Thirty years after the English first discovered its rolling hills and beautiful houses, the region is once again in fashion. It is hardly surprising the English love it: it looks just like home, English is spoken almost everywhere, there is more sunshine and properties are a third of the price. The countryside is stunning, the houses magnificent, built in limestone that is reminiscent of the Cotswolds. And since the budget airlines started flying in four years ago, the demand for property has spiralled.
According to Jérôme de Chabaneix, an estate agent with Orpi, France’s largest chain of agents, prices rose by 50 per cent last year alone. “This is more or less due to the English,” he says. “Seventy per cent of my clients are foreign and of them 90% are Anglo-Saxon.” In his newly refurbished office in the picturesque town of Lalinde, he explains that nowadays most buyers are cash buyers and that they’re almost all after the same thing.
“They don’t even have to sell their houses in the UK,” he says. “They just release the equity and then come looking for old stone houses and space. Most of them have a budget of around €300,000 and are moving here permanently.”
De Chabaneix says that only 25% of his English clients are moving to the Dordogne to retire.
So what are they doing to make a living? Simon and Karen Colebourn, both in their 40s, moved to the medieval village of Eymet in January 2003 and now run an internet café there. They bought the whole property, including a 375 square metre ground floor space and four bedroom apartment above with two terraces for €100,000.
“I like living here because it’s like England 50 years ago,” says Simon. “Having said that we have kept our home outside Bath just in case.” Simon and Karen had a holiday home in Brittany for 16 years before they moved to Eymet. “Then suddenly it all just came together,” says Simon. “The partners in the PR company I was working for decided they would be better off without me, I had a minor heart problem, the children were at the right age to move and the business opportunity came up.” The property they bought was an old grain store and was completely derelict downstairs, although the apartment above it was habitable.
They spent six months and around €70,000 renovating it. “We have a good mixture of clients; French, English, Spanish and Italian,” says Simon. “A lot of them come down from the Buddhist retreat nearby where there is no internet access.”
If you are moving to the Dordogne in search of a job and you don’t speak any French, then Emyet, or Little England as it is also known, is the place to be. It seems one can manage there without so much as a ‘parlez vous anglais?’ The local newsagent says he sells more English newspapers than he does French, Nathalie, a French girl working in a computer shop called MCD Informatique (owned by a Brit) says 80% of her clients are English. “But most of them don’t speak French,” she says.
“It is amazing that some people have been here 35 years and still don’t speak any French, you certainly couldn’t get away with moving to England and not learning English,” says Simon. “The locals are really receptive considering it’s like a re-invasion of south west France. Having said that 15 years ago Eymet was run down and forgotten. Thanks to the influx of foreigners it’s booming.”
Kevin Walls bought the English grocery store there and so far is doing a booming trade. “I just got fed up with the government and the rat race over in England,” he says. “It’s a great way of life here.” Walls has both English and French customers and says the most popular thing is Walker’s Crisps. “I have renamed the shop Le Magasin Anglais, it used to be The English Shop, which I think was a bit unfriendly towards the locals. All the other shop owners have welcomed me with open arms and people come from two hours away to buy their bacon and shredded wheat.”
His house in Norfolk is stuck in a chain but once it is sold his wife will join him. “We’re looking at some places in the countryside,” he says. “We’ve found some nice ones for about €180,000 with three to four bedrooms. Basically places that if you picked up and put in Kent would cost you half a million pounds.”
Most Brits that move to the region are not looking to set up a business but rather to do up a stone house, rent out part of it as a gîté and live in the other part. It’s a formula that has worked for years.
Jane bought her nine-bedroom farmhouse in 1989 for £175,000. She has since spent thousands of pounds doing it up. “One thing people don’t realise is that the cost of renovating here is much more than in other parts of France,” she says. “And that is because the demand is so huge.” For example, the cost of renovating a classic Dordogne stone roof is around £300 per square metre. Builders working for cash charge between €150 and €200 a day. “That can quickly add up to €1,000 a week,” says Hamish Eadie. “Not an easy amount of money to find if you’re not working.”
Hamish Eadie was made redundant from the city in 2000 and moved to the medieval village of Beynac on the Dordogne River with his wife Xanthe and two sons Gus and Rory. They bought a restaurant business and have spent the last four years serving the French and English that live in the region with vegetarian alternatives to the local fare of meat and garlicky potatoes. The business was a huge success, but Hamish warns those thinking of moving here to start a business not to underestimate the difficulties setting up in France. “The French do love a tax,” he says. “And you end up paying 60% social charges on anyone you employ. Having said all that, we love it here and are looking for our next big project.”
Stephen and Carelle Sherwood moved out just over four years ago. They sold their house in the New Forest in 2000 and bought a 16th century manor house built by King Henry IV. They decided to leave England mainly due to the ban on hunting that they saw the government pushing through. “I have been hunting since the age of four,” says Stephen, a former master of the New Forest Foxhounds. “It was the Bournemouth protest that made me realise it was time to leave. We had a pilot arranged to fly with a protest banner in front of the hotel where the Labour Party Conference was taking place. The police said if he came within a mile of the hotel he would never fly again. It was this heavy handed approach that made us decide to get out.”
Stephen and Carelle got out a map of France and the French hunting yearbook. They pinpointed the greenest areas of the country and those with most hunt kennels. They settled on the region around the Forêt de la Double close to Périgaux and paid £230,000 for their house along with 100 acres of commercial woodland. “We moved out with our hounds, horses and peacocks,” says Stephen who is now running an equestrian property consultancy while doing up the house. “I was going to start fox hunting but the hounds have started hunting wild boar and are enjoying it enormously.”
Carelle loves the way of life in France. “We lived in the New Forest for 27 years,” she says. “But towards the end all you could hear were the lorries changing gear as they went up the hills. Here I wake up every morning to the sound of bird song. It really is totally stress free.” Stephen agrees. “I have no regrets. My French is coming along, although I must admit getting the permis de chasse (hunting permit) was a bit of a challenge. I have only been back to England twice in four years, once for the Countryside Alliance March and once for my son’s wedding.”
The relentless stream of newcomers does not seem to be slowing down. But one downside with the influx of Brits is that there are now almost no classic old stone houses to be had. “Stone and space is all the English ask for,” says de Chabaneix. “They are going to have to start looking at alternatives soon.”
One couple that has done so is Nina and John Parr who moved to Villefranche de Lonchat three years ago. Villefranche is a bastide founded by Edward I around 1280 situated between the Isle and Dordogne Rivers, 38 kilometres from Bergerac. John is a builder and Nina runs a property business. “We have bought a plot and are going to build our own home,” says Nina. “In fact we’re going to build three and sell two. It seemed the best option for us, especially as we can do most of the work ourselves.”
Another option is to try the neighbouring region of the Lot. There are plenty of stone houses, even more rolling countryside and prices are much lower. But there you’ll have to learn to speak French.
Ten things you (perhaps) didn’t know about the Dordogne
It is the third largest département in France
It is the second most visited region in France (after Paris) with more than two million visitors a year
It is the wettest region in France
It is made up of the Perigord Blanc, Noir, Rouge and Vert. The four represent limestone, black forests, wine and greenery respectively
It is part of the Aquitaine region of France
It has a population of 400,000
Ryanair and Flybe fly from Stanstead, Bristol and Southampton to Bergerac. In 2001 16,000 passengers flew into Bergerac. In 2004 this figure increased to 200,000
It has 1001 castles
The two most popular town with the Brits are Riberat and Eymet. British population estimates range from 20% to 50% in each.
It is extremely hilly. Make sure the property you’re looking at gets the sun all year round. A lot of them are shielded by hills or castles.
Integration, integration, integration
Your life in France will be much easier and more fun if you integrate. The first thing to do is to learn the language. Obviously courses are useful, but you should try to immerse yourself in French whenever you can. Listen to the radio when driving around, not the pop channels but France Culture, France Inter or France Info. Watch French television. Remember that the French sometimes come across as arrogant and unfriendly, most of the time they really don’t mean to.
Be patient, even when they are being unfriendly you can get round them. When I first moved to our village, there was an old lady who used to glare at me every time I drove past her. I decided to ignore her unfriendly attitude and smile and wave. After about a month she started waving back and is now always delighted to see me.
The one thing you should remember is that the French, particularly in rural areas,
are often friendly and approachable. They warm towards people who make the
effort to integrate and get involved in local activities. Shopping at local shops - rather than at Supermarkets – not only gives you a chance to get to know people and practise your French, but scores big Brownie points for supporting the local tradespeople.