A Natural Balance
An interview with Mike and Jean Brookes of Les Mortiers Holiday Gîtes in the Maine-et-Loire.
Mike and Jean moved to France fourteen years ago. They offer family holidays and are pioneers of the eco-gîte movement. The area they chose to settle in is also ideal for their other business which revolves around fly fishing: selling silk fly lines, making traditional bamboo fly rods and running courses teaching others the craft. Their lives and businesses seem to me to have a very natural balance.
What prompted you to move to France and what attracted you to the Maine et Loire in particular?
A love of the country of France, love of the people, love of the food and the attitude to life and family values.
The area around Saumur also had a similar feeling to Hampshire where I used to live, so I felt at home instantly. Other factors were, again, the food and wine of the Loire, French culture, easy reach of the Channel ports, the chateaux along the majestic Loire valley and a distinctly French environment, known as ‘la douceur angevine’.
Tell us a bit more about ‘la douceur angevine’, Jean…
It’s the way of living in our part of France, the relaxed lifestyle which comes from the gentle countryside and the way in which people of the region live and use the local produce, good wines and fine cuisine. This part of France was once the hunting region for the nobility who had their chateaux and hunting lodges here and used the area as their escape to the country.
Did you find it easy to settle into the quiet of the French countryside? Was the reality very different to the picture you had in your minds before you came?
Yes, very easy indeed, the gentle countryside has a comfortable feel to it. We had visited many parts of France, but the area we chose was the one that felt right. We found everyone very friendly and courteous. The only exception might have been when Mike joined the local chasse and I found that it took a while to understand the culture of the French chasseurs. One amusing incident was the annual soirée when the men expected Mike to join them at their table, the ladies having assembled on a separate table, and Mike moved them into the 21st century by saying that he preferred the conversation of the ladies. Some of the younger couples then followed his example. It was all very amical. Looking back we can’t think of anything else which didn’t meet our expectations.
Did you run similar businesses back in the UK or did you start from scratch here in France? Did you have to learn lots of new skills or did you find that you already had the right skill set?
No, we started both businesses from scratch and it was our first experience of being self-employed. For the fly fishing business, Mike was already well known as a bamboo rod builder and a much respected fly fisherman. He’s a trained engineer so the two combined nicely to run Phoenix Lines. I worked in administration with management experience in the leisure industry and also planning and building development. Again the mix of skills was right for developing a successful holiday rental business. Our skill sets did not drive the choice of businesses, but were good tool kits across both businesses.
Would you do anything differently if you could turn the clock back? What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learnt and the most pleasant surprise?
No, we wouldn’t change a thing. The hardest lesson was the allocation of time between the two business, which we’re both involved in and making sure we leave time for a personal life. The most pleasant surprise was when my son decided to move to France, so now we have a granddaughter born in Ireland and a grandson born in France. They’re both bi-lingual and achieving well at school.
Do you have a strict division of labour or do you share a lot of the tasks involved in running your businesses?
No, as we need to be reactive to run both businesses effectively. However, there are certain tasks which require a strict division of labour and then we have to make certain that that person has uninterrupted time to complete them!
Is there ever a conflict between the businesses or do they dovetail nicely?
Generally, the businesses dovetail well. Over the years, we have refined our work programme so that time can be allocated to run things smoothly. Perhaps the most difficult issue is that everything is based at our home so the business needs can sometimes take more priority than things which need doing for our own comfort.
I know you like to keep your businesses ‘green’, how far do you take that policy and does it ever cause problems with your guests, for example, not recycling, sticking glass bottles in with the general rubbish?
Our first major investment in green energy was twelve years ago when we installed solar heating for hot water in our house. Followed by, four years ago when we installed geothermic heating to provide heating for our house and hot water and central heating for two of the gîtes. It enables us to heat them quickly and without major running costs out of the main season. The third gîte is heated by a wood burner, which is another sustainable form of energy.
The eco-friendliness of our businesses is important to us but we’re not evangelical; it’s more that we prefer to lead by good example. Like most things in life, you need to be convinced in your heart that it’s right to do something, so being critical of others or dictatorial would not be right and would get us nowhere. However, we would like to feel that we raise awareness, that’s what most of our guests tell us.
Generally, there is a greater awareness of recycling now than there was when we published our eco-friendly webpage over ten years ago. We’ve been told we were one of the first holiday rental properties to do this. Our guests play their part in being eco-friendly with daily trips to the compost bins we provide and the recycling rack for wine bottles, which often creaks in the centre under the weight of empties!
We found a quotation at Blackwell Arts and Crafts House in the Lake District and it really summarises our philosophy. The Arts and Crafts movement ‘sought to create not only an honest and fulfilling approach to design and production, but a simpler and more ethical way of life’. William Morris, the movement’s father figure, believed that greed and over-sophistication would deprive men of the ‘beauty of life’.
There must be a big difference between what you do in the summer and what you do in the off-season and do you get tired of people thinking that your life is one long holiday because they don’t see what goes on behind the scenes?
We like the idea of Les Mortiers following the seasons. In summer, it’s bright and active and it’s essential that our guests receive priority. We’re happy to share in this as we’re so proud of the area we live in. Our guests do say sometimes that we must have one long holiday, but soon temper that with a comment that it would be impossible to provide such quality accommodation without a lot of hard work. When autumn arrives, we’re both ready to slow down socially and tend to relax a little more. We enjoy speculating on the date for the start of the vendanges for the lovely Loire reds which are produced in our area, and planning a short holiday for ourselves. There is a feeling that Les Mortiers is enjoying a well earned rest ready to wake up again early in the next spring.
When you do get some time off together, how do you like to spend it?
Longer periods of time together tend to be in the autumn through to spring, when we make an annual visit to see family in the UK or take a short break to explore France. We both enjoy cooking and entertaining, so this part of the year is also devoted to catching up with friends who, like us, are busy in the summer months.
Our large garden keeps us busy throughout the year growing all our own vegetables and then preserving them in various ways for the winter months. I enjoy being like a squirrel at this time of the year, storing up for the winter.
The summer is a very sociable time to visit vineyards to sample and, naturally, buy wine. We love the variety of Loire wines, so these visits are a source of useful information for our guests in the holiday rentals – we regard it as essential research!
I’m a keen swimmer, whilst Mike is quite content to sit under the abri in the garden and play his guitar. Living in such an area of gentle countryside, with plenty of forest tracks and safe roads also makes walking and cycling a pleasure – when we have time!
You can contact Mike and Jean via their websites to find out how you can get a taste of ‘la douceur angevine’.