Normandy's glorious, green fields and plentiful apple orchards, sprinkled with pretty villages and occasional ramshackle farm buildings, are picture-postcard perfect, so it is easy to understand why Paul and Dee Rose fell in love with it all.
Loading article content
"Normandy is so beautiful, particularly in the summer and autumn. We holidayed here for a few years before we thought seriously about moving over and running our own business. We don't regret it," say Paul.
Normandy stretches along the Channel coastline between Brittany and Picardy in north-west France. It is famous for many things - its cider, its wartime history, and its place as the home of impressionist art (Giverny, for example, is known through the paintings of Claude Monet, who lived here from 1883 until his death in 1926).
It is a fascinating mix of countryside and seaside; a place where you are never far from rolling farmland or wide, sandy beaches, and where quiet country roads suddenly give way to breathtaking views. Each département has its own character and things to see, from the famous tapestry of Bayeux and the awe-inspiring abbey of Mont St Michel to the contemporary boutiques and restaurants of Rouen and the chateaux of Caen.
Our gite is one of two run by the Roses at La Gasteboisiere in Le Mesnil Adelee, a tiny village in lower Normandy which has been their home for 10 years. Complete with pool, play barn and the original apple press which gives it its name, Le Pressoir has been refurbished into a lovely two-bedroomed property.
The outside decking area catches the sun and the beautiful grounds, which also include a second gite and the couple's family home, are a young explorer's paradise. "There is a secret passage," gasps five-year-old Harry, catching sight of a little path which winds its way through the trees and around the duck pond at the bottom of the garden, "and a bouncy castle …"
It is a bouncy assault course, actually, available to guests in both gites and a reminder of Paul's former life in Ipswich, where he ran a business selling all kinds of inflatables. Dee is a hairdresser, and runs her own "mini-salon". She is originally from South Africa, which is where the couple met, and they moved to France in 2004.
The couple and their children - 12-year-old twins Etienne and Charlie and 11-year-old Chloe - are attentive hosts, popping by with handy hints on where to eat (our tip is the friendly Saint Pizza in Cherence-le Roussel, about 10 minutes up the road, but there are seafood restaurants aplenty, and fine dining at Le Moulin de Jean) or what to visit in the towns and countryside nearby.
The nearest big-ish centre to Le Mesnil Adelee is Brecey, a market town with an excellent boulangerie-patisserie for fresh bread and croissants, and a Super U supermarket. A smaller grocery store - La Cocinelle - is open on Sunday mornings, which is handy if, like us, you arrive late on Saturday after a long drive from Calais.
We travelled with P&O Ferries, preferring the shorter crossing from Dover (it takes just 90 minutes) and the journey from Calais to Brecey took five hours including a couple of stops. Driving in France is pleasant, with wide, well-maintained roads and easy-to-follow signs. You are required by law to carry certain items in the car, including high- visibility jackets, a warning triangle and a self-breathalyser kit. Check out the AA's website for more information (theaa.com)
There are toll pay stations (peage) along the route from Calais to Brecey, totalling around €25, and there are strict speeding laws, with many fixed and mobile cameras.
Le Mesnil Adelee is surrounded by interesting places, from the quaint market towns of Mortain and Avranches to the nearest beaches at Carolles and Jullouville.
Carolles is around 40 minutes' drive away and a fantastic day-trip destination. It is clean and safe - lifeguards keep a watchful eye from the tower which rises above the rows of beach huts, and make regular patrols on the sands in the summer.
Aside from sandcastle-building and splashing in the waves, there are rockpools to explore, a cafe, Aux Delices Carollais, for lunch and ice-cream, and a brilliant beach shop for buckets and spades, kites, fishing nets and other essentials.
Other day trip destinations include Villedieu-Les-Poeles, where you can learn about the area's traditional industries of copper and lace; Caen Castle, built by William the Conqueror around 1060; and Champrepus Zoo.
We decided to head for Mont St Michel, the magnificent medieval town and abbey which is one of France's most famous sights, towering above a vast bay. It has a varied and exciting history: it is named after a dragon-fighting saint described in the leaflet as "head of the heavenly militia"; was once a prison; and held off ferocious assaults during the Hundred Years War.
Heads filled with the worlds of Harry Potter and the Famous Five, Harry and his elder brother Archie, nine, loved the spooky crypts and secret stairways of the abbey.
The monument is an awe-inspiring sight from the "route de la baie", the coastal road which winds through the countryside, and no less impressive up close.
Originally a sanctuary built in honour of the Archangel Michael, it became a focus of pilgrimage in the 10th century, when Benedictine monks settled in the abbey and a village grew up below its walls. It was an impregnable stronghold during the Hundred Years War, resisting all English assaults and quickly becoming a symbol of national identity. Following the dissolution of the religious community during the revolution, the abbey was used as a prison.
We begin our climb to the abbey via the Grande Rue, following in the footsteps of the monks and pilgrims who have flocked here over the centuries. The Grande Rue is now a hive of commercial activity, bustling with souvenir shops and restaurants. It feels a little like Argyle Street around Christmas time, but persevere.
The views from the terraces at the top are breathtaking - the vast bay stretches for miles, from the rock of Cancale in the west to the cliffs of Normandy in the east. Out to sea, you can see the archipelago of the Iles Chausey, source of the granite from which the abbey was built, and above you is the spire upon which a gilded copper statue of Saint Michael sits.
Ambitious plans to restore the bay, which is gradually filling up with silt and sand, have sparked furious debate. The day of our visit, the abbey was open for free as angry staff were on strike in protest over what they consider a money-spinning scheme to bring visitors to the site by shuttle bus.
Normandy has its place in history, of course, as the scene of the D-day landings, the Allied invasion of June 5 and 6, 1944. Keen to learn more about the area's role in the war, we headed for Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
It was here, on the evening of June 5, 1944, that firefighters desperately tried to control a blaze which had broken out in a house behind the church. A curfew was in place, as the small town was occupied by the Germans, so the fire crews were working surrounded by German soldiers at gunpoint.
Against the backdrop of the flames, the sky was suddenly full of parachutes, as members of the 82nd and 101st divisions of American Airborne arrived to begin the liberation.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise is now home to the Airborne Museum, a fascinating and moving memorial to the regiment and the events of that night (made into the 1962 film The Longest Day). An extension to the site is under way, due to open next year in time for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy.
It's hard to know what had the most effect on us: hearing about the bravery of paratrooper John Steele, who hung with his parachute on the church spire, pretending to be dead, until he was captured; the displays of knives and forks, shaving brushes, soap - the paraphernalia of ordinary men's lives and a reminder of how young they were; or the newsreel film which recounts the weeks leading up to the liberation.
Our boys - both well aware of the Second World War through school projects and our own family links through grandparents and great-grandparents - were silent as the guide pointed out bullet holes on the railings outside, evidence of the battles which took place in the marketplace and around the church as the paratroopers arrived.
They were also fascinated by the photo boards dotted around the town, black and white images cleverly placed to show what different parts of the centre looked like during the war.
The whole place is a reminder of just how much was sacrificed here - and that realisation, along with the memories of sunshine and sandy beaches, beautiful green countryside and spectacular views, stayed with us long after leaving Normandy for home.
Return travel on P&O Ferries from Dover to Calais costs from £60 for a car and passengers. Upgrading to the Club lounge costs £12 per person each way.
Bookings for Le Pressoir are being taken for next summer - check the website for availability and prices. For more information and to book, visit cheznous.com or westfranceholidayrentals.co.uk.