Pas-de-Calais is a department of contrasts in the far north of France. It’s coastline, known as the Opal Coast, runs from the tip of the Belgian border to edge of Normandy. Along its route there are dramatic cliffs and beautiful sandy beaches, fishing villages and seaside resorts. The interior of the department is a land of lush green valleys and bucolic countryside, peppered with picturesque villages and historic towns.
Most people think of Calais with its major ferry port and Eurotunnel terminal as a landing point for a holiday somewhere else in France. Millions of visitors arrive here each year and whizz straight onto the motorways, heading south to the sun. But this northern area has a huge amount to offer for those who want to experience authentic France. If you yearn for the good life and wide open spaces. Dream of uncrowded towns, street markets, boulangeries, fromageries and cafés where you can watch the world go by. You’ll find it all in Pas de Calais. And if you want to be close to the UK for family or even for work, this part of France is commutable.
Real France on your doorstep
Maybe because Pas de Calais is so easy to get to from the UK, there’s a tendency to dismiss it as not real France. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is authentic France at its best. A short drive from the busy port town of Calais you’ll find enchanting fishing villages like Audresselles and Wimereux. There are numerous pretty hamlets – the Seven Valleys is teeming with them. There are ancient forests, historic towns and magnificent coastal towns.
The weather is similar to that of Devon or Cornwall – and great for gardeners. Pas-de-Calais is the potager of France, agriculture is one of the main industries. There are vast fields of vegetables, wheat and maize, sugar beet and chicory. The marshlands of St Omer are famous for their vegetable growing properties including more than 7 million cauliflowers a year.
Pas-de-Calais is said to be one of the friendliest places in France. The locals have an enduring passion for their heritage and long history. The land is marked by a strong connection with England which once ruled Calais, and by battles going back thousands of years. Julius Caesar launched his conquest of Britain from Boulogne-sur-Mer. One of the most famous battles of the Hundred Years War took place at Agincourt. Henry VIII met his rival, French King Francis I, on the so-called Field of the Cloth of Gold near Guines. And the scars of WWI and WWII will remain forever.
Coast to coast
The Opal Coast is dotted with charming fishing villages. Le Touquet, AKA the Monaco of the north, and Wissant beach are regularly awarded top ten beaches of France status, and you’ll discover a variety of coastal styles from golden sands to dramatic cliff tops from which you can see the White Cliffs of Dove. There are rocky outlets where you can fish for shrimp, and secret bays where seals frolic.
Boulogne-sur-Mer, a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire and the biggest port in France, is brimming with attractions. “If it (Boulogne) were but 300 miles further off… how the English would rave about it” said Charles Dickens of the town where he lived for three years. He would almost certainly recognise the old town today with cobble stoned rue de Lille, and the incredible Basilica of Notre Dame. It’s also home to Nausicaa, the French National Sea Centre, which is one of the largest aquariums in the world.
Town and Country
Arras is the capital of Pas-de-Calais. It is architecturally splendid, largely restored after WWII, with huge squares bordered by tall houses with Flemish facades. It’s home to a UNESCO listed belfry, voted favourite monument of the French in 2017 (France 2 TV). The small city is an urban oasis set in lush countryside surrounded by pretty villages with easy access to Arras’ many charms and facilities.
Less than an hour from Calais lies the Seven Valleys area filled with tiny hamlets and charming towns such as Montreuil-sur-Mer with its cobbled squares and ancient ramparts. The scenery and life of the town inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Each year around 600 locals put on a fabulous show of the author’s famous story on the town ramparts, complete with horses, cannons and fireworks! The town styles itself a “Destination Gastronomique” thanks to the number of excellent restaurants, fabulous food and wine shops and a superb market.
Work life balance France and UK
For those who have flexible working conditions, a move to “very south Kent” as some call Pas de Calais, really could maximise both home and work opportunities. Fibre optic high speed internet is being rolled out everywhere including rural villages. There are excellent transport connections between Pas de Calais and the UK. For instance passenger train Eurostar from Lille to London takes 1 hour 22 minutes and from Calais Frethun direct to St Pancras its just 56 minutes. There are also Eurotunnel trains (car/train) service and ferries run between Dover Calais and Dunkirk.
Barrister in Boulogne-sur-Mer
When Wendy and Adam Clemens’ daughter showed them a house for sale on the internet, they were hooked. The 19th century Hotel Particulier (mansion house) in St Etienne au Mont, just outside Boulogne-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais, was like a dream of their ideal home. Says Wendy “it was a moment of falling madly in love”. They moved from Essex to France and Adam, a barrister commutes to London on a regular basis via Eurostar from Calais. The whole journey takes less than 2 hours. In fact, he says, his journey from Essex took longer.
Though they love their French house it is the life they have in France that is most important to them. “There’s a sense of community spirit. The neighbours have been really welcoming. And when Adam is working in London I don’t feel isolated because there’s always something to do. Our daughters Lucy and Alice who both work in London, love to visit”. Wendy says right from the beginning, they’ve felt like they belong. “On our first day, our neighbour came over with a tray of hot food and home-made bread. After we’d been unpacking all day, it meant so much”.
“We love the food here” says Adam. “There are fabulous restaurants like the Michelin starred La Matelote in Boulogne for special occasions. And within walking distance of our house there’s a charming bistro with great steak frites”.
The proximity to the beautiful beaches of the Opal Coast, the street markets and the friendliness of the people make this “a little bit of heaven” says Wendy.
Designs on the 7 Valleys
Heather and Mike White, a creative pattern maker and graphic designer live in the Seven Valleys. They purchased a neglected former school house, close to the popular market town of Hesdin. But it needed a lot of renovation. So while Mike took on the challenge, Heather continued to work in London, commuting from France.
“Apart from not being able to get a take away after a hard day’s graft, there’s nothing I miss in the UK” says Mike.
What they’ve gained from their live in France/work in London arrangement says Heather, is a lifestyle they could never have afforded in the UK. They love walking in the country with their dog, “friendly and welcoming local people, a slower pace of life”. Plus they enjoy the street markets and visiting flea markets at the weekends (there are more than 3000 a year in the region). With numerous museums and cultural venues, including the world class Louvre Museum at Lens, hundreds of festivals and events, Paris 2.5 hours away, “it is” says Heather “ideal and idyllic”.
Tim Sage, regional manager of Leggett Immobillier, who lives in the Seven Valleys, says this is an area that’s underestimated and offers terrific value. “It’s the closest French holiday destination for the UK. This makes it easy for expats to see friends and family. And also for second home owners to spend more time on holiday and less traveling. It’s known as the golden triangle for its ease of access between Paris, Belgium and the UK. Plus it has the advantage of low cost homes with average house costs at £140,000”.