It can look like the Cotswolds, English is spoken everywhere and you can buy Walker’s Crisps in the corner shop. The British have always loved the Dordogne, but the past year has seen a record invasion of buyers. Helena Frith Powell reports
Ten weeks ago, Kevin Walls moved to the country to start a new life. He bought a village grocery store, and so far is doing a roaring trade. “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,” he says.
If that seems a long way to come for breakfast basics, it is because Kevin’s shop caters for the ever-growing English population in the most Anglicised area of France, the Dordogne. Fifty per cent of his customers are English, which might explain why Walker’s Crisps are his best-selling item. He has even renamed the shop – Le Magasin Anglais. “It used to be The English Shop,” he says, “which I think was a bit unfriendly towards the locals.”
Kevin joins the estimated 100,000 Britons now fully resident in France. The Dordogne is the most popular area, proving that, 30 years after the English first discovered its rolling hills and beautiful stone houses, the region is once again in fashion. Siphoning off fat profits from the rising British property market of recent years, buyers are swooping on houses built in limestone reminiscent of the Cotswolds but at a third of the price. And since the budget airlines started flying in Bergerac four years ago, the demand for property has spiralled.
Kevin’s 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 around Eymet,” he says. “We’ve found some nice ones for about €180,000 [£124,000] with three to four bedrooms – places that would cost half-a-million pounds if you picked them up and put them in Kent.”
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 those 90 per cent are Anglo-Saxon.” In his newly refurbished office in the picturesque town of Lalinde, he explains that nowadays most clients 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 remortgage and release the equity and then come looking for old stone houses and space. Most of them have a budget of around €300,000 [£208,000] and are moving here permanently.”
De Chabaneix says that only 25 per cent 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 forties, moved to the medieval village of Eymet in January 2003 and now run an internet café near Le Magasin Anglais. They bought the whole property, which includes a 375sq m ground-floor space, with four bedrooms and two terraces, for €100,000 (£69,000). “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. “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 completely derelict downstairs, although the apartment above it was habitable. They spent six months and around €70,000 (£48,000) 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 Eymet – or Little England as it is also known – is the place to be. With up to 50 per cent of the population British, it seems that one can manage there without so much as a “parlez-vous anglais?”. The local newsagent says that he sells more English newspapers than he does French. Nathalie, a French woman working in a computer shop called MCD Informatique (owned by a Brit), says that 80 per cent 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. Fifteen years ago Eymet was run-down and forgotten. Thanks to the influx of foreigners it’s booming.”
Most Brits who 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 gîte and live in the other part. It’s a formula that has worked in the past. But now? “Don’t even think about it,” says Jane Hanslip, who runs a rental business, as well as French language and horse-riding holidays, from her manor house just outside Bergerac. “There are so many Brits moving to the region, and most of them have a plan to rent something out as a form of extra income. They are in fact not only adding to the supply, but also reducing the demand for holiday homes. It’s what I call a double whammy.”
Jane bought her nine-bedroom farmhouse in 1989 for £175,000. She has since spent thousands of pounds doing it up. “Another thing people don’t realise is that the cost of renovating here is much higher 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 (£207) per square metre. Builders working for cash charge between €150 and €200 per day (£104-£139). “That can quickly add up to €1,000 (£690) per week,” says Hamish Eadie, a more recent immigrant to the area. “Not an easy amount of money to find if you’re not working.”
Hamish 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 past four years serving vegetarian alternatives to the local fare of meat and garlicky potatoes. The business has been a huge success, but Hamish warns those who are thinking of moving here to start a business not to underestimate the difficulties of setting up in France. “The French do love a tax,” he says. “And you end up paying 60 per cent social charges on anyone you employ. Having said all that, we love it here and are looking for our next big project.” Anyone interested in buying Hamish’s restaurant should contact Lily Bayliss at Francophiles (see below).
The relentless stream of newcomers does not seem to be slowing. But one downside of this influx of Brits is that there are now almost no classic old stone houses to be had at bargain prices. “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 who have done so are Nina and John Parr, who moved to Villefranche de Lonchat three years ago. Villefranche is a bastide founded by Edward I in about 1280 and situated between the Isle and Dordogne rivers, 23 miles 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 up-and-coming neighbouring region of the Lot. There are plenty of stone houses, even more rolling countryside and prices that are much lower. But there you’ll have to learn to speak French.
- Helena Frith Powell is the author of More France Please, We’re British, published by Gibson Square and available for £9.99 plus £2.25 p&p. To order please call Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222. You can speak to Helena today at the organiser’s stand of the Vive La France exhibition in Olympia, London.
- Jane Hanslip www.dordognerental.com and www.dordogneriding.com; 0033 5532 27608 Jérôme de Chabaneix, Orpi email@example.com, www.property-in-dordogne.com; 0033 5535 72132. Lily Bayliss, Francophiles firstname.lastname@example.org; 0033 5533 12710 Stephen Sherwood www.yourfrenchhouse.com; 0033 5535 69595 Nina Parrwww.dordogneholidayhomes.co.uk; 0033 5538 26398. Ryanair and Flybefly from Stansted, Bristol and Southampton to Bergerac. In 2001, 16,000 passengers flew into Bergerac. In 2004, this figure rose to 200,000.