Three years ago Sam and Helen Miller bought an 18th-century stone farmhouse in Penna San Giovanni - a picturesque medieval hill village surrounded by olive groves in the little-known Italian region of Le Marche.
The idea of buying a property in Italy first occurred to the Millers in the winter of 1989 when they spent a blissful six months in Tuscany, caretaking a house for a friend. Back then they were both pursuing careers in London - Helen as a freelance photographer and teacher, Sam as a painter and sculptor.
What with the pressures of work, 12 long years lapsed before they finally got round to house hunting. They knew that they couldn't afford Tuscany or Umbria but had heard good things about neighbouring Le Marche - a remote and ruggedly beautiful region on the eastern side of the country, sandwiched between the Adriatic Sea and the Appenine Mountains. They decided to check it out for themselves and were delighted when the reports that they had been given about the low prices, the lovely architecture, the friendliness of the people, the delicious food and wine, the unspoilt countryside and the unhurried pace of life turned out to be true.
Eventually they stumbled upon Penna San Giovanni - a sleepy little village of about 1,400 known locally as "the balcony of Le Marche" and enjoying fine views of the mountains and the sea. It had a good selection of shops - including a butcher, a baker and a greengrocer - as well as a couple of friendly bars where the locals congregated every day to gossip and play cards.
The Millers were pointed in the direction of an available property and the house's owner, an old farmer, agreed to let them look it over. "I'll never forget that day," says Helen. "He handed us this beautiful giant metal key dangling on a piece of ribbon and said, 'This is the key to paradise.'"
It was a working farm with 20 acres of land - mainly wooded hills and fields. The ground floor had been used to house farm animals and the disused attic was full of bats. Between these was sandwiched the living area - a kitchen and three bedrooms - that was just about habitable. The house was structurally sound and all the windows were intact but the amenities were extremely limited; there was an outside well and when Helen asked the old farmer where the lavatory was, he simply pointed towards the woods.
However, it was their idea of heaven - an unspoilt rural idyll totally cut off from the modern world. They duly sold their three-bedroom flat in Barnes, bought the farm and, with what was left over, could afford to buy a tiny one-bedroom pied-à-terre in Shepherds Bush.
Since then they've made a number of improvements to their new Italian home. They've evicted the bats, installed two new bathrooms and central heating on the first floor while Sam has converted the cavernous ground-floor area into his studio workspace.
They have also both learnt Italian and made a conscious effort to integrate into the community. The locals have welcomed them into their midst.
For a long time the Millers were determined to keep Le Marche a secret but have now decided to encourage other British people to follow in their footsteps.
Why this change of heart? "We've had a lot of local people asking us if we could help them sell their properties," says Helen. "At first we refused point blank. We didn't want the place becoming overrun with holiday-home owners like it is in Tuscany."
However, it has gradually dawned on the couple that many of the local people, especially the younger ones, are determined to leave. "Many of the people around here can't understand anyone actually choosing to live on top of a hill surrounded by olive groves," says Helen. 'They want to escape and move into new houses with all mod cons in big cities like Milan and Rome."
It was a discussion Helen had with a councillor that convinced her to help local people to sell their houses. "He pointed out that the village has an ageing population and is in danger of dying out. The locals will drift away and all these beautiful buildings will fall into rack and ruin. Sam and I couldn't bear that. After all the pleasure this place has given us, it's time to give something back."
So Helen has started donating her professional services free of charge by photographing local properties and posting the particulars on her website. She intends to vet prospective buyers vigorously. "We don't want developers," she says emphatically, "but we are keen to hear from people who are interested in becoming involved in the local community."
For further details, log on at www.helenmiller.co.uk or telephone Helen Miller direct on 07970 522379.Reuse content