When I pulled up at the farmhouse in Le Monteil, the owners were mending a gap in the fence through which Gaspard the donkey had escaped. There was a freshly planted vegetable garden, varnish drying on a newly finished open-air kitchen, and a gleaming white dome, like a mushroom growing on a wooden platform. An overexcited puppy cannoned about the yard, scattering chickens.
Until a little over a year ago, Charley Tysler and Calum O’Connor were both helicopter fighter pilots in the navy. She was invalided out and he decided not to renew his contract so they could embark together on a challenge that must at times have made dodging missiles from enemy submarines seem like a lark. Injury or no, they have worked ferociously hard to create an idyllic set-up for visitors on their smallholding. They built the outdoor kitchen by hand with the rubble of a collapsed barn. With the help of three Tamworth pigs, they cleared an acre of brambles that had grown to head-height. Once the brambles were gone, enormous boulders were revealed, scattered across the farm like giant prehistoric marbles.
The dome where guests sleep nestles behind these rocks, a little way from the farmhouse. Inside it has a log-burning stove and a wide curved window from which you can gaze across meadows and rolling broadleaf forest. I may as well admit it, this holiday is not to be confused with camping. You get to sit on an actual sofa, sleep in a proper bed and shower in a bathroom (purpose-built, close to the farmhouse). When you wake in the morning, you can hear nothing but birdsong and your shoes are dry. There are two kitchens, one indoors and one open to the sky. There is also a big iron grill as fresh air tends to bring out a compulsion to cook slabs of meat over burning embers in even the most hardened city dwellers.
Nestling between another massive boulder and a group of apple trees, Charley and Calum have installed a Japanese-style hot tub. The water is pumped through a wood burner and my cousin Abbie and I lolled in a fragrant casket of piping hot water, restoring our tired limbs to pink plumpness, drinking rosé and feasting our eyes on the view of rolling hills.
Le Monteil is a place to indulge your fantasies of moving to a gorgeous, empty part of France (45 minutes from the nearest TGV line to Paris) and trying out a bit of rural self-sufficiency. It will be interesting to see which give the hosts more trouble – demanding glamping guests or livestock. During our visit, a cute striped wild boar piglet broke into the Tamworths’ enclosure, and had to be caught before its much bigger and not at all cute parents came looking for it, and smashed the fence down.
You can walk for miles from Le Monteil, through deciduous woodland, and along tracks and roads where you won’t meet a soul. You will pass through hamlets where one or two properties have been done up as gîtes, but many more appear to be empty – triggering more fantasies of moving to rural France.
“This one’s what I’d call a project,” cried Abbie, as we passed a collapsed shed with three walls and a tin roof. We wandered until we were thoroughly lost, and called at the only house for miles around to ask for directions. It was a lovely, rangy old château, with rooms over two floors under a tiled roof. When we later discovered that the place was on the market for €160,000 (£140,600), it was as good as mine.
This part of central France is cattle country, but it is also famous for its population of wolves. Around 15 minutes’ drive from Le Monteil is the forest of Chabrières, where packs of wolves roam. Visitors can look out of wooden hides and watch them at play, while they watch you right back, with those spooky yellow eyes, or do some spontaneous howling (the wolves, too).
After a short drive south, we picked our way along a wide stretch of river at the Thauron gorge, where the resistance blew up a stone bridge to hamper the progress of the German army during the second world war. The stump of the bridge remains, a sturdy memory of defiance (we aren’t all that far from Vichy). In Faux-la-Montagne, half an hour’s drive south, the Clamouzat megalithic rocks stand in ancient woodland. A gentle climb is repaid with a breathtaking view across unspoiled valleys, a silent, enchanted place of oaks, ferns and lichens.
The medieval town of Bourganeuf must have featured in numerous classic French films: there is the well preserved château, the church on the cobbled main square, the familiar bar with bright red paintwork on the corner, and the barmaid with attitude. Opposite the funeral parlour is the butcher, wonderfully named Aux Délices des 4 P’tits Cochons, famed for sauerkraut and, should you be in need of something to put on the grill, sausages.
However, as you are not really camping, you are allowed to drive 10 minutes down the road to the pretty village of La Chapelle-Taillefert where, unusually for rural France, many houses are being restored, apparently for living in. L’Influence restaurant is quite unexpected, it has an unfussy white interior with simple tiled floor, and locally sourced dishes. Tête de veau was top of the menu. On our afternoon walk we had passed small herds of red or white cattle grazing in meadows, their big-eyed calves chewing buttercups, and we wondered whether we could face eating beef. It wasn’t as hard as we thought.