Katharine Tasker from London upped sticks in the city and moved to the sticks in rural northern France. With her she brought a sprinkling of urban style to her new build home and thriving new business, a café and shop…
Pas de Calais is a region of meadows and forests, the countryside is criss crossed by streams and peppered with villages and hamlets. It’s blessed with the beautiful beaches and dramatic coastline of the Opal Coast as well as fertile agricultural land. It’s a largely rural department despite being the gate way to France for millions who cross the English Channel, many of whom simply exit the ferry or train and zoom off down the auto routes further south. For those who stop and look though, the charms of the far north can be compelling as Katherine Tasker found out when she visited a friend…
A life changing weekend
Katharine Tasker loved her life in London. She ran a successful gourmet food shop with a loyal clientele who adored the speciality products she sourced from France including some world famous jam. At a sales meeting in Lille in 2015, Katherine decided to visit the jam makers in Saint-Rémy-au-Bois, in the Seven Valleys, Pas de Calais, not far away. They’d met in London when British entrepreneurs Judy and Nick Gifford who created the mouth-watering jams at Tea Together delivered a consignment in person and got on well.
Katherine spent just a couple of days with her friends at their beautifully restored farmhouse with their beloved Jack Russells and horses. As well as their jam making enterprise, they also run Le Tea Room from their home, serving scones with their home-made jam and clotted cream to smitten locals. But, it changed the direction of her life.
“It was” says Katharine “love at first sight when I saw how glorious the countryside is. So tranquil and varied, lush valleys, forests and wide-open plateaux, it is just so beautiful. I thought it would be wonderful to have a bolthole here.”
Swapping urban life for a plot in rural France
Katharine returned to London, and when, shortly afterwards, the lease on her shop needed renewing, she sought alternative premises close by. “It was very tough trying to find a new place everything was horribly expensive” she says. She’d kept in touch with Judy who, in the midst of Katharine’s frustrating search in London told her that a plot of land had come up for sale in the village of Gouy-Saint-André near St-Rémy.
“She told me it was special and that I ought to come and see it” Katharine reminisces. The land was well over her budget but Judy encouraged her to speak to the seller to see if there was any wiggle room. He had three cheaper plots for sale and Katherine decided to go and look. After viewing the affordable land, Katharine was persuaded by the seller to take a look at the more expensive plot. “It was” she laughs “a wow moment as soon as I saw it, I felt a connection. I instantly thought, what if I open my business here instead of in London?” Her head buzzed with ideas and London with its expensive rental options didn’t feature. Within hours, a deal was struck in France. And, Katherine had made up her mind. She returned to London and made places to move to France.
Urban dreams in rural France
Faced with a large, empty field which had panoramic views over the countryside, Katharine decided the only way to tackle the need for a home and business was to employ an architect and building team. The resulting three-bedroomed cube is not like any other building in the village. Ultra-modern with sleek lines and no hint of rural cottage. “I was surprised that planning permission wasn’t an issue” she confesses. “But because it can’t be seen from the road, the application went through smoothly. I got the go ahead within two months of applying”.
“A tree in the garden was my first inspiration” says Katharine “It was old, there long before me, I didn’t want to cut it down, so we designed the house around it”.
The first six months of the build went well but the honeymoon period didn’t last. The roofers went bankrupt and the build came to a stop.
Katharine had already sold her house in London to raise funds. She had no choice but to move into her not remotely ready French house. “It wasn’t ideal, but it actually helped me to refine the plans, and feel how the house could be used.”
House built around a tree
The kitchen is located in the centre of the house and serves both the café and residential side. Filled with light, there’s a mezzanine floor and double height sitting room with huge windows that frame the views, and of course, the old tree. The house is one of a kind here for other reasons too. An ecologically built passive house, it utilises a geothermal heating and dual flow ventilation system. It’s so insulated just one wood stove heats the whole house.
“Everything was much more expensive than I thought possible” admits Katharine. “I had to negotiate hard with the construction company to get a price I could afford”.
The house took two and a half years to build. “On the whole” says Katharine “It wasn’t too bad. I have never regretted it. The issues with the roofers weren’t good but were overcome. Some of the systems were new to the builders but they were willing to learn. The architect was Greek and lived in London and admittedly there was a bit of a culture clash with the builders. But they worked it out and I’m really happy with the result”.
L’Encas and L’Echoppe
Katharine had known from the stat that she wanted to open a café and shop with a hint of London style in this rustic part of France. L’encas and l’echoppe are medieval French words for “in case” and “shop”. And, tucked away from the road, it “seemed like the perfect name for my venture” she says.
“I love decorating a table, setting the places and making it look interesting and beautiful with a mix and match approach. I knew that in France there’s a long tradition and love of table dressing”. So she combined a café with a shop in which she sells vintage and new French, British and European china, cutlery and tableware. It’s an eclectic stock that’s appreciated by mainly French, British and Belgian customers who find their way to this little corner of France.
The café has a superb menu of local produce. Pies and tartes, soups, savoury salads, delicious quiches and dishes flavoured with herbs, spices, edible flowers and zingy dressings. Katharine produces delicious gluten free crispbreads. They’re stocked in gourmet food stores in London and Paris and served with meals at L’Encas et L’Echoppe. Her gorgeous gateaux have gained a reputation with the locals. Especially the gluten free German poppy seed cake and berry bread and butter pudding cake. Her cake take away service is very popular and features all sorts from pumpkin pie to Christmas cake.
An ongoing adventure
Katharine’s journey has been tough at times, but she says “rewarding, a voyage of self-discovery and a real adventure…”
“I love going back to London” she says “though the congestion drives me mad, so many cars. Here I’m used to the only traffic jam being a couple of cows crossing the road to reach a field! I love my little urban oasis in the French countryside… no” she adds emphatically “no regrets at all”.
leleagouy.com for opening times;
Address: 30 bis, Rue de Maresquel, 62870 Gouy-Saint-André