How a near-fatal crash led to this couple living out their dream in France
Retired couple Derrick and Iris Mathews, originally from Tandragee, are living the good life running a gite in the Loire Valley region. But it was only after Derrick survived a horrendous car smash that the ambitious move became a reality.
A miraculous escape from a serious car crash was the catalyst for a complete change of lifestyle for Derrick and Iris Mathews. Five years after the head-on collision, the couple, formerly from Tandragee, realised their dream of making a permanent move to France, where they have set up a beautiful holiday cottage to rent to tourists in the stunning grounds of their new home.
But given the gravity of the 2009 accident, Derrick (60) is lucky to be alive to enjoy his magical surroundings in the Loire Valley. The former community relations and victims/survivors consultant had been at a birthday party for one of his six grandchildren and was travelling back home in his Land Rover, just ahead of Iris - who was driving back in her own car with other grandchildren - when he collided with a coach on a narrow bridge, forcing his car to roll over on its right side.
"Iris rounded the corner to find the Land Rover lying on its side with smoke coming out of it," Derrick recalls. "The rescue services arrived quickly but it took over an hour to cut me free.
"I was conscious throughout and I told the team that I was the luckiest man alive - any other time, Iris and the grandchildren would have been in the vehicle."
Derrick spent the next eight weeks in Daisy Hill and the Royal Victoria hospitals, undergoing a number of operations.
"My pelvis was shattered and there was a lot of damage done to the tendons in my right arm, and I'd problems with the right side of my face and jaw," he explains. "I still get bits of glass coming through my right arm. They come up as lumps and prick through my skin. But I was very lucky it wasn't a lot worse."
With the accident creating an unexpected career break for Derrick, he and Iris (58), a youth community worker and holistic therapist, began to consider how they could turn their circumstances into an opportunity. After spending almost 30 years working directly and indirectly in Troubles-related arenas, they'd hatched a long-term plan to retire and live in France.
Then, by chance, Iris spotted an advert for the sale of a gite (self-catering accommodation) and holistic therapy business in Normandy. Once Derrick was passed fit to travel, in October 2014, they visited the property and began their plans to relocate to France. And, with their three children all married and settled, they had no qualms.
Tandragee-based Keith (38) is an internationally renowned dog trainer and breeder of field-trial champion Labrador gundogs; Luise manages a major retail fashion brand in Belfast and lives in Richhill, and Emma Jane, a youth worker, lives in South Africa with her husband and two children.
"The property in Normandy did not meet our expectations but it did give us an understanding of what we could expect," says Iris.
"We began to develop criteria for what we wanted in a new home. We decided early on that we didn't want to follow the normal route, or, if you're from Northern Ireland, the traditional route of many ex-pats from the UK - buying a wreck and living in a caravan for a few years while you renovated the property.
"We wanted the property to be liveable in from the start and it had to have the potential for a gite or B&B, with some storage space and a reasonable sized garden."
At this stage they were living in scenic Ballymartin in south Down. After putting their home on the market, they decided to spend a year living in France looking for their new home. They were fortunate, in a depressed market, to get a cash buyer for their home here and enough profit to move to Normandy in 2014.
But after spending a wet winter there, similar in climate to home, they decided to move further south, renting in the Deux-Sevres region in France for a few months.
"We rented gites out-of-season or that the owners were selling," says Derrick. "We listened and learned from other ex-pats and did our research, and the more we visited the Loire Valley region, we found ourselves more and more drawn to it.
"We began looking for properties in and around Saumur, a beautiful and historic small city there. We checked out the adverts in notaries' offices - they handle all the legalities for property sales - anywhere with a private for-sale sign.
"All the owners were happy to show us around and discuss their properties with us. We have never said or say 'parlez-vous Anglais?' here, and the French appreciate it when you make an effort with the language."
Again, fate was to intervene for the couple, when they found their dream property by chance.
"We were looking at another property nearby and we heard about this house, Tremblay, which had been in probate since the death of the English owner," Iris recalls. "We were immediately drawn to its peaceful and serene setting and it fulfilled all our main criteria. So, we got in touch with the former owner's wife, which cut out agent fees and saved us quite a bit."
The deal was completed last July for the property, which consisted of a three-bedroom house, a structure suitable for guest gite, a large barn, a store and approximately 4,000 square metres of lawns, surrounded by an overgrown leylandi hedge.
Derrick and Iris immediately installed a new kitchen in the main house and since then have concentrated on getting the gite ready for guests. That involved connecting water, electrics, installing plumbing, heating and furnishing the rooms.
The result is a very charming two-bedroom cottage which sleeps four to six, fully outfitted with all amenities.
Twenty-five miles north of Saumur, near a chateaux rented by Simon Cowell for recent X Factor boot-camp auditions, it already has bookings for next month and is fully booked for August.
Derrick says: "Iris has a flair for interior design and we've completed the gite to a high standard - we even have welcome packs with shower gel and toothpaste.
"Iris plans to start her holistic therapies soon and we are continuing to landscape the gardens - the gite has its own private garden and parking, and guests are welcome to use an above-ground plunge pool, a football/sports area and what we call a lavender-enclosed Zen area.
"We've also tried to create a number of different seating areas around the garden, where guests can enjoy the peace and tranquillity of our beautiful rural setting.
"The light is great for those with an interest in photography or painting and for those wanting to write that best-selling novel, the tranquillity of the gite and gardens provides a very creative space."
A four-hour drive from Cherbourg, the gite is within easy reach of several historical sites, chateaux, towns, villages, wineries and popular cycling routes. Iris admits that apart from family, there is little she and Derrick miss about Northern Ireland.
"Our kids and grandkids and wider family circle have already visited us and we enjoyed real quality time together. With Skype, Facebook and FaceTime as well as phone, we can all stay in touch quite easily.
"We certainly do not miss the Northern Ireland weather - the Loire Valley has a micro-climate and leans towards long, dry, warm summers and mild winters. We do on occasion miss a particular brand of cheese and onion crisps made in Tandragee, though."
Meanwhile, the Brexit referendum debate is especially pertinent for the Mathews.
"There's rife speculation here on what will happen if the UK stays or leaves," says Iris.
"Everything has become a political football to beat the other side with. It will have an impact on ex-pats if the UK decides to leave but what that will be, no one can really tell. We would sit in the remain camp.
"For anyone wondering about buying a property in France after the referendum, the French market is not like the UK's, anyway. Sellers tend to set the prices, sometimes contrary to the advice of their property agents, and properties can be vastly overpriced, given the slowly recovering property market in France.
"Many ex-pats expect to recover not only their purchase price, but also their renovation costs, even when the property was renovated over 20 years ago.
"You need to do your homework and margin hard, and to be prepared to walk away, even if you are really interested, rather than pay over the odds. There's a vast amount of older properties for sale in most regions, so there will always be an alternative."
The Mathews buy their materials and products in France, rather than bringing them across from the UK, which sits well with the local artisans they employ and with their neighbours. They find the language one of the most challenging aspects of their new life.
"We tend to make notes on what we want to say and then have a go," Derrick laughs. "In the main, we have found the French will help us and working with the artisans, engaging with our local community, attending events provide the perfect opportunities to improve our French.
"We also like to get out and about when we can and travel to a number of different towns and villages to shop, so we are continually engaging with the French. Now that the work on the gite is effectively complete we also hope to attend French language classes in the nearby city of Angers in the autumn.
"We love the French culture, and their history and how it is respected, the pace of life and the attitudes.
"We even find that our humour is not dissimilar - perhaps it's a Celtic thing.
"And, of course, we're proud of our football fans, from both the north and south, over here. They are behaving very well and it has been noticed. Ideally, we would like to see a France v Northern Ireland final and we will be supporting our boys in green all the way."