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  • A worm at one end and a worm at the other

    Pity poor Sting. Half a mile from his 17th century manor house in Wiltshire a small wooden fishing hut has been erected without planning permission. The singer is not so much dancing on the moon as hopping mad. He should never think about buying a place in France. For here in France people can put up huts as and when it suits them...

  • Brit Free Zones

    One of the most frequent complaints I hear from Brits living in France is they didn’t move here to hang out with other Brits. It really annoys me. I know we all came to France to enjoy a French lifestyle, but why should this suddenly mean running a hundred yards in the opposite direction should you spot a compatriot?

    One of the most frequent complaints I hear from Brits living in France is they didn’t move here to hang out with other Brits. It really annoys me. I know we all came to France to enjoy a French lifestyle, but why should this suddenly mean running a hundred yards in the opposite direction should you spot a compatriot?

    Three years after my first book about France came out, an updated version is about to hit the bookshops. More, More France Please covering all you need to know to live a bucolic French existence; but it in no way ignores the fact that there are other Brits here. Some 500,000 by the last unofficial estimate either live full-time or own secondary homes in France.
    Personally I am happy to admit that most of my friends are English and Irish. I think it’s only natural that you gravitate towards the kinds of people you can easily relate to and understand. And now that the Irish are a great cricketing nation we have even more in common with them.

    France is a vast country and the Brits seem to have congregated in what one must honestly admit are the best parts of it; Provence, the Dordogne, the coast around La Rochelle. But there are still gems to be discovered if you can bear to live away from the coast and put up with a proper winter. Some of the regions Brits wouldn’t have considered a few years ago will soon be easily accessible via new high-speed rail links, so get in early before prices start to reflect this.
    So for those of you who really don’t ever want to speak English again and just want to lose your selves in a flurry of Frenchness here are some far-away places as yet practically unsullied by any Anglo-Saxon influence and Sky satellite dishes. Until you read about them here of course…..


    The region is empty partly due to its inaccessibility and partly due to the climate. The pretty market town of Aurilliac in the Cantal département, for example, has the dubious honour of being the prefecture in France furthest away from a motorway. Consequently a town house there will only cost you around €150,000. The landscape in the Auvergne is varied and stunning; parts of it are almost 2000 metres high and during the winter covered in snow. Once the snow melts you are surrounded by green rolling hills, volcanic peaks, valleys lakes and gorges. The prettiest département is the Allier, which is characterised by small towns along winding rivers and unspoiled views. A farmhouse in the countryside with some land will set you back about €200,000. Unlike the more popular regions of France, there aren’t new builds round every corner and housing estates springing up. There are plenty of old stone houses and lots of space; the two things Brits are predominantly looking for when they move to France. It surely won’t be long before we see car-loads of Brits lining up along the Millau Viaduct in search of their dream homes. The locals will be grateful. The population in the Auvergne has long been diminishing. It is in fact one of the least populated regions in Europe, let alone France.


    The name comes from the Latin Campania meaning ‘land of the plains’ but the good thing about these plains is they’re full of champagne. On a rainy day you’re never short of a champagne grower to visit and a bottle to sample. Other than that the region has the advantage of being close to Paris and bordering Belgium should you feel the need to pop over there at any stage (personally I wouldn’t). It also boasts 10 golf courses and 650 kilometres of waterways to cool off in after a harrowing round. It is one of the least densely populated regions in the country with over 60% of the land dedicated to agriculture. It is so low on the list of places Brits buy that a property search on a french property website throws up not a single property for sale. I can’t understand why. It’s warmer than Normandy and Brittany, the countryside is lovely and the villages unspoiled. Prices are cheap; I have seen derelict farmhouses for sale for under €100,000, that’s less than the price of a hectare of champagne-yielding vines. Things get more expensive the closer you get to Paris but even then they’re a bargain compared with the south of France.


    As different to the Champagne-Ardenne as you can imagine; sun, sea and the Mediterranean lifestyle. Brits are thin on the ground; my friend Rachel’s father has a house there but he only visits about once every two years so you’re unlikely to bump into him. I spent a week there last summer and didn’t hear another English voice. This is the playground of the French and, as is usually the case with the French, they have chosen extremely well. Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte. If it’s sea and sand you like, Corsica is the place for you, it has over 200 beaches. It is extremely beautiful but you need to be a good driver to negotiate the windy roads and lunatic locals who seem to have picked up their driving habits from neighbouring Italians. I expected a tourist-trap when I went but found unspoiled countryside (with a few rusting cars thrown in but where else do you dump them, in the sea?), great bars, lots of abandoned stone farmhouses just crying out for friendly Brits to come along and restore them and not a free-Corsica radical in sight. According to Janet Rankin from a Corsican property website prices for decent properties in Corsica range from €200,000 to €1.2 million depending on where you go. “The advantage is though that you can command a higher holiday rental rate than most other French regions,” she says.


    The great French writer Victor Hugo was born in the capital of the Franche-Comte, Besançon. He moved to Paris but that shouldn’t give you the wrong impression of his native town. It is known as the greenest city in France, it has a TGV so access is easy and one of the most stunning historical centres of any major French town. The old town, known as “la Boucle” is enclosed in a large horse-shoe created by the River Doubs. But it is not just the capital that has plenty going for it. The countryside in the region is lovely, there are two ski resorts in the Jura Mountains, it is the producer of one of the finest (and most fattening) cheeses known to man, the Mont-d’Or which you eat with a spoon from its wooden box and as if all that isn’t enough to tempt you, you can skip over the border to Lake Geneva any time you feel like a bit of a change. Having said that there isn’t a region in France that is more like Switzerland than this one; both in terms of stunning scenery and cuisine. Property prices are low. You can find a basic large house with land for around €200,000. If you have more money to spend you could do a lot worse than a house recently advertised in the Jura. It is a recently-restored 18th century stone mill with six bedrooms, three dining rooms, two kitchens, a wine cellar, large outhouses and three guest rooms ready to rent out. It is on the market for €900,000.


    Still known by the locals as the Région Parisienne, Île-de-France is the most populated region in France with more residents than either Belgium, Greece, Austria or Sweden. But they are not Brits, at least not once you get outside Paris. The idyllic and ancient village of Maffliers, for example, is 35 minutes on the train due north of Paris, on the edge of the Isle Adam forest. It has just one British resident according to a French friend of mine who lives there. She married him. The Ellery Ludlow Agency (0033 1 34 08 78 13) has a five-bedroom property for sale in the village. The house was originally a coaching inn and used to be owned by a Napoleonic officer. It is on the market for just over €1 million. “It is not sun, sea, cheap wine or housing which attracts the buyers here rather the proximity of Paris together with rolling countryside,” says Françoise Ellery from the Ellery Ludlow Agency. “The prices are in a different bracket to a lot of other regions in France although still much cheaper than southern UK prices.” The agency has another property that is about to come on the market in the village of Nargis, 50 kilometres south of Fontainebleau, just on the border of the Île-de-France and Centre regions. The added advantage of Nargis is that there is an Irish pub there, but still “not a Brit in sight” according to Françoise. The property is a modern farmhouse with swimming pool, three double-bedrooms, large kitchen and annex properties also with two double-bedrooms. It will go on the market for €1 million.


    This region used to be written off due to the fact that the north was very industrialised; famous for steelworks, iron and coal mines. This is no longer the case. It’s too expensive to run those sorts of business in France. So the countryside has taken over again and the region is blossoming, if not booming. According to a French friend of mine the Lorraine boasts one of the most beautiful villages in France; Beaulieu-en-Argonne. It is half an hour from Reims and two and a half hours from Paris but only has 30 inhabitants, not one of them a Brit. Properties are cheap; this is not one of France’s most popular regions. For example a 17-bedroom mountain property is for sale for just €440,000 and a fine looking manor house at €536,000 in the Meuse département, the same one as Beaulieu en Argonne. But my advice is to start in the village itself and get a feel for the place.

  • Christopher Campbell-Howes blows up his horn . . .

    The story behind the The Song of Roland (La Chanson de Roland) which is the oldest major work of French literature.

  • French Smiles??

    A Canadian visitor to our gîte asked me, "Why don't the French people ever smile?" I hadn't noticed this before, so I started to observe the local population more closely. And yes, he was right… Smiles are a rare sight.

  • The English Club

    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...

    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.

  • We’ve won the Oscars of the online expat world!

    French Connections has been awarded first prize and the Gold Medal in the prestigious Expat Star Awards 2013, recognising the Top 10 Websites For Expats in France. Organized by MyCurrencyTransfer.com, the award recognises the fact that that we add the most real value for our users.

    The aim of the awards is to celebrate the most original, content rich, inspiring, informational, educational and engaging websites in the expat community.

    We are delighted to be recognised for the quality and depth of content on the French Connections site, as our aim is always to be useful to anyone living in France or dreaming of doing so.