Working long hours and struggling to find satisfaction, 2014 saw Mike Tucker and his wife Joss sell up everything before leaving the UK with their young family for a new life in rural France. Settling in the Ariège with a view of the Pyrenees, the couple set out to create a base – the Zero Neuf of their 9th department location – for guests to experience and escape in a relaxed and rule free environment.
Fast forward eight years and the various strands of this holistic vision for vacationing all came together in Gather; a ‘leave no trace event’ that saw guests enjoy four days of music, conversation, hiking and cycling, in and around the beautiful setting of the couple’s 19th century farmhouse.
Reflecting back on this community-based festival, Mike talks candidly about his own struggles with mental health, the highs and lows of building their Zero Neuf business and the joys of sharing this country idyll over a long weekend in June.
It’s early evening and the mid-summer sun casts lengthening shadows across the farmhouse garden. Cutting a youthful figure in t-shirt and shorts, Mike Tucker has finally found a spare half hour in his busy schedule to sit and chat. But as he points out with a smile, every day is busy when you run your own business and live on the premises.
Swapping a daily commute through city suburbs for the early morning ritual of coffee on the patio – the stone flags warm to the feet in summer and with a view across snow-capped mountains in winter – this calm, peaceful environment is certainly a contrast to Mike’s previous professional life.
“Prior to our move to France, Joss and I had two very young children and I was working in a particularly intense environment that involved a lot of travel. So I was often away from home and, when I was home, I was absent because of my stress levels.”
“Something had to give and as Joss is half French on her Mum’s side and had spent large parts of her childhood in France, the decision to relocate actually wasn’t that difficult as I just wasn’t coping.”
Putting their house on the market in April, by August the last box was packed and Mike drove south through France after putting Joss and the boys on a plane for their leg of the journey. Initially considering the Loire Valley, the couple had fallen in love with the rural landscape of the Ariège and a stone farmhouse and outbuildings that would become their new home.
With a focus on the simple things in life – good food and company with a healthy dose of outdoor adventure – now that Zero Neuf is firmly established as a welcome retreat for an eclectic mix of guests, Mike is happy to reflect on the nature of their business model but also, perhaps more pertinently, on what it isn’t.
“There’s no need to worry about what you’re wearing, the height of your socks or what bike you’re riding. We’re a very laid back couple and, as a result, the business we run also has a relaxed feel. Basically, you’re staying in our home. We live here, our two boys live here, our cats, dogs and hens live here. So our guests also become part of the family.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Mike admits that initially they took on far too many of the everyday tasks—an approach that left them both exhausted.
“Neither Joss or I had run a small business before embarking on this journey. I still find it hard to delegate tasks and, on the flip side, Joss previously worked for a large corporation which was quite structured and Zero Neuf is anything but.”
“We’re still involved in absolutely everything – from making beds to cooking dinner and serving beers – but now, thankfully, we do at least have some help. I suppose we were just swept along by it all.”
Willing to open up as Mike is, I’m reticent about asking my next question but decide to plough ahead with the caveat that he can always decline to answer.
“What’s it like to be married to your business partner? On the whole, it’s a joy. I guess there aren’t many people who get to wake up next to their CEO before doing it all over again the next day.”
“But nothing is perfect and there are times when it’s incredibly stressful. And because the business has been a success, we’re very busy so perhaps we spend less time as a family than we would doing 9-5 jobs. A little ironic as we live where we work.”
Another interesting observation is the length of time it took for the family to feel accepted in their local neighbourhood. Perhaps a little surprising as Joss speaks fluent French but an aspect of rural life the couple respected and that subsequently resulted in a true feeling of belonging.
“We now feel part of something really special. Very different to living in the UK where we witnessed a lot of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ behaviour. If anything, it’s the opposite here and there’s a real wholesomeness to our friendships. As a person who’s struggled with their mental health, I really appreciate our local community and the people that visit as they all contribute to our sense of wellbeing.”
This mention of visitors prompts me to ask about Gather; recently enjoying a welcome return after a pandemic-enforced hiatus. An event that grew from Mike and Joss’ concept of a community-led festival and supported by a range of partners with komoot as headline sponsor, tickets are purposefully limited to a lucky one hundred.
“Gather is an opportunity for like-minded people to come together—to meet, mix, learn and share. An event that one of our guests described as a big family reunion where everyone can be themselves and not feel under pressure to be something they’re not. So if you don’t want to ride it isn’t a problem but the riding we do is on beautiful tracks and trails and with a real emphasis on a connection with nature.”
Look through the images shared over Instagram and everyone is smiling and clearly having fun. Whether tucking into a communal feast, listening to talks on the farmhouse lawn, cooling off post-ride in the nearby River l’Hers or enjoying an early morning yoga session next to the saltwater swimming pool—the festival goers appear relaxed as they mingle and make friends.
“Events like Gather don’t just happen in isolation. We work with a wonderful team of friends, volunteers and partners to pull everything together. Very humbling when you consider the time and energy they’re willing to devote to a common goal.”
“So even though we own the Gather name, the event belongs to many. And we’re purposely keeping it small because we want it to remain intimate and personal. It’s an amazing thing to be responsible for, to be part of and to continue.”
Admitting to feeling a little sad as the final guests pack up ready for return journeys home, now that the festival is finished for another year Mike can resume the regular rhythm of each working day.
“My favourite time at Zero Neuf is undoubtedly the morning—that 15 or 20 minutes I get by myself, listening to the birdsong. As for the seasons, I particularly love late spring and early summer when there’s such a vibrancy with everything coming back to life. But what’s also interesting is that back in the UK I used to dread the onset of autumn. Leaving home to commute into the city in the dark and it being dark again on my return. Here I manage to enjoy the winters; helped by our beautiful view of the Pyrenees and the season’s first snowfall.”
Leading such a busy life, it’s the bike that offers a sense of escape. Mike describing how he might be having the worst day possible – which admittedly is now a rarity – but when he clips in and turns the pedals, then all his worries seem to disappear.
“I do feel incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved when you consider we had little, if any, experience in the hospitality industry. Watching Zero Neuf grow and the community we’ve built—in some ways it can feel quite overwhelming. But we’re both very conscious of never getting too carried away or losing sight of what we’ve got.”
“It would be easy to keep growing and adding to what we do here but both Joss and I feel that would be a mistake. Sometimes you’ve just got to accept that what you’ve got is enough. Too often we strive for bigger and better when it’s maybe wiser to take stock and stay where you are. Deep down I know this feels right and my previous life felt utterly wrong.”