Losing her beloved parents led Tamsin Chubb to reassess everything. She describes here how she gave up her high-powered career and moved to her mother’s home in Southwest France, where she now runs a yoga retreat.
Throwing open the cream-coloured shutters, I close my eyes and breathe in the cool morning air. Looking out at the wooded valley and wild woodland that falls away from my south-facing terrace, I am once again reminded of how I came to be living in this beautiful place.
My life now is a world away from the high-powered career I had built up during my 20s – and then rejected in my 30s. Until I was 33, I lived in a gorgeous flat by the sea in Brighton and enjoyed a successful career in interior design, working for the Queen’s nephew – bespoke furniture maker and luxury homeware designer David Linley – in Mayfair.
But when my mum unexpectedly died, my world wobbled on its axis. All the things that had mattered so much to me in my professional and personal life no longer seemed to have meaning. The pursuits I had previously found enjoyment in – an active social life and consumer lifestyle – were no longer enough. The life I had built for myself didn’t make me happy any more. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the most fundamental way I viewed my world had changed.
A decade on and my life has undergone a seismic transformation. Five years ago I moved to France, where I didn’t speak the language and had no friends to welcome me. ‘Home’ is my mum’s 18th-century stone house. It is tucked beneath the ramparts of the ancient castle of Montesquieu, in Southwest France. It is here that I’ve finally found what is important to me.
When guests hear how I came to be living here they often remark, ‘What you have done is so courageous.’ And on reflection, maybe it is. But there was never any other option. I knew I had to make a profound life change, and I found courage I never knew I had.
The first nudge towards my new life path came when I lost my father, John, when I was just 20. He was only 48 and had worked incredibly hard all his life running our family butcher’s shop. The retirement dreams he fondly nurtured of learning to paint when he ‘had more time’ were never to come to fruition.
I was just about to leave home to study three-dimensional design at Brighton University when Dad was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. A mole was removed from his back, but he was given no follow-up treatment. The disease silently spread throughout his body, and exactly one year later he died. The shock and grief triggered intense panic and anxiety attacks in me.
An appointment with my GP proved to be the next nudge along the path. She told me that I would benefit immensely from learning calming techniques, such as breathing properly – which would help me manage my panic attacks. Taking up yoga, she suggested, would help me control my breathing.
Twenty-three years ago, yoga wasn’t the height of fashion it is today but, fortunately, there was a Sivananda yoga centre near where I lived. Sivananda isn’t just about the physical postures in yoga; it’s about the whole way you live your life, encompassing meditation, relaxation, encouraging a vegetarian diet and, of course, correct breathing. After just three sessions I felt totally different. In no time at all, I was going to classes three times a week. The practice helped me conquer my panic and fear and I was able to balance and control my emotions. Yoga became an integral part of my life, and I practised as and when I could.
After I graduated, I entered the corporate world of interior design. I was good at my job. Fast-forward ten years, and my career was at its peak. I was a single career girl with an affluent lifestyle, running the Mayfair branch of Linley, with a wide coterie of friends. Life was good.
But then life took another turn. My mum Linda was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer. She had taken early retirement at 59 and bought a house in Southwest France. She loved it and was intending to live out the rest of her days there with my stepfather. Unfortunately, the cancer had other plans and she died nine months after the diagnosis. With incredible kindness, Linley allowed me to spend the last month of mum’s life by her bedside at home.
Mum had owned the property in France for just two years when she passed away in July 2008, aged 61, but had been too unwell to visit it for the last year of her life. Mum’s death brought home to me how precious life is. My parents had worked so hard throughout their lives. They each passed away without having done the things they had dreamt of doing.
It would have been so easy in my grief to take refuge in the wrong things, such as alcohol, yet three months later I found myself calmly handing in my notice at work. I had lost all sense of purpose and joy. I would wake up and panic, thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’ I was no longer supporting my team or my boss in the way that I wanted to. I used to live for my job, but I realised I couldn’t care less any more if I was selling furniture or not. It was then that I realised what true grief was. All those things I’d placed so much importance on paled into insignificance.
I bought a six-week return ticket to India. Intuitively I knew I had to get back to my yoga. My best friend from school days is half Goan and had left South Kensington to live in Goa. I spent the first two weeks of my trip with her, sobbing. Until then I’d led an incredibly structured life. Everything revolved around profit and loss spreadsheets, team management and my demanding working life. Suddenly I found myself in an apartment on a beach while my friend sat working on her laptop in her bikini.
It was a complete shock to see there was an alternative life outside corporate London. The professional ‘to do’ list that dominated my life seemed meaningless. After losing first Dad, and now Mum, I no longer wanted my world to revolve around paying my mortgage or the repayments on my car.
It was a liberating and illuminating six weeks. Yet it wasn’t long enough. I decided to take a whole year out. I rented out my flat in Brighton to pay the mortgage, and lived on the small income from my mum’s pension. I went to Thailand for a year to practise yoga, but also to discover how to function on my own. When I returned home, the pull to learn more about yoga became stronger. I wanted to become a teacher, so I spent the next four years between India – where I was trained to teach with the Sivananda organisation – and Brighton, where I started running my own classes.
All the time, the house in France remained unoccupied. Mum had left it to my sister and me. My stepfather would make regular trips to maintain the property, but otherwise it was empty. Waiting, perhaps, for me to arrive.
My sister Verity wanted to sell it. Yet I hesitated; I couldn’t let go of the last link to Mum. I asked her if I could stay there for three months. I was curious to see if I could live there. So in 2012, I moved to Montesquieu for ten weeks.
I arrived in July. It was blissfully quiet and I spent balmy evenings on the terrace, with just the sound of cicadas to keep me company. I understood why Mum loved it so much: the peace, the tranquillity, the way of life chimed with my own. Her essence was everywhere – in the gardens, in the house, even the objects she had chosen reminded me of her presence.
I instantly took to the daily rhythm of life in rural France. The house is in the village, where life goes on as it has done for centuries. Consumerism is meaningless here. At the end of the ten weeks, I knew without doubt that I could live here. Indeed, I wanted to live here. Early 2012 had seen me spending three months teaching yoga in India and I realised that if students were happy to travel to India to practise yoga, then perhaps they would travel to France to do the same.
Mum had bought the house with my stepfather John for €180,000. Fortunately, John, having been a builder, was able to do much of the work that was needed. The current valuation was €245,000. I sold my Brighton flat and was able to pay my sister half my share in the first year and the rest in the second. Verity made the process incredibly gentle for me. Even better, the release of the funds meant she was able to move out of London to the village where Mum had lived in the UK. While I decorated and furnished the property, I was tough with myself – living on a budget of just £500 a month. It was all I could afford until I started earning an income. While friends visited from the UK to help me transform the house, it was eight months before acquaintances and locals became friends. At times I struggled, but I never thought of giving up. Whenever I felt overwhelmed, I would spend time on my own in silence. I was learning how to embrace stillness.
The three-storey house has three twin bedrooms, which can accommodate six guests. The view of the valley from each bedroom is breathtaking. I turned the conservatory into my bedroom. Throughout the kitchen, dining room and living room are pieces that belonged to Mum. There’s also a dining-room table, a painted dresser, curtains salvaged from a dry cleaner in London and Mum’s lovely blue-and-white plates. My pièce-de-résistance is the double-height yoga studio, with a sanded, oiled floor and a huge window that bathes the space in sunshine.
By summer 2013, my wellbeing centre was ready to open. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first week I suffered a panic attack. Once again, I had to remind myself that this was just a phase and I would feel different tomorrow.
In September 2013 I ran my first yoga retreat. I was quietly thrilled with how well-received the house was. The Little French Retreat has been up and running for more than four years now. It has taken on a life of its own. People come from all over the world. The ultimate compliment is when guests ask me how they can set up their own retreat.
In my former professional life, I would approach situations with my head. With the retreat, I’ve allowed my intuition to lead the way. The truth is, if I had strategically planned this on a spreadsheet, it would never have happened.
Meeting a lovely French man 18 months ago has been the icing on the cake. Arnaud runs a restaurant in a nearby village and we really do complement one another.
Today I have a new sense of purpose, and what I do has meaning. I run yoga retreats in spring and autumn. In winter I teach in India, and in summer I run a chambre d’hôte [bed and breakfast]. I teach classes every week in the village too. And all the while I’m doing something that I love and that helps others.
While I feel guided by Mum, yoga has always been a way for me to find peace. It’s shown me a way to live that works for me. It has given me a balanced life and allowed me to become an honest and compassionate person. I’ve spent 20 years going through the grieving process. I now realise I can offer something to others in different stages of their life, too.
For more information about Tamsin’s yoga retreats, visit littlefrenchretreat.com