

As soon as we were confident of an opening date we launched our website. We had been building it ourselves for two years: taking photographs, honing the text and researching links to other vegetarian and vegan sites through which we hoped we would get publicity. It was very exciting, but nerve racking, waiting for that first contact. We wondered if anyone would ever find our little site, and if so would they find it interesting enough to make contact. We were soon rewarded though. Our first enquiry was taken by Jocelyn who happened to be in Scotland visiting family. We had linked our French landline through to her mobile phone and she was in an Edinburgh art gallery when it rang. She was very excited, but managed to sound calm and business-like. The booking was taken and the family that made it eventually came to Le Fayard for five holidays.

The website and its links to other sites proved invaluable, with over 90% of bookings coming that way. People have become very used to using the internet and often we didn’t actually speak to clients until they arrived at the cottage.

Our hunch that this specialist service would be an attraction for holidaymakers proved correct. We have had five good years with a high proportion of repeat bookings and feedback from clients told us that we seemed to be doing the right thing.

We had many amusing moments – one family upon arrival immediately asked for directions to the nearest off license, not realising they had passed it many hours ago in Portsmouth. Another family were astonished at the complete lack of street lighting on our little country lane. The wood burning stove fascinated many people, so much so that the wood was being burnt at such a pace by one couple that I could hardly saw it quickly enough. When I spotted that they were keeping all the doors and windows open to reduce the temperature inside the cottage, before I realised what I was saying I retorted: “It doesn’t grow on trees you know!”

We enjoyed setting up Le Fayard – sampling local food and wine did not prove to be too much of a chore – and we found it pleasurable and rewarding helping people have a relaxing vegetarian holiday in a place we love.

Le FayardOn the administrative side we went to our local Marie and to our tax office (Centre des Impots). Both were extremely helpful and supportive. The Marie directed us to the tourist information office where we given the option of being promoted by them (for a fee) within our district. We declined this as we felt that our vegetarian specialism was best advertised elsewhere. The Marie did however advertise us on their website and in their publications for free, which was a bonus. The tax office gave us a Siret number after we filled in a straightforward form and each year we simply declared our earnings on our tax return. We ran the business as a Gîte Rural which seemed easy enough to comply with. Different rules apply to B&B’s/Chambre d’Hôtes so advice should be sought on these.

At the end of 2009 and after five years of running the business we decided to call it a day. By that time I had sold my landscape architectural company so I had more time on my hands to be with Jocelyn. The original idea that giving up full-time work would leave her with too much time on her hands was completely wide of the mark. We have a huge vegetable patch to tend; we are working on a large photographic project for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; we regularly paint and exhibit; Jocelyn has recently started a course with the Open College of Art; we keep Bantam hens and the list goes on. We had enjoyed providing the service and helping people have a good holiday, but our increasing other commitments have left us with little time to continue with it.

For those contemplating providing holiday accommodation in France there are a number of things to consider:

Competition – there is a lot of competition out there so providing something of a specialist nature has a distinct advantage. Our vegetarian cottage was fully booked each summer whilst many other local non-specialist places were empty for long spells. We had friends who catered for cyclists – providing places to store bikes, maps and accompanied rides. Another couple provide accommodation within their farm – children feed the animals and the grown-ups get involved in working on the farm. Catering holidays and wildlife watching are also ways of getting guests.

Wear and tear – this was a factor we especially had to take on board. We provided luxury accommodation so people expect everything to be pristine which of course has cost implications.

Making a living – do not think that it is going to easy to survive on the profits from providing holiday accommodation. We had a three-bedroom cottage that was full for most of the summer months and as it was luxury accommodation we were able to charge a premium, but it would never have provided us with enough income to live off. It provided a nice amount of money, but without our other income we would not have survived. Undoubtedly people can make a go of it, but in our opinion the accommodation has to be much larger to make a living.

Change over days – we found that being flexible helped. Some people want to take advantage of cheap flights whilst others drive. Having rigid Saturday change over days makes it difficult for people so we just said people had to book for a minimum of three days, but could arrive or leave on any day. Yes we had the odd few empty days here and there, but we felt there would have been far more if we hadn’t been flexible.

All in all it was a good experience – by far the majority of our guests respected our cottage and were a pleasure to have stay with us. (Accidental breakages were invariably reported to us accompanied by a replacement). We have made many good friends during this time and have no regrets.

We of course had to give up our privacy whilst sharing Le Fayard, and this eventually became a factor in us deciding to close, as did devoting our summer months to our business – but it was also enjoyable sharing our glorious part of France with people, and a bonus to watch them gradually relax as the stresses and strains of their working lives were forgotten.

Trevor Bridge
Le Fayard
16450 St Claud
France

March 2009

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