‘I chose France and, after nominally allocating myself a year in which to explore different regions, I started trawling the internet looking at interesting properties. I chose a few houses at random, booked my first weekend trip in November 2011 and … bought a house!' she laughs. 'After one trip, 5 houses looked at and with no idea of the region around the house I bought La Balie, a collection of beautiful stone farm buildings dating from the 16th century, located near Bergerac in South West France. Set in 10 acres of rolling hills and woodland among the Bastide towns of Lot-et-Garonne, I knew as soon as I drove up the drive that I’d arrived somewhere with potential.’
Most people would be thrilled with a purchase like that, but Fiona is not one to sit still and had grand ideas for her french rural retreat. ‘Thinking about what I could do with La Balie was easy – there were four key areas that I felt passionate about; music, well-being, cooking and corporate strategy (couldn’t quite bring myself to leave behind those hard won years of experience!) I felt that with a bit of work La Balie could be transformed into a perfect location for small groups of like-minded people to come and indulge their passions too.' Roll the clock forward 2 years and following an extensive renovation, La Balie now offers a superb setting for Health and Yoga retreats, Music Master Classes and Executive/Corporate Seminars.
I imagined Fiona had grown up tinkling the ivories but found out that she started playing the piano as a complete novice adult beginner a year or two before she bought La Balie ‘I knew that hearing music being played and creating an environment for musicians to learn was a core part of my plan for the house’ she explains. 'A friend of mine had bought me a copy of Alan Rusbridger’s book ‘Play it Again’, his account of learning Chopin’s First Ballade, and by co-incidence I noticed the summer piano camp Alan attended was only a short drive from La Balie. I duly went along to the summer concerts and through them met both Alan and James Lisney who was one of the tutors in the summer of 2013. Both Alan and James came to see La Balie last year and it wasn’t long before my own summer piano courses were launched.’
Extremely important to Fiona is the intimate feel of the course which facilitates amateur musicians to bare themselves musically in front of the group and learn from the masters as well as relax and enjoy the sunshine and luscious local cuisine. La Balie summer courses are open to pianists of all abilities with two weeks dedicated to intermediate and advanced players. The courses are limited to a maximum of 10 people and the format allows a small, relaxed and intimate teaching experience, with masterclasses in the morning and individual lessons in the afternoon. There is the opportunity to perform at the evening concerts, multiple practice pianos, luxurious accommodation, fabulous food and wine and the stunning setting of the Lot-et-Garonne. James plays a public recital one evening with the other evenings reserved for students to perform and eating out at a couple of superb local restaurants.’
And so Fiona has made the startling transition from high powered businesswoman to creator of a haven of beauty, tranquility and learning in one of the most stunning settings in Europe. Enough now Fiona? No chance, she’ll be expanding in the future into chamber music, violin, cello, jazz and of course the all important cookery school will be arriving soon too… Bon appetit!