Some people say they move to France because it’s like England was 50 years ago. If you want England 100 years ago, then you should move to Pau and join the English Club. Entering the club’s splendid villa set in a park in the centre of the city is like walking straight into Britain’s imperial past. There is a vast marble bust of Queen Victoria, and on the walls hang paintings of the Pau hunt led by various aristocrats. A plaque commemorates gentlemen who died in the Great War; at the bottom of it is a separate section for their servants.
Pau and the surrounding Béarn region (part of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and the Pays-Basque in southwest France) is a place where the British have been welcomed since Wellington passed through in 1814. “It was built by the British for the British,” says Pierre Truchi, director of the city’s tourist office and Palais des Congrès. “In 1880, out of a population of 25,000, 8,000 were British.”
Pau’s population is now 83,000, and the percentage of Britons has dropped. Since Ryanair arrived last May, however, there has been a dramatic rise in British property-hunters.
Jane Dickinson, from Keighley in West Yorkshire, has lived in the region for eight years. She works in a hotel in the historic centre of Pau and says she is amazed by the number of guests who are househunting. “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.” In fact, it rains just as much in Pau as it does in London, but in half the number of days.
Joy Askew, a singer and songwriter who has worked with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson and Joe Jackson, was attracted recently to the area 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 I woke up to see the Pyrenees in front of the bus, appearing like a mirage. At that moment I knew I wanted to get to know the area better.”
Originally from Newcastle upon Tyne, Askew has based herself in New York for more than 20 years but realised 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 southwest France for £50,000. “I started trawling the internet and made three trips out here,” she says. “But, of course, after the Yorkshireman bought his place, prices doubled. I was being shown absolute rubbish for £135,000 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 Béarn for £100,000. The 150-year-old house had been restored by its previous French owner, a local farmer, using traditional materials. It sits in five acres of land with panoramic views in all directions.
“The minute the agent took me through the gate, I knew it was the right place,” says Askew. “And when I got up to the oak-beamed bedroom, I saw the Pyrenees. Now I look out for them on the horizon every day I’m here … they appear and disappear like ghosts. They’re incredible. I love it here — it’s very French, very rural and very local.” She also has a large barn, which she hopes to turn into a music studio and workshop.
Jonathan Lewis, an estate agent who works for Property 64, based in Pau, says the number of British buyers in the region is increasing, and they all want the same thing. “They want the classic old farmhouse to renovate, with some land,” he says. “The typical budget is about £100,000.”
For that you can buy a three-bed farmhouse in need of work. If you’re after a property that has already been renovated, prices jump to £150,000-£200,000 for a four- or five-bed farmhouse and can reach £400,000 for a house with six to eight bedrooms. “The stone used to build these houses comes from the river basin and is called galet,” 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 owns just such a farmhouse. He first came to Pau to race horses and has now lived in the area so long — 27 years — that he feels almost as local as the stone. He married a Frenchwoman, Marie-Françoise, and in 1989 they bought a farmhouse outside Marciac. It has five bedrooms, 62 acres of land and 25 stables, and cost them just £50,000.
“It’s a wonderful region,” says Robinson, 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 and Biarritz and the sea all about one hour away.”
The Robinsons’ farmhouse has now been valued at £150,000, not including all the land and their stables. “It is true that the English invasion has driven up prices,” says Robinson, “but I don’t have much to do with them. There are 80 people in our village. Five families are English, but I’ve never met them.”
According to Paul Mirat of the Pau tourist board, the number of inquiries from British visitors is continually increasing. “It’s snowballing,” he says. “Every day I have somebody calling and asking about property.
“The other day some friends were simply sitting out in their garden, enjoying it, when some English people came along unannounced and made them an offer for their house. They just couldn’t refuse.”
Claudine Laborde-Sallenave of Sauveterre-de-Béarn Immobilier, a local estate agency, says the way prices are rising in the area reflects the recent increase in demand. “But it’s not only that,” she adds. “There are now a lot of English agents operating here, and they tend to price properties at much higher levels than we do.” She says prices have risen by 25%-30% over the past two years.
Edward Rich and his wife, Angelika, bought Chateau de Ledeuix, half an hour’s drive south of Pau, six years ago. They paid £130,000 for what was then essentially a ruin, although it boasted a new roof.
“The council had put on the new roof, but then the building was abandoned because of lack of funds,” says Rich. “The wooden-panelled dining room had been transformed into a sheep pen, and the courtyard was a local rubbish collection point. More than 850 panes of glass were broken.”
Rich, a furniture and interior designer, and his German wife, a furniture restorer, had already renovated one chateau in France and were keen to pursue another project.
“The chateau has an amazing view of the Pyrenees,” says Rich. “And the building itself is stunning. We love it here. Our boys adore it because 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 significant setback: the council intends building a housing estate on land in front of the chateau. “This is despite our offer to buy it and build houses in keeping with the chateau ourselves,” says Rich. “It is a devastating blow, and ironic considering that 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 still has some wonderful countryside, with rolling hills, magnificent woods and characterful villages such as Sarrance, southwest of Pau, and charming, fortified Sauveterre-de-Béarn. Weather permitting, there is usually a view of the mountains.
“I was astonished visiting the region after living at the other end of the Pyrenees, on the 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 book about 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 prestigious English Club in Pau, founded in 1828 by a British reading group, is still going strong. “We have only three English members now out of a total of 64,” says Erik de Salettes, the club’s vice-president. “But we are trying to attract more of the English residents who are now moving in.”
To become a member you have to be proposed and seconded, and, above all, be male. Some things never change in Britain’s colonies. But Pau remains a great place in which to live.
- Property 64, 00 33 559 270 219, www.property64.com; Sauveterre-de-Béarn Immobilier, 00 33 559 389 499; Edward Rich, 00 33 603 544 759, www.edwardrich.comON THE MARKET
- A 16th-century chateau near Oloron-Ste-Marie has 15 bedrooms; its roof tiles were replaced 15 years ago. It is for sale for £707,000 with Francophiles, 01622 688 165, www.francophiles.co.uk
- Twelve miles from Orthez, a 19th-century six-bed manor house has outbuildings and almost three acres of land. It is on the market for £425,000 with Latitudes, 020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk
- A converted barn near Oloron-Ste-Marie, a 25-minute drive from Pau airport, has three bedrooms and ¾ of an acre of land for £233,000 with VEF, 020 7515 8660, www.vefuk.co.uk
- A three-bed stone house near Sauveterre was renovated 15 years ago and has stone fireplaces, double glazing and central heating. For sale for £145,000 with VEF, 020 7515 8660, www.vefuk.co.uk
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019