Catching on to Toulouse
A decade ago there were barely any Brits in the pretty villages around the city, but now you can buy Branston Pickle in the local shops and house prices are booming, says Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times
When Jill Allcroft moved to a village south of Toulouse 12 years ago, there were only three British families within a 100km radius of her. “In a way it was a good thing,” she says. “It forced me to integrate with the locals and learn French — there weren’t any English people to mix with. Now that seems an odd thing to say. They’re everywhere.” Indeed, today there are four English families in her village, which has a population of just 300.
Jill and her husband, Richard, stumbled across the area surrounding Toulouse by accident. They were living in Sheffield and Richard was working as an engineer in Bradwell, Derbyshire. “There was an estate agency that had links with an agency in this region,” says Jill, who was a medical lab technician. “We saw nine properties in a week and signed on the dotted line. We were in our thirties and decided that if we didn’t do it then, we never would.”
The couple bought a 13th-century stone farmhouse with 45 acres of woodland and meadow near the village of Boussan in the Haute Garonne. They paid £55,000, then spent another £60,000 and four years doing it up.
Richard now has a building business and Jill runs the farmhouse as a holiday let. She says there are several reasons the region has become so popular with the British: “There are a lot of fiftysomethings inheriting money. They’ve paid off their mortgage and they don’t see the point in putting it into shares. Toulouse is a very accessible city, as well as being very beautiful.
“For rentals, it is very well-placed for Spain and both coasts, and there is no doubt the whole region has been boosted by the cheap airlines.” Jill says there is nothing they miss from England. “We used to go on what I called the Branston Pickle run, but now there are so many Brits in the area you can buy it here.”
Driving to Mike and Posy Fallowfield’s house just outside Manent-Montané, about an hour southwest of Toulouse, is almost like driving around the Devon countryside they left behind. The Fallowfields sold their farmhouse in Devon for £585,000. “The original plan was to let the house in England and buy a ruin in France,” says Posy. “But we couldn’t make the money work.” What they ended up buying was almost a wreck, but just about habitable and on a grand scale.
The 17th-century French farmhouse cost £83,000 in July 2002. It stands alone just outside the village and has 360-degree uninterrupted views, with clear sight of the Pyrenees to the southwest. The house will eventually have four bedrooms, a study, two sitting rooms, a kitchen and a dining room. The only hint of civilisation now among the rubble and dust is an Aga. “When Mike said we were moving to France, I said over my dead body,” says Posy. “In the end I gave in, but my one stipulation was that we had to have an Aga.”
They moved into a caravan next to the house in March 2003. “We thought we would be there for two or three months,” says Mike. Last month, they moved in — but are still only able to occupy one room, the bedroom.
As with a lot of large property projects, the couple have suffered setbacks. Mike fell ill last year and spent three weeks in hospital with a heart problem. “There was one stage when I was sitting in the caravan, looking at the wreck of a house we had bought, thinking about Mike in hospital and wondering what on earth we had done,” says Posy. “But we’re through the worst now and the French hospitals were marvellous.”
They chose the region because an old university friend of Mike’s lives close by. “We looked at a lot of rubbish,” says Mike. “At first we had a budget of about £30,000 and were shown endless heaps of stones with brambles growing through them.” Once they decided to sell in England, they looked at a few more realistic options. “We picked this place because the roof was sound and the walls were almost vertical and reasonably intact, and we fell for the area,” says Posy.
The region is easily accessible via several airports. The main one is Toulouse, but depending on where you are outside the city you also have the choice of Bordeaux, Pau, Rodez, Castres, Bergerac and Carcassonne. The TGV line to Paris was recently completed, bringing the journey time down to about five hours.
According to Kris Misselbrook, an estate agent with Aurignac Immobilier, prices have risen dramatically over the past four years: “To buy a classic farmhouse, set in a hectare of land, in need of work and with a barn, you’re looking at £165,000. Four years ago you could find the same thing for less than half that. It has just snowballed.”
Misselbrook says he is seeing rising demand for properties at the lower end of the market in the region. “At least half my inquiries are for properties for less than £65,000. My response is, well, I’ve got some nice ruins. For those willing to totally rebuild a property, there are stunning timber-framed wrecks for about £60,000, but you’d have to spend at least another £60,000 doing them up.”
Helen Goossens moved to Nérac in Lot et Garonne, an hour west of Toulouse, in 1993. She left her job as European marketing communications manager for Apple Computer when she discovered she had skin cancer. “In the end it was nothing too worrying,” she says, “but it made me realise that it was time to start living life. So here I am, in my lock-keeper’s cottage on its own island, with my four dogs and six cats.”
Goossens found the 19th-century cottage while reading a property magazine: “I stumbled across an advertisement saying, ‘Are you a fisherman? If so, you will enjoy this lock-keeper’s cottage on an island.’ I’m not a fisherman, but it sounded wonderful.”
A week later she saw the cottage and fell in love with it. “It was in a bad state and the brambles in the garden were taller than me, but I figured I could fix that.” She bought the cottage for £33,000 and spent more than double that doing it up.
An hour to the northeast of Toulouse is the town of Albi, famous for its medieval cathedral and Toulouse-Lautrec museum. Peter and Lizie Wildman decided to buy a house near the village of Villefranche d’Albigeois, close to Albi. At the time they were living in Italy, where Peter was working for Nato. When he retired, they decided to move to France full-time.
“As a former air-force pilot I hadn’t lived in England for years,” says Peter. “Most of our family is abroad so there didn’t seem to be much to go back for.” They chose the Toulouse region for three reasons: climate, affordability and the potential to make their home work for them. They paid £170,000 for a large house with a barn, which they converted into a holiday home. The property is set in 2Å acres of garden, surrounded by cedar trees. Around them are cows, sheep and farms. “It’s a lovely part of France,” says Lizie. “We enjoy living here enormously.”
Peter and Lizie Wildman, www. holiday-rentals.com/index.cfm/ property/10037.cfm; Jill Allcroft, 00 33 561 987 814, www.esbayles.com
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. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
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Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
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