I wrote this piece for The Telegraph in 2012 and recently received an email from a lady in London. She’d read my Telegraph feature and it has inspired her to look for a house here and move to France.
As some of you have asked to see what I wrote that may have caused such drastic action after my blog on “Home is where the heart is“, here is what the Telegraph published with a byline, made up by them saying “she went to France for the booze and never left”!
Pretty much the first question people ask me when they find out I moved from London to the Seven Valleys area in Pas-de-Calais, France is why on earth did we move somewhere that no one has ever heard of.
Furthermore, to a region in France that most people just drive through in their rush to go somewhere sunnier/Frencher/prettier and that even the French call the “North Pole of France”.
Well, I say, it just sort of happened really, I didn’t have a job to go to, I hadn’t a lifelong goal to move to France from London. I hadn’t really thought about it much at all, but I can tell them it’s been a life-enhancing move and quite an adventure.
About 10 years ago my husband and I started to take my dad on shopping trips to Calais as he was a wine and whisky connoisseur (by which I mean he liked to buy in bulk) and we’d end up having lunch somewhere outside of the main Calais town in one of the many pretty little villages that abound. We liked the day trips but that was as far as it went; the husband made it clear he was neither a fan of the French or of France. He’d based his opinions on an ill-fated trip a few decades earlier when, as a teenager hungry for adventure, he’d left home to join the Foreign Legion. His journey to Paris and then on to Lille left him with a memory of rude and unhelpful people. Of course, he admits now that a glowering English lad who couldn’t communicate in French pestering people for directions probably got the reaction he deserved. (He didn’t join the FL if you’re interested – hated the discipline and left after three days.)
The more trips we did, the more we saw of Pas-de-Calais and the more we liked it. We loved the people we met, the street markets, the rural and unspoiled look of the countryside, the fact that people have time to talk and the clear love of tradition and heritage that prevails there.
On one trip eight years ago, we had lunch in the pretty town of Hesdin and on a whim we looked in the window of an estate agent’s shop. The door opened, the agent came out and introduced himself; he invited us in, offered us coffee and we got chatting.
He asked us what our budget was. “No,” we said, “we’re not buying”. Aha, quick as a flash, what would your budget be if you were? I told him: “We’re not rich, we’re not retired and we’re not looking but we couldn’t stretch to more than €100,000 if we were.” After he finished laughing at the paltry amount, he gave us three lots of details for local properties that all cost less than “our budget” and urged us to look.
All three houses were in the Seven Valleys region in Pas-de-Calais, a chain of rural valley towns and villages connected by a series of rivers and streams. It’s a picturesque area and has been called the “secret Dordogne of the North” by one leading UK newspaper – so secret, in fact, that most people have never heard of it. We had a free afternoon before hopping on the Eurotunnel train back to London and thought – why not just look?
The first house was in a pretty little village. A stream ran across the front of the property, a small bridge led to an attractive-looking detached cottage. Promising, I thought.
It was an empty building and of course without an estate agent we couldn’t see it properly but we looked in the windows and were amazed. Not in a good way. The floors, ceilings, walls and doors in every room we could see into were covered in gaudy Seventies-patterned linoleum. There were stalactites of mould hanging from the ceiling in one room. We beat a hasty retreat.
The second house was in an even smaller village. As we pulled over to the side of the road outside the property we were to view, the people from the house next door came outside and stood watching us. It was very unnerving. We got out of the car and started to walk to the gates of the house. We could feel them staring and I heard a noise behind me – when I looked, the family in the house across the road had opened their windows to look at us. “Back in the car,” I said. “I’m not living here in The Hills Have Eyes village”.
We drove on to the last property. It was one of those grey, dismal February days and our mood had started to match the weather. We eventually found the property in a very small village; there were no shops, no bar and no signs of life, which after the last house was a bonus.
We pulled up and decided not to get out of the car; after all, we weren’t seriously looking and we couldn’t see much as there were walls all the way round the garden. As we were about to drive away, the front door opened, a man walked towards us and said in perfect English “Can I help you?” At that precise moment the sun came out, a flock of ducks nearby started quacking loudly as if laughing and the church bells started to ring. I felt a frisson of excitement.
The Englishman who lived there gave us a tour – it was a farmhouse and in a truly awful state. It could be a bottomless money pit and take years to renovate. It had huge potential and an acre of land. I was smitten.
A week later our offer was accepted – my French life was about to begin.