Deanne Leach and her son Russell James never thought they'd end up sharing a house in northern France.
"I mean, I love my kids," she laughs, "but at 31 and 34 they'd said 'come on Mum - time for you to do your own thing, now that we've left home'. I thought that in moving across the Channel, I'd be doing it by myself, but then Russell turned up, looking to start a business and there I was with more bedrooms than I knew what to do with..."
Deanne, while retaining her pied à terre in Sussex, bought a large riverside house in Pont D'Ouilly, in the Suisse Normande* region of Normandy, though it wasn't quite what she'd been looking for. "When I was shown around," she says, "I thought it was three separate properties. I was really happy with the attic apartment and said yes, I'll take it, but then it became clear that the whole thing was included in the price. It was much more than I wanted but at that point, I thought about the kids and decided that yes, a bigger property would probably work out somehow."
Having worked in the wine trade in the UK for ten years, Deanne's intention was initially to run wine-buying trips for English clients coming to France. "In fact I looked for a house in the South-West first of all," she says, "but I just fell in love with this area on the way through. Moving to France was very much about lifestyle reasons as well as business, and I figured I could still have the wines shipped up to here from my contacts, so I asked my estate agent to look for properties fairly close to Vimoutiers. This house was only the second one I saw and I was hooked - especially by the river view. I saw it at 12.00 and said yes at 2.00!"
"Not only is the area itself delightful," continues Deanne, "I'm only two hours from Paris on the TGV, where I often meet up with my daughter, and I can get back to the UK very easily via the ferry ports. And I love the fact that the mountains are close enough to throw my snow blades in the car and venture down to the Pyrenees."
Deanne used a French estate agent for her purchase and didn't bother getting an English solicitor involved. "I thought, what's the point?" she says. "The documentation was all dual-language, and I described carefully how I wanted my children to inherit after me, and they took care of everything. The purchase went through in six weeks without any hitches."
The property, which had been empty for five years, was in need of renovation and although Deanne had bought and restored several properties in the UK, even doing her own underpinning, on this occasion she preferred to let the builders do the heavy work. "I just stuck to decorating this time," she says, "I'm getting past the age for roofing! I used mostly local French artisans, who were wonderful, but I did make the mistake of using local British builders, and they were terrible - you can't afford to trust people just because they speak the same language as you."
She furnished the house with a mixture of English and French pieces she had going spare after other renovations, and installed several bathrooms and shower-rooms, as at this point her intention was still to run a gite. But then she showed Russell a VTT map of the area, and his eyes lit up.
VTT are Velos Toutes Terrains - mountain bikes - and Russell has been involved with mountain biking since he was a teenager. In fact, not only does he mountain bike at competition level, he's spent his entire career in the sports field. After studying leisure management at university, he's worked as a gym instructor and personal trainer and still freelances all over the world for British fitness company Trixter, training gym instructors on how to use the company's exercise bikes.
Russell tried out all the trails near Pont D'Ouilly and found them to be some of the most stunning he'd ever encountered, and it quickly dawned on him that Deanne's property would be the ideal location for a niche leisure business involving cycling. Thus the Rock n Roll Cycle Lodge was born (www.rocknrolladventures.com).
Deanne's side of the equation is in her experience in France, to which she has made many wine-buying trips over the years, and handing over her beautiful 300-year-old house while retaining only a few rooms to herself (though this includes the whole top floor, where enormous Veluxes flood the rooms with the light that she feels is crucial).
Russell's side of the equation is his experience in fitness training, which means he can assess guests' skills and stamina accurately and make sure their holiday in France involves health and excitement rather than pain. He's also an excellent cook and enjoys whipping up organic ingredients from the local markets into wholesome meals for hungry cyclists, including a beef bourgignon that is the envy of his French neighbours.
Russell remortgaged his flat in London to get the business started, but, being no slouch, has also obtained backing from sports clothing manufacturer Howies and works in association with bike company Kona. Cycling clients include both single-sex riders and couples, as well as families ("one of the parents is usually a keen cyclist," he says). However, while the family cyclist is out riding, the rest of the family can indulge in some of the other pursuits offered by the region, including walking, dining and exploring the Normandy landing beaches, which are an hour away.
Russell still goes back to the UK every couple of weeks, for work, and to see his girlfriend, but says the Suisse Normande is the most relaxing place he's ever lived. "The peace and quiet here is wonderful and the ambience is idyllic - the respect everybody seems to have for each other," he says. "They're very 'live and let live'. Couple this with the fact that there is so much going on for people that love outdoor pursuits - mountainbiking, hiking, road biking, kayaking, rock climbing, horseriding and even waterskiing on the Lac de Rabodanges, and it's just a wonderful place to live.
"If I could make my guests feel a fraction of what I feel living here during those one or two weeks that they stay in Suisse Normande, then that to me would be a great achievement."
Russell's day is very strict when there are guests in the house: up early to do the breakfasts and prepare the packed lunches, out on the trails with the guests all day, then home for tea and brownies, followed by essential bike repairs and preparing dinner in the evening. Fortunately, he clearly has the stamina of an ox.
Deanne, meanwhile, when she's not busy cooking, cleaning and dealing with business administration for the Lodge, enjoys exploring the region and kayaking up the beautiful River Orne.
"I'm planning to stay here," she says, "and although I think it's possible that Russell may move on in four or five years, it's nice to have him around in the meantime. I never get bored, though, even the odd day that he's away - there's far too much to do here."
Above all it's the pace of French life Deanne appreciates. "They're much bigger on the small things in life," she says, "and it's really the lifestyle which is the pull. People shouldn't just come here just because property's cheap - that's only part of the equation. I enjoy the sense of freedom I have here - the freedom of spirit. I don't go back to the UK much and when I do, I feel a bit bombarded and depressed - especially by things like advertising, which seems to be everywhere you look. In that respect, it's also quite nice NOT to speak French fluently, NOT to be able to understand every conversation taking place around you!"