As you would expect, the first year in a new place flies by in a flurry of excitement, huge to-do lists and never-ending paperwork. There were some challenges in our first year, but so much good too; as well as constant reminders of why we made the move in the first place – our beautiful land!
Paperwork and Translators
September, October November and December of 2019 were just a blur of visits to official offices trying to make progress with all the paperwork to become legal in France. As well as seeing what we needed for our business and handing in more information to get an appointment with the planning department.
We had been lucky enough by this time to have met the Lovely Hugo, our translator and now close friend. I just love him, he is so good at making connections with people, and he speaks several languages. As yet, I’m not able to hold a conversation in French just regurgitate memorised sentences hoping it’s enough to get me by!
Christmas in France… or not
Christmas 2019 was the first Christmas John and I had been apart. His parents came to France and my daughter and I went back to the UK to visit my side of the family. We had a great time, but the pull to be back in our new home and with John and our animals was quite strong.
So, when January finally arrived, and the high temperatures and sunny days set in we felt very positive about the new year ahead.
The Planning Continues
I had thought about and planned this project for such a long time. I looked on Pinterest every day for images and inspiration, glamping tents, eco bathrooms; and so many videos of solar power systems, it was mind blowing. I knew what style I was looking for as our retreat is aimed at adults.
A relaxed but comfortable eco retreat with simplicity and style, surrounded by nature with touches of a BoHo feel to the décor; plus, a wedding venue for people wanting a more intimate ceremony set within nature. All my experience as an event florist and tutor meant I had that bit covered without extensive research needed.
The materials we were to use and the impact on our land was very important to me. I wanted the land to be in a natural state over the winter, so animals and insects were still able to come and go freely. So, the only thing left at the end of a season would be our bathroom decking. Ideal for hibernating hedgehogs to go under.
We had been working closely with an ecological water treatment specialist here and finally had the drawings of our reed bed system to show SPANC (the sanitation service) and planning departments.
Because glamping is a new concept here in the Charente I took lots of images to planning meetings along with scale drawings of the land, where the tents bathrooms and meadow would be. As well as inside images and scale drawings for the disability access tent.
Because our main objective is a sustainable living Glamping retreat business, I felt a little up against it at first and had to redo the plans several times over four meetings. The people at the planning department were finally happy with individual bathrooms (which is exactly what I had hoped for at the beginning), so I was very happy. They were very interested in what we were trying to achieve. Now all we could do was wait to get the final go ahead.
The Waiting Game
Eager to make a start, my eldest daughter and I kept clearing logs cut from fallen trees on the field, marking out the reed bed piping, putting canes where the tents would be and making a start on our veggie beds and sowing seeds.
John was working as a gardener again and was busy gathering new customers. Our budget had been badly hit due to Brexit exchange rates going down; so, he was busy doing all he could to bring in the money until the retreat was up and running.
Making Hay While the Sun Shines
In March we were still waiting for news as to getting started. John’s friend had come over from the UK to help us with the bathrooms. At this stage we were still not sure if we were getting the go ahead, so we just decided to get the decking bases done. These only stood on blocks so if we needed to move them it wasn’t a big deal and if we got a NO to everything, well, we would deal with that if it came.
My cousin and his family had visited us in February and helped plant trees (the ones we had optimistically bought before we had even found a place to buy – they were a bargain and they were able to keep them in the ground until we wanted them).
A New Life in the Sun
Spring arrived and so did Taylor from the UK channel 4s ‘A new Life in The Sun’. I had initially contacted them back in 2018 when we had the idea to move and they had kept in touch the whole time. It was quite surreal having Taylor film our French home and the beginnings of the retreat space. John with his friend Gav worked hard on those bathroom decks, as we started the process of having our story put onto film.
But then the biggest blow, to everyone. COVID…
Making the most of a challenging situation
Now what? Do we carry on? How long will the pandemic last? What will we do if we can’t have guests and John can’t go out to work?
I was absolutely gutted. After all our challenges this one I had no control over, and I couldn’t do a thing to change the situation. And on top of that I was missing my youngest daughter who was living back in the UK.
The team at ‘A New Life in The Sun’ were up against it also as they had to pull all their UK camera crews back and find French based crews if they could. No one knew what was going to happen – it was literally information updates day to day for us all.
Making the most of the downtime
This situation of not being able to go anywhere, just waiting for permission to start work on the retreat, gave us time to make a real start on growing our own veg and plant some fruit trees. We got a small polytunnel and it became my sanctuary from Covid news.
Our neighbours have the most amazing vegetable garden and had welcomed us with two gala melons they had grown when we arrived the previous year.
If I can do half as well growing our own melons, I will be ecstatic!
Everyone was now working from home here in France and I had sent several emails asking what stage our permissions were at, I needed some kind of feedback to stay hopeful. One sunny afternoon in mid-May our Mayor, Olivier, drove up to the house. He explained that there had been no opposition to our plans and finally we had the green light to make a start.
I would have kissed him, but Covid prevented it!
PANIC, EXCITEMENT, FEAR! We needed all sorts of equipment with which to set up the site. Materials, furniture, BBQs, the tents, solar tanks and lighting; but the pandemic had delayed deliveries to us for even general equipment – so it was a mad rush once our first lockdown eased.
But loving a deadline, I went and posted on social media that we were having an open day on the 12th July. What was I thinking?!
In those few weeks we worked our socks off. The camera crew came and went, and we had some intensely hot days where it was all too much. Shovelling 9 tons of gravel for the reed bed filtration system and putting beds together in 38-degree heat was getting a nightmare.
Not only was the physical side of this situation tough, but mentally we were all on an emotional rollercoaster. Missing family and worrying about when we would get to see them again; and the likelihood of them visiting us that summer was fading with every new announcement about travel restrictions.
The Open Day
On the 12th July we had our open day, attended by the mayor and some of his officials, local people and friends. We may not have had everything we wanted for the site at that time, like our above ground pool or petite sweat lodge; and we were missing some trees and shrubs… but we would get them later.
But we had actually done it. We had created 6 eco bathrooms from my own designs, created a colourful meadow, put up two marquees, installed the reed bed, and put up 6 beautiful bell tents. I must thank the suppliers we used they really stepped up through an extraordinary situation and the friends that gave their time to help us. Three years of planning, stressing and hoping but we got there in the end.
The only way is up
We went on to have yoga classes, craft classes and a few guests that summer – our first year of owning a Glamping retreat in France. Which turns out to be a great place to escape to for a holiday during a pandemic … or so I’m told.
If you have a dream and it sometimes feels like the world is against you, don’t give up. The road to your destination is probably never going to be easy, if it were, what fun would that be?