Fulfilling the dream of self sufficiency in France: Stained glass artisan Donna Kerridge and her potter/sculptor partner Nik Meergan and daughter Ella live in a rambling farmhouse in the rural village of St Georges in the Seven Valleys area of Pas de Calais.
Although born in Britain Donna grew up in New Zealand and like many young New Zealanders she had the travel bug and gravitated back to the UK in her twenties where she worked as an IT analyst, enjoying a successful career and a London life-style. Like many though, as she got older she started to hanker after a simpler lifestyle, at first moving out of London and into the country but she found that still wasn’t the fulfilment she craved and secretly she dreamed of living the good life in France.
Donna says “I opted to take French at High School and even though there were only four students in our class in a remote part of New Zealand, we were lucky enough to have a native French woman as our teacher. I boldly stated then and there at 13, that I was going to live in France one day. I have recently reconnected with my other 3 classmates (via Facebook) and they all laughed and said ‘wow you actually did it’”.
Donna and Nik chose the region of Nord-Pas de Calais to focus their dream of a new life in France so that their daughter could stay in regular contact with her father who was living in the south of England at the time (from this part of France to London is around 3 hours by car). Although the decision to move to the most northern of France’s regions was practical Donna says that she finds this area to be completely unspoiled and very beautiful and she loves the fact that they are so close to the beautiful Opal Coast – in fact now she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Donna and Nik love their French home and their village. They say it is very friendly and Donna feels that she has found the community spirit that existed in her hometown in New Zealand in the 70s.
We asked Donna and Nik how they came to find their house and the answer was a surprise – it was the first house they looked at! Most of their research was done online and they came over one weekend armed with a list of places they’d shortlisted from the web. They had an agent in the town of Hesdin who helped to arrange viewings and the first house they saw, was the nearest to his office and the first on the list. Donna says “It was a sunny day and we opened the big doors to the courtyard and saw all these buildings with wild flowers growing out of the crumbling torchis and we all lost our hearts. Even my 10 year daughter. We spent the week-end looking at other places, in an attempt at due diligence, but it was really a waste of time. The attraction was so powerful that we immediately returned and put our UK home on the market; it sold for the asking price, cash, within 10 days. We took it as an omen”.
Three months later the sales process was complete. During that time Donna continued to commute to London on the train, reading books with “titles like Raising Pigs Successfully, Permaculture in a nutshell and various titles from Bob Flowerdew and Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall”. The dream was not just to move to France but to live a more harmonious life style with self-sufficiency being high on the list of desires. Soon after the move the garden was home to chickens, goats and other animals and the first jobs they undertook weren’t on the “wreck” but to create a vegetable garden! Donna says she has a neighbour who looks over her garden fence from time to time and inquires about the potatoes growing in tyres, or her paths of broken roof tiles and “I quip ‘J’ai lu un livre!’ and he wanders away shaking his head”.
Donna and Nik say they have made few adjustments to the house. They have made the bathroom and kitchen more comfortable. “We live with peeling wallpaper and the warmth of 2 woodstoves. We see this as our “forever house” so we have put 5 years of effort into repairing roofs and torchis, establishing paths, installing all the electrics and plumbing for the entire property, developing the barn into a pottery, woodwork shop and glass studio, building an on-site “occasional shop” and very soon, two self-contained units that we will run as Chambre d’hôtes with optional craft courses”. [Ed’s note: I’m not sure that I’d call that a few adjustments!]
“We figure that if we leave the house to last, we will never give up!” Laughs Donna.
Their latest plans and work involve completing the gites they have and they are very hopeful of being finished on one of the buildings early in 2013. They are doing all of the work themselves – no builders on this project. Donna and Nik dig, lay concrete floors and pipes, build the timber frames from scratch, put up the plasterboard and paint.
Donna says that earning an income in this part of France has been more difficult than she anticipated and she has been surprised at “how much income we need, despite having no mortgage and being able to raise a lot of our own food”. Nik works as a builder when jobs come up and Donna makes the most of her many skills in several different areas, as she says “you have to be flexible and learn ways to adapt the skills you have to meet the demands of the work market”.
Donna has a small onsite shop which is open for specific weekends such as Christmas, St Valentines, Easter and other celebratory dates. The stock in the shop is themed and interesting, with completely new stock each time. Donna says that to keep the shop fully stocked all year round takes too much of their time and besides she says “I think it will be more fun this way. And we will of course open up if anyone stops by and is looking for a gift. Everything in the shop is made by either myself, Nik (who is a trained potter and now a passionate sculptor) or my daughter”.
Donna is a go-getter who is willing to use all her skills and turn her hand to whatever needs to be done. She and Nik are typical of the pragmatic and stoical expats who arrive in France, find it is not necessarily the land of milk and honey we’d all like to have handed to us on a plate, but make a go of things and are ultimately successful. As she says “Alors! There is always so much to do! I am hoping this winter to start some small 2-4 hour courses for locals; playing with clay, glazing and perhaps glass fusing. Once the renovation work is done, we will run week-long or week-end residential courses”.
In the meantime Donna works for a local family-run organic jam business and teaches “Anglais oral” 4 hours a week at a local college (small classes in which the students can practice speaking English). She also creates bespoke websites and teaches people how to use and manage their website and works as a “virtual assistant” to support people who don’t have the time or inclination to manage their internet requirements. If that’s not enough Donna runs an online shop and is always planning more work in the garden to fulfil that dream of self-sufficiency.
You can find details of Donna’s online shop, Nik’s sculptures, news about progress at the farmhouse and contact Donna via her website Farmhouse France