Career change in France: Highway maintenance to natural pools

Alex Wells explains how building her own chlorine-free swimming pool led to a new role

Alex Wells, 57, was a highway maintenance engineer until she moved to France and built her own natural pool

Since moving to France from the UK, my life has changed completely – and definitely for the better. 

After obtaining a degree in civil engineering, I spent much of my life working in highway maintenance. 

It was more than a full-time job. I would be up at 5:45, get to my desk at 7:00, and only arrive back home at 18:00. 

And the job did not end there. I would often be on call 24/7 in case there was a crash and a section of motorway had to be shut.

Working in highway maintenance is very much ‘behind the scenes’. 

We attend crashes, oil spills and fires, and grit the road, repair potholes and road signs – often things that people do not think about. 

It was an intense, fast-moving job and no two days were ever the same.

Read more: I moved to France and became an English translator by accident

I bought a little house for €15,000

I knew that eventually I would want to slow down and had always enjoyed the British property series A Place in the Sun. Through this, I had developed an affinity with the Limousin and came over in 2011 just to have a look. 

I discovered a little house for sale for just €15,000. Unable to resist, I took out a personal loan and bought it.

At the time, my son Ted was 10 and did not want to move to France. However, it was somewhere I could come on holiday and eventually retire to.

I planned to move in properly a decade later, but in the end I came over in late 2020 – partly as a result of Brexit.

Pig farming, catering, driving HGVs - I’ve done it all

I am too young to retire completely and like to be busy, so I have worked in a variety of fields since my arrival.

Fortunately, I have several strings to my bow. 

I am an accomplished seamstress, have worked on a pig farm, driven HGVs and, as my family used to run hotels and pubs, I have a lot of catering experience. 

I registered as a micro-entrepreneur in France and have since made and sold gateaux secs, dabbled in interior design and landscape gardening, and bought and sold at brocantes. 

I am also in the process of getting my civil engineering degree validated in France. I love the variety and being my own boss.

My main occupation, however, is advising on and helping with the installation of natural swimming pools.

I wanted a chemical-free pool

I developed asthma in my 30s and am intolerant to chlorine, so I knew that when I arrived in France I wanted a natural, chemical-free pool to swim in as a way to keep fit.

To facilitate this, I went on a UK course with David Pagan Butler, the ‘godfather’ of natural pools. 

With my engineering knowledge, I was quickly able to grasp how they function, their maintenance and how to keep them clear without using harmful products.

In 2022, I started work on my 40m² (swim area) pool. It took a year, due to events beyond my control, and cost around €8,000 to construct.

Read more: How to wake up your swimming pool when temperatures get warmer

Water is clear because of the plants

Although building a natural pool can be hard work, once complete, it is more or less maintenance-free. 

They work with small compressors that blow air through a drainage pipe under a layer of gravel. 

The water remains clear because of the air and plants. All I have to do is clear out the dead leaves once in a while. 

Natural pools are also ideal for second-home owners, because if your compressor fails and the water goes green, a new compressor will clean the water in about 10-14 days.

I have found freedom in France

My pool business has grown mainly through word of mouth. 

I started off consulting with individual clients: giving information, project managing, and dipping in and out at key points of the build. I now also run workshops teaching how to build your own natural pool. 

The benefit of my new life in France is the freedom I have gained. I work hard, but on my own terms – and I enjoy what I do. 

I have been able to learn and develop new skills, which is very rewarding. 

I am lucky enough to live in a small but beautiful house – a former shooting lodge – and have my own pool to swim in.

To come home at night and see my little house always feels amazing. It is not completely finished, but it is warm and dry and the pool is lovely – all year round. I even had a swim on Boxing Day. 

And best of all... I am no longer constantly on call!