The way in which Mike and Janie Wilson from the UK decided to uproot their lives as established actors in film, theatre and TV and move to France is one of those 1 in a million chances. They had never thought about doing it, never even looked at a French property and yet something happened which steered their lives along a very different route to their planned one…
Mike Wilson from Glasgow, Scotland has spent 25 years working as a full time actor. His wife Janie worked in theatre and toured the world. A life of glamour you say? Well yes and no. The life of an actor can be an unpredictable affair with many highs, and often, just as many lows – but rarely dull. Janie and Mike had made successful careers and were at a stage where jobs were steady and well paid.
So what made Mike and Janie give up treading the boards full time to offer board and lodging to guests in France? If you believe in fate, you might just think that she played a hand in directing Janie and Mike to their new French life.
Janie and Mike had seen the house in a “discarded copy of The Independent newspaper on a train we were not supposed to be on! We should have gone to our destination the night before but we had promised a mate that we would go and see his son in his school play. So at six o’clock the following morning we were travelling to The Cotswolds to do some corporate/training work – something that used to pay the mortgage in between the acting jobs.”
Another passenger on that early morning commuter train had left the paper behind. On a whim Mike and Janie picked it up and saw an article about how the recession was affecting the house prices in Europe – there were four thumb nail pictures of different houses in different countries – one of them was France.
Despite never having thought about living in France before, there was something about the small photo that “haunted” the couple. They rang the estate agent’s office as soon as it opened that morning and asked for details and soon after, Chez Castillon was theirs.
Janie says “The first time we saw Chez Castillon we thought we had entered a world of make believe. There is no indication from the front of the magic within – you walk into a long, cool, tiled corridor with a wrought iron door at the end leading into a large courtyard garden and pool. It is a truly stunning sight and something we will never forget.”
The 18th Century house in the heart of Castillon La Bataille on the beautiful River Dordogne, needed a lot of love and care to bring it back to life. The gite that came with it was “virtually derelict” and the couple say it was a “steep learning curve” to learn the necessary skills to restore and renovate the beautiful building and rooms. Mike says “One of our neighbours told us with a tear in her eye that we had brought the house back to life. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and supportive – we are the only Brits in town and they have followed our progress with much interest – not to mention amusement”.
Once the house and gite were up and running, Janie and Mike cast their minds to think of ways to use their creative skills and earn an income. Janie had been on a creative writing course in 2007 in Scotland – the tutor was novelist Anita Burgh. Janie had loved it and the idea inspired her and Mike to consider running writing courses. Mike returns to the UK regularly for acting work but it’s at Chez Castillon where their hearts are these days.
Writers retreat in France
The house and gite are perfect for guests, Janie says “Despite its enormity the house envelops you – one of our students said once that she felt it was giving her a hug and that is a very apt description.” Chez Castillon creative writing courses have rapidly become popular with a wide range of people. The courses are taken by established authors and have included Katie Fforde, Judy Astley, Veronica Henry, Kate Lace, Jane Wenham-Jones, Adrian Magson and Anita Burgh. Mike says “We have had an ex Bond girl – a politician – a city stock broker – there really is no ‘typical’ guest. The youngest student we have had is sixteen and the oldest eighty – but on average they tend to be between mid-thirties to mid-fifties. We have students who are total beginners or who are honing skills.”
When guests aren’t being inspired in a class at this beautiful writers retreat in France, they are being inspired by the beautiful location of Chez Castillon. Janie enthuses “The pace of life is relaxed, maybe because of the wine! The people are friendly and genuinely interested in you – everyone talks in the shops and you can’t walk down the street without saying hello to five different people. The surrounding countryside is simply stunning. We have the world heritage site of St Emilion just 10 minutes’ drive away – we have Bordeaux and Bergerac 40 minutes away and the gorgeous Bassin d’Arcachon about an hour’s drive.”
Janie says “We do have couples and welcome non-participating partners, but very often people come on their own.” Mike and Janie love to organise tours for guests – wine, cycling, walking and golfing – there is such a wide variety on offer that finding the time to fit everything in is the only hardship here.
Have Janie and Mike ever regretted their unrehearsed move? “Absolutely not” says Janie, “we love our new life here at Chez Castillon and have found that we love being hosts”…
Chez Castillon, Castillon La Bataille, Bordeaux – painting, photography and creative writing courses.