Not too many years ago, in what now seems a completely separate universe, I sat gazing out from my 7th floor office window in central London. I wasn’t unhappy; I just longed to be in Burgundy. I had totally fallen in love with the gentle beauty of the region and the warmth of its inhabitants over many years as we passed through ‘en famille‘ from holidays elsewhere in Europe. Whenever I had a quiet moment, I would type ‘Burgundy + estate agent‘ into my search engine and escape into the world of rolling hills, stone farmhouses, medieval towns and vineyards.
Time passed and my dream of living and working in Burgundy grew stronger. I had qualified as a personal development coach and was used to asking clients what it was they wanted from life. When I asked myself this same question the answer was clear: to run an activity centre in Burgundy. As my vision began to take shape I knew that what I wanted was to create an environment filled with energy where others could spend their time doing what they enjoyed most or experience something completely new in this beautiful region of France. My dream seemed really big as I was employed in law enforcement, a life so far removed from the life I wished to lead. However, I knew that to take the first step on this journey I had to go and see what Burgundy had to offer as a place to live and work rather than simply as a place to holiday.
I knew Burgundy fairly well but wanted to get to know some of the smaller villages along the A6 corridor from Beaune to Macon a little better. The Cote d’Or around Beaune and the more illustrious vineyards are beautiful but property can be expensive. Chalon, whilst having a lot to offer visitors, seemed a little too built up, so I drove south toward Macon and Cluny. Medieval Cluny was stunning, a blend of history, architecture, music and festivals with a marvellous Saturday market to boot. Ten minutes beyond Cluny I found myself in the Charol, an area of rolling hills, vineyards and meadowland dotted with the famous Charolais cattle. A beautiful landscape scattered with Romanesque churches, fairytale castles and lakes. This was the place I had been searching for.
The house, Les Cerisiers, chose me. It hadn’t appeared on my carefully researched list of properties to view and whilst I wanted to live off the beaten track, I certainly didn’t intend to live that far off the beaten track. But as I stepped from the car and breathed in the clear air slightly tinged with damp grass, wood smoke and pine, I experienced an overwhelming sense of being exactly where I was meant to be in the world.
Les Cerisiers has everything I was searching for, five large bedrooms, a huge kitchen, lots of original features including exposed beams, an original bread oven, an enormous stone fireplace and a cellar. There is a separate smaller house, which I have made my home giving me the privacy I need whilst providing proximity to my guests and the larger house. The grounds are extensive with an orchard, huge potager (we aim to be self sufficient for fruit and vegetables within two years) a swimming pool and, of course, breathtaking views. In addition there is an 80 square metre barn perfect for turning into a studio and seminar rooms to create an activities centre.
My offer on Les Cerisiers was accepted and May 10th 2007 saw me sitting in the Notaire’s office in Cluny signing papers making me the proud owner of my French house. Within the hour I unlocked the door to my new home and future business venture. Maybe I was fortunate but I found the entire process of buying a property in France very smooth and uncomplicated. I did get an architect to look over the property to ensure it was structurally sound but he was the only expert I consulted.
I was able to quickly establish a holiday rental business as there are very few properties in the area that can sleep up to twelve people and also have a pool. I had a new kitchen installed and two new shower rooms before advertising through Owners Direct, Holiday Rentals and on my own website www.cherrytrees.fr. The reviews have been marvellous and repeat bookings are testament to how much people are enjoying staying here.
However, it took me another two years to finally bite the bullet and move to France full time to start work on renovating the barn as a space for my activity centre. This coincided with the onset of recession. I had resigned from a well paid job and had only my savings and dreams to sustain me. My mortgage increased by £400 a month over night as the pound collapsed against the euro and I felt anxiety beginning to creep in. I kept my attention fully on my goal. One of the first things I did was to turn the focus of my advertising away from the UK market (where the Brits seemed understandably reluctant to holiday in euro zones) and target the German and Dutch market instead. This has paid off with 70% of my bookings for 2009/10 coming from these areas.
I had met my fiancé, Mark, the previous year and felt a deep sense of joy when he said he would come and join me full time to get the project off the ground. Whilst I researched the competition and started phoning artists, writers, landscapers and wine buffs, Mark donned his overalls and set to work giving the barn an overhaul. The walls, beams and roof were sound and there were large openings that needed little more than having windows slipped into them. Our local Mairie was incredibly helpful with planning permission forms and advice, whilst local French friends were more than happy to make phone calls on our behalf if we came up against technicalities that proved too much of a challenge to our grasp of the French language. The only real difficulty we have encountered to date has been with setting up our phone and internet systems. As we are in a rural location, our choice of phone and internet provider is limited to France Telecom. Five months after our original system was installed we are still having regular battles to secure a service that meets our needs. We naturally rely on having constant communication with customers, let alone keeping in touch with our friends and family, so this has been hugely frustrating.
I have been overwhelmed by the response of those people I have approached to be part of the activity centre events. Over the months before moving here I scoured magazines and the internet, noting articles, addresses and websites that inspired me. I then took a deep breath and rang well known artist Nicola Slattery (www.nicolaslattery.co.uk) and started ‘Hello, my name is Janice Barnett and I’m starting a creative arts and activity centre in Burgundy. I love your work and wondered whether you would come and run a course here?’ She said ‘yes‘, as did several poets, writers, an artist who runs ‘rambles with a sketch book‘, a landscape gardener, a health and vitality coach and a wine expert. I am also fortunate to have an amazing support network of friends and family who have offered advice and assistance along the way. By asking these people what activities they would like to take part in, we have also developed war gaming holidays and biking breaks for motorcyclists. Our new website www.thereallybigdreamcompany.com captures our events, activities and something of the flavour of what living in Burgundy means to us.
We view our customers as house guests who bring something special to each event. Meals are lively events often shared around the large kitchen table or outdoors in the orchard. Our events and leisure holidays offer a great deal of flexibility so everyone manages to take what they want from their time here. Because we focus on the things we are passionate about our enthusiasm shines through but we are always open to new suggestions on how we can improve our facilities or what new activities we can add to our repertoire.
My long-term hope for the future is to run events here 40 weeks of the year and to welcome returning guests. I hope to use the barn as a gallery and hold craft fairs and exhibitions in this amazing space. When I am able to plan three years hence (rather than six months down the line) I will feel a sense of satisfaction that all the hard work has paid off.
In the more immediate future, Mark and I will be getting married here in May. The service will be conducted by our Mayor, the same man who rubber stamped our planning permission for the barn, evidence that Les Cerisiers has become my heart and home.