Tours de force
Helena Frith Powell looks for a bargain in the Touraine, where property prices are set to rise thanks to a new motorway link
When the Foreign Office wants to teach its diplomats to speak French properly, it sends them to Tours. This well-spoken city in the heart of the Loire Valley, an hour southwest of Paris by TGV, is the capital of the Touraine region, an area that is attracting more attention than ever before from Brits looking for a home in France.
The Touraine is about the size of East Sussex — you can drive across it in under two hours, though it has far fewer cars than its English counterpart. The Loire’s banks are lined with the idyllic villages one often looks for in vain when driving through France. There’s often a chateau, a church and an imposing town hall. There is a sense of civic pride: everything is perfect, from the flowers lining the main square to the sign above the bakery. Not a baguette is out of place, and spring has really sprung: large flowering chestnut trees, oak trees, plane trees and stands of poplar line the roads.
Two obvious reasons for its popularity are the countryside and the climate. Driving through, looking out over rolling hills and old stone houses, you could almost be in the Cotswolds. But while a four-bed house there will cost at least £500,000, here they start at less than half that.
Another attraction is the area’s accessibility. Wherever you choose in Touraine, it’s easy to get back to Blighty. If you’re coming by ferry, the newly completed A28 has really speeded up the journey: this north-south motorway can be picked up just outside Le Havre and takes you directly to the region. Or you can fly to Tours with Ryanair from Stansted or hop to Angers from Southampton with Flybe. A new motorway, the A85, linking Tours with Angers is about to be completed.
“The motorway will have a huge effect on house prices along the river within commuting distance to Tours,” says Mark Willes. He moved here from Bristol four years ago with his wife, Debbie, and their two children. They gave up banking careers to move to France, with the idea of setting up a cycling-holiday business. That is still the plan, but the French estate agent who sold them their house asked if they’d work for him, to deal with the rising number of British clients he was getting. “Nobody in his office spoke English, so he asked us to join it,” says Debbie.
The family bought an old winegrower’s home with stables and barns just outside the village of St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, west of Tours. The house was built in 1910 and has four bedrooms.
“We chose the region because we wanted somewhere that was lively all year round,” says Debbie. “We’re townies, so we couldn’t bear the thought of nothing happening all winter. We also wanted flat country for the cycling tours, and a popular location. The Loire is the third most visited region in France after Paris and the Côte d’Azur.”
There are still bargains to be had in Touraine, although Mark says prices have increased by 40% in the past three years. “Last year we saw an increase of 10%-15% and the forecast for 2006 is 17%,” he says.
Françoise Dhuit, of the estate agency Touraine Berry Immobilier, is less bullish. “Prices have stabilised after a rapid rise over the past four years,” she says. She thinks they will remain stable, but says that British buyers are back after a brief hiatus following the widespread riots in France last year.
“We have a lot of British clients,” Dhuit says. “They are usually in their early fifties, some looking for holiday homes and others for permanent homes. They are normally educated types who enjoy the history here and like castles. Another attraction is, of course, that the prices are still low compared with the UK.”
Brits looking for the classic old stone farmhouse will find plenty of choice below £250,000. “A four-bed stone house in the countryside will cost you from about €300,000 (£205,000),” says Dhuit. If work is needed, it will cost about £400 per sq m for interiors and £600 per sq m for significant reconstruction.
When Mike Gregory, a former banker, was offered the choice between early retirement or a posting in Edinburgh, after living in Touraine for five years, he didn’t need to think long before making a decision.
“We come from Oxfordshire, so to us Edinburgh was the frozen north,” he says. He and his wife, Cynthea, bought a 19th-century farmhouse in Bournan, a small village half an hour’s drive south of Tours. They planned originally to do up the house and run an antiques business.
“We were going to use the old dairy as a workshop for upholstering furniture and so on, but then the antiques business started to slow down after 9/11 and we went on to plan B,” says Mike. That was to convert the dairy into a gîte.
“I would say that if you want to succeed in converting anything, you need some practical skills yourself,” he adds. “If you use outside help for it all, your bills are going to get very high.”
The Gregorys have already spent at least £70,000 renovating their property; they hate to think how much they will have spent by the time it is finished. “I haven’t looked at the calculations because I don’t want to frighten myself,” says Mike. “We bought the house for about £110,000 and it will be magnificent once it’s all done, but there’s a long way to go.
“When we don’t have guests, we live in the gîte, but otherwise we have two small beds in the sitting room in the house. Time is not a problem, so we are doing a lot of the work ourselves. Renovation is always a balancing act between time and budget.” The couple started doing up their gîte in May 2004 and finished it at 2am on August 20 — the very morning their first guests were due to arrive.
They both love the pace of life in Touraine and can’t imagine going back to the UK. “I love the peace and quiet, the food, the people and, above all, the countryside,” says Cynthea.
Close by, outside the village of Sepmes, Angela and Stephen Phillips bought a hilltop farmhouse for £240,000. They left Chiswick in west London, where they had lived for 25 years, in April last year.
“We got fed up with England, the graffiti, the violence and the fact that we were working all hours,” says Stephen. “We realised we could carry on as we were and end up retired with nothing to show for it.”
The house they bought has three bedrooms and adjoining outbuildings, including a large barn. They plan to spend about £100,000 restoring the property, which has a 2,700sq m garden.
“You don’t realise just how big the areas are until you start getting quotes,” says Angela. “The bathroom is going to cost about £60 per sq m to tile, and the final bill will run into thousands.”
The couple knew the area well from holidays. “We looked south but it was just too hot, and to the north there were too many Brits,” says Stephen. “We didn’t come to France to hang out with Brits.” Angela, a former school administrator, says the French have been extremely welcoming.
“Early on, we met some Parisians who live in the village and they really took us under their wings. They helped us with our planning permissions and all sorts of things,” she says. “We were very fortunate.”
Some Brits, though, such as Michael and Lynda Cridford, prefer to steer clear of building work. They opted for a modern house 10 minutes from the centre of Bourgueil, west of Tours.
“We came to Touraine 20 years ago and always dreamt of retiring here,” says Lynda. Seven months ago the Cridfords paid £137,000 for a five-bed house with a 1,000sq m garden. But their retirement plans have been postponed. Lynda has set up an acupuncture clinic and Michael now organises wine tours.
Lynda is also creating an English garden: “The climate here is perfect for gardens. We are on a water table and it’s as sunny as the Mediterranean. I can’t believe how things grow.”
Wherever you choose to live, househunting is enjoyable in Touraine: there is plenty to see and do. The medieval town of Loches, about a half-hour drive south of Tours, is a must, and you could buy in the town’s historic quarter. Next to the chateau, there is a three-bedroom house for sale with a cellar and terrace for £267,000. The total living space is 150sq m. For more information, call Mme Gatignon on the number below. But you’ll need to speak French — she doesn’t speak a word of English.
It is perhaps no coincidence that one of the cleverest men who ever lived chose to spend the last three years of his life in the Touraine. Leonardo da Vinci, at the invitation of King Francis I of France, lived at Cloux castle (now called Le Clos Lucé) in Amboise, just east of Tours, and is buried at the chapel of St Hubert.
On the market
This restored five-bedroom mill dates from the 11th century. Set in 10 acres, with stables and barns, only 10 miles from Tours, it is for sale for £689,000. Prestige Property Group, www.prestigeproperty.co.uk
For sale for £335,000, this three- bed 17th-century house with a chapel and stables needs total restoration. The property, near Chinon, 30 miles from Tours, is set in 60 acres. Latitudes, 020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk
Located minutes from the centre of Chinon, this four-bed maison de maître with two reception rooms, acre of land and outbuildings is on the market for £316,000. Latitudes, 020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk
A 40-minute drive from Tours, near Château-la-Vallière, this two-bed farmhouse with vaulted dining room has 1 acres and a gîte to restore. It is for sale for £280,000 with VEF, 020 7515 8660, www.vefuk.com
Mark and Debbie Willes, 00 33 247 933 589, www.chezlaloire.com; Touraine Berry Immobilier, 00 33 247 918 383, www.agencetbi.com; Mike and Cynthea Gregory, 00 33 247 920 258, www.grange-des-hirondelles.com; Michael Cridford’s wine tours, 00 33 247 977 038, email@example.com; Mme Gatignon, 00 33 247 591 294, mobile 00 33 607 355 497
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.
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