Travel: Getting creative in France's south west

Seeking a challenge, artist Julia Douglas and drumming photographer husband Colin Usher explore France's south west

Nérac near to where Julia Douglas and Colin Usher are setting up a creative retreat. Picture: Colin Usher
Nérac near to where Julia Douglas and Colin Usher are setting up a creative retreat. Picture: Colin Usher

If you’re interested in visiting France because it’s famed for its high quality cuisine and wine, laid-back lifestyle, bustling markets, lush landscape and extremely good chance of warm sunshine from early spring to late autumn, Lot-et-Garonne will tick all your boxes.

You’ll need to be organised though… even the shops that sell lunch here close for a two-hour lunch.

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Colin and I started planning our move to France in 2014. We were living a nice wee life in our rented cottage in the countryside in East Lothian, but were feeling frustrated that a good chunk of our income was paying off someone else’s mortgage.

Colin Usher and Julia Douglas are getting creative in south west France. Contributed

We were also eager for a new challenge in our work life, a new venture we could get our teeth into, that built on our passions, knowledge and contacts, that was sociable and helped other people develop new skills and ideas, and also, that would be an investment for our future.

We met and married in our late thirties and, being self-employed, with no existing property purchase or inheritance, we had little chance of buying a house in or around Edinburgh, where the average house price at the time was over £400,000.

We have both been working in Scotland in the creative industries for many moons now, Colin as a digital media professional, photographer and drummer, and me as a textile and mixed media artist, web designer, and Administrator and Exhibition Coordinator for the Society of Scottish Artists.

We love what we do and because of this, our work and play often overlap. We spend much of our free time on cultural pursuits, or volunteering to help friends with their own creative businesses by making promotional videos for them, taking their headshots or building their website for example. Truth is, we both get a kick out of knowing that we have helped another creative person progress their business.

Colin Usher and Julia Douglas are getting creative in south west France. Contributed

With this in mind it suddenly struck us… What about trying to get our hands on a property that provides a year-round residency programme for creative professionals? Somewhere where we could provide a supportive environment, a change of pace and the space to create.

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Where should this be located and how could we raise the deposit required for the premises?

With the Central Belt of Scotland being so expensive, we started looking at property prices further afield and, after some considerable searching, noticed what you could buy in some parts of France, where house prices were averaging €125,000 in the last year (about £100,000).

We decided to start looking in earnest at the south west of France as the destination for the next chapter in our lives. Everything looked amazing from Scotland, but we didn’t want to risk choosing an area that wasn’t going to be right for the business so we needed a closer look. It needs to be picturesque and peaceful for our visitors, so they can focus on research and development time for their creative practice (be that art, design, craft, writing, music … tightrope walking!). There also has to be enough around to stimulate those who need a little external boost of inspiration, be that stunning architecture or landscape, bustling market squares or extraordinary people to talk to.

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There are three locations with direct and cheap flights from Edinburgh: Bergerac, Bordeaux and Poitiers. By drawing three circles on the map with a 150km radius around these three cities, our location research began. Our map took in the regions of Aquitaine, Limousin and Poitou-Charentes and we were soon planning a few trips over with a long list of suitable properties to view.

A short drive south east of Bordeaux took us to Nérac in the Lot-et- Garonne and, following a trip to the Saturday morning market where we sampled organic Armagnac, drooled over mountains of fresh strawberries and drank coffee outside a local café while basking in the sunshine, this was a clear contender.

Don’t get me wrong, the Dordogne department, just a wee bit further north, is absolutely stunning. If you’re heading that way be sure not to miss the village of Beynac, built on the cliffs along the Dordogne River and Sarlat-la- Canéda, with its maze of 15th-century buildings. However, it is referred to as Dordogneshire for a good reason. The majority of voices you will hear are English. One of the huge attractions of the Lot-et-Garonne to us is that it feels authentic. Yes, you hear English being spoken, but the main language is most definitely French, with many locals speaking little or no English at all. Colin and I are learning French but, as yet, are not really at a conversational level. Despite the language barrier, the locals really are extremely friendly and welcoming down here, with an introductory conversation often going like this: “I’m sorry but I don’t speak French very well. I am learning – slowly.”

“That’s OK; I don’t speak English very well either! Are you English?”

“NO, Scottish!”

“AH, BREXIT! You stay with us and tell the English to push off!”

The Auld Alliance is clearly still in force.

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It’s not a wealthy area. People seem to value time over money here and socialising is a vital part of daily life. These people love to party. May offers an abundance of excuses for bank holidays and during July and August you can go out every single night to a town or village market to buy fruit and vegetables grown on your doorstep, eat freshly roasted meat, drink locally produced wine and generally make merry with your neighbours.

Small-scale farming is abundant here. A meander along a quiet road will take you past fields of sweetcorn, orchards of fruit trees, vineyards and sunflowers galore.The views are spectacular. You can see all the way to the horizon past this patchwork of coloured fields, occasionally just making out the Pyrenees over 200km away. Skies are high and huge and blue – and space feels unlimited.

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We decided this was definitely the place for the creative retreat and so we were on to the next challenge. How could we raise the money for the deposit? We developed a three-pronged plan of attack: Spend less and save, make more and save, ask for support and save. How could two frugal people spend less and save? Well, we could move to a cheaper rental property, for a start. It seemed silly to look for a new rental in Scotland, so we found a place to rent in the Lot-et- Garonne that is £172 cheaper per month. As this house is in a village we can also manage with one car and, being in France, our wine budget has automatically reduced by half. Now, a mission to work on those other two lines of attack, whilst searching out the ultimate property to purchase for the creative retreat we call Studio Faire… n

• To contribute to Julia and Colin’s crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo during August, visit