Some people say they move to France because it is like England was 50 years ago. If you want somewhere that is like England 100 years ago, then you should move to Pau and join the English Club. Entering the splendid villa set in a park in the centre of the city is like walking into Britain’s imperial past. There is a vast marble bust of Queen Victoria and on the walls hang paintings of the Pau Fox Hunt led by various British aristocrats. There is a plaque commemorating gentlemen that died in the Great War. At the bottom of the plaque is a section for their servants.
Pau and the surrounding Béarn Region (part of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and the Pays-Basque in south-west France) is a place the British have been welcomed since Wellington first came here in 1814. "It was built by the British, for the British," says Pierre Truchi Director of the Tourist Office and Palais des Congrès. "In 1880 out of a population of 25,000, 8,000 were British."
Now the population of Pau is 83,000 but the percentage of Brits has dropped, although since RyanAir arrived in May 2004 there has been a dramatic increase in property hunters.
Jane Dickinson, originally from Keighley in Yorkshire, has lived in the region for eight years. Jane works in a hotel in the historical centre of Pau and says she can’t believe the amount of guests that are house hunting. "They’ve all got this dream of a house in France," she says. "I used to help them but then I thought hang on a minute I’m going to be surrounded by Brits if they all come here. Now I just tell them it rains a lot." It does in fact rain just as much in Pau as it does in London, but in half the amount of days.
Joy Askew, a singer/songwriter who has worked with, among others, Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson and Joe Jackson, was attracted to the region because of its beauty. "I was on a tour with Peter Gabriel," she says. "We were on one of those tour buses. I was half asleep and then woke up to see the Pyrénées appearing like a mirage. At first I thought I was imagining it, but they became stronger and stronger. At that moment I knew I wanted to get to know the area better."
Joy, originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has been living in New York for over 20 years but decided she wanted to establish a foothold in Europe. "I’m not American," she says. "But I didn’t want to go back to England because the climate is so bad." At a dinner party she met a man from Yorkshire who had just bought a place in South-West France for £50,000. "I started trawling the Internet and made a total of three trips out here," she says. "But of course since the Yorkshireman had bought his place, prices had doubled. I was being shown absolute crap for €200,000 and was getting increasingly disillusioned."
Finally in May last year a German agent came up with a three-bedroom farmhouse outside Montardon in the northern part of the Béarn region for €150,000. The house, which is 150 years old, has been restored by its previous French owner, a local farmer, using traditional building materials. It sits in five acres of land with views in all directions. "The minute she took me through the gate I knew it was the right place," says Joy. "And when I got up to the oak-beamed bedroom I saw the view of the Pyrenees. Now I look out for them every day I’m here, sometimes they appear and disappear like ghosts, they’re incredible. I love it here, it’s very French, very rural and very local." Joy has a large barn which she hopes to turn into a music studio and workshop.
According to local agent Jonathan Lewis who works for Property 64, the number of Brits looking in the region is increasing and they are all after the same thing. "They want the classic old farmhouse to renovate, with some land," he says. "The typical budget is around €150,000." For that you can buy a three-bedroom farmhouse which needs work. If you’re after a property that has already been renovated prices jump to €300,000 for a four to five-bedroom farmhouse and €600,000 for a large house with six to eight bedrooms. "The stone used to build these houses comes from the river basin and is called Galet stone," says Lewis who moved to Pau from Australia five years ago. "It comes in various colours but is essentially pale and very pretty. That’s what the Brits want."
Tim Robinson has just that and has now lived here so long he is almost as local as the stone. He first came out to Pau to race some horses and has now been here for 27 years. He married Marie-Françoise, a French woman, and in 1989 they bought the farmhouse outside Marciac. It has five bedrooms, 25 hectares of land, 25 stables and it cost them £50,000. "It is a wonderful region," says Tim who breeds horses. "People are always asking us where we’re going on holiday and I tell them we don’t need to go on holiday. We have the mountains for skiing one hour away and Biarritz and the sea an hour away." Their house has now been valued at £150,000 for the property not including all the land and stables. "It is true that the English invasion has driven up prices," says Tim. "I don’t have much to do with them, there are 80 people in our village, five of the families are English but I’ve never met them."
According to Paul Mirat, Head of International Relations at the Pau Tourist Information Board, the enquiries from Brits are increasing every day. "It is just snowballing," he says. "Every day I have someone calling and asking about property. The other day some friends of mine were sitting in their garden and some English came along and made them an offer for their house they just couldn’t refuse. It’s incredible."
According to local agents like Claudine Laborde-Sallenave prices have risen in the last couple of years reflecting the increase in demand. "But it’s not only that," she says. "There are now a lot of English agents operating here and they price the properties much higher than we do." She says prices have risen between 25 and 30% over the last two years.
Edward and Angelika Rich bought the Château de Ledeuix half an hour south of Pau six years ago. They paid £130,000 for what was essentially a ruin with a new roof. "The council had put on the new roof but then it had been abandoned due to lack of funds," says Edward. "The wooden panelled dining room had been transformed into a sheep pen and the courtyard was a local rubbish collection point. Over 850 panes of glass were broken." Edward, a furniture and interior designer and his German wife Angelika, a furniture restorer, had already renovated one château in France and were keen on another project. "It has an amazing view of the Pyrénées," says Edward. "And the building itself is stunning, we love it here. The boys adore it, there’s so much space and they can play bows and arrows out of the slit windows." The restoration is still going on but the family has suffered one major setback. The council is going to build a housing estate on the land in front of the château. "This is despite our offer to buy it and build houses in keeping with the château ourselves," says Edward. "It is a devastating blow. And ironic considering the same council saved the building from the bulldozers in 1989 because they didn’t want to see their historical patrimony becoming a housing estate."
Housing estates aside, the Béarn has some wonderful countryside, rolling hills and magnificent woods. Added to which, weather permitting, you have the view of the mountains. "I was astonished visiting the region after living at the other end of the Pyrénées, on the sun-scorched Mediterranean coast, at how still, green and peaceful it was in the Béarn," says Rosemary Bailey, author of The Man who Married a Mountain, a travel memoir about Count Henry Russell the 19th century Pyrenean mountaineer who grew up in Pau. "I could really understand why so many of the English were drawn there in the 19th century and continue to be drawn there."
The English club in Pau, founded in 1828 by a local British reading group, is still going. "We only have three English members now out of a total of 64," says Erik de Salettes, vice-president. "But we are trying to attract more of the English moving in." To become a member you have to be proposed, seconded and above all, male. Some things never change in colonial Britain. But it’s a great place to live.