Getting away from your home life

New challenge: Woodward family Mark and Sarah, with children George, Frankee and Arthur
New challenge: Woodward family Mark and Sarah, with children George, Frankee and Arthur
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Would you let a stranger sleep in your bed, live in your house, drive your car, eat out of your fridge and all while you’re you’re not there? Star reporter Rachael Clegg speaks to two families who would.

THE Chorvalli family seem pretty settled in Stannington.

The children – Thomas, aged 17, 15-year-old Lucile and Yann, 12 – are watching TV and the parents – Vincent and Nathalie – are pottering in the kitchen.

But there is one unusual feature to this scene of domestic bliss – it is not their home. For two weeks, the Chorvallis – from Toulouse in France – have swapped houses with the Woodwards.

“We didn’t know what to expect of Sheffield,” says Nathalie, who works as an English teacher back home. “I didn’t know anything about it but we thought it would be a good experience and we saw pictures of the house on the website and liked it.”

And though the couple didn’t know what to expect from Sheffield, the city is much bigger than they had imagined. “I have only seen it on The Full Monty,” says Vincent. “Sheffield is not a well-known tourist city.”

Toulouse, on the other hand, is very different to Sheffield.

While the Steel City has a population of just more than 500,000, Toulouse has a population of more than one million. The temperature in Tolouse right now is a blistering 30C and its city centre is peppered with 17th-century town houses and huge squares. Sheffield – especially with its cloudy summer – couldn’t be more of a culture shock. But this doesn’t bother the Chorvallis.

“We love this house – it’s so big, which is great having three teenagers,” says Nathalie.

“We’ve started exploring Sheffield,” says Vincent. “We’ve had a walk round the city and are planning lots of days out. We’ve been to London, York and Chatsworth.” This is the first time the Chorvallis have house-swapped.

And they have chosen well. The Woodwards’ house is a sprawling, eco-friendly home in Stannington that is powered by wind turbines and heated geo-thermally. It has a table tennis table and a drum kit set up in one room, a huge television in another, a seemingly-endless dining room table and a homely kitchen with seating area.

Nathalie says: “It’s fantastic, and there are so many cookery books, which is brilliant because I love cooking.

Vincent, a satellite engineer, says: “We don’t mind the fact we are in someone else’s house. We met the Woodwards in the airport so that’s made it feel better as they seem like nice people.”

And while the Chorvallis are playing table tennis at the Woodwards’, the Woodwards are swimming in the Chorvallis’ swimming pool.

Mark Woodward and his family are advocates of house-swapping, having already exchanged homes with families in Germany and Holland. And as house-swapping veterans, the Woodwards are used to having another family live in their home.

“It’s not really that strange for us,” says Mark, who runs his Green Directions eco-education business from the family’s Stannington home.

“You get to stay in a part of a country that isn’t touristy, where people are living ordinary lives and so you are more involved with the community.”

The Woodwards have even made friends with the neighbours of the families whose houses they have been staying in.

Mark says: “We’ve made some really good friends, in particular a Dutch family whose daughter has even been to stay with us here in Sheffield.

“You have to go in with a positive attitude and make the most of all the people and places around you. It broadens your experience.

“I’m not precious about the things in our house – they are just things. And if there’s anything particularly sentimental, you just have to put it away.”

There is also a house-swapping etiquette.

Mark says: “Normally you leave a family with a pre-prepared meal for them when they arrive, so they don’t have to worry about shopping after a long journey.”

There is also a contract that exchanging families are expected to sign before swapping house, this covers any massive damage.

But the choice of being able to stay anywhere in the world for nothing except the offer of your own home for a week or two, is worth it as far as Mark is concerned.

“There are thousands and thousands of people all over the world doing this – you could go anywhere, you can make any number of exchanges anywhere you like,” he says.

Changing places

Homelink started in 1953 and today the company has thousands of homes on its books, across the world.

The house-swapping holiday is a growing phenomenon, partly because of the money it saves.

Home exchangers can filter the houses or guests they want. Guests can opt for a ‘non smoking’ home.

The exchange system is based on trust.

Toulouse has more than one million inhabitants and is the capital of the aerospace industry in Europe.