ver wanted to cross the Channel for good? Jo Davison tracked down two South Yorkshire families living La Bonne Vie in the Limousin...
It was a bumper French harvest, was 2004.
The country was deluged by some 200,000 Brits; families who had come not for a week away from it all, but a new way of life.
The pound/euro exchange rate was high and la bonne vie had never looked bonnier. The number of new ex-pats arriving en France has fallen along with the currency rate, but it’s still some 20,000 a year.
The British have always been a mobile nation, moving lock, stock and lifestyle for centuries. We recreated little Britains in India, America, Hong Kong and Australia. It’s France we’re now uprooting to because it’s close enough to home, yet different to home.
The fact that France is full of spacious country properties and ancient cottages in need of restoration – all far cheaper than at home – plus the food and, of course, the wine, are major plusses for those wanting to say bonjour to a lifestyle.
Like millions of UK parents, Hilary and Terry Law packed their lad off to university a couple of weeks ago.
There was that same tug at the heartstrings for them; that rush of concern about how their only child would cope with independent living.
But for the Laws, there are none of the worries about money; Jack, 21, won’t be emerging from uni in three years’ time with a degree and the £30,000 of debt his counterparts in England will be shackled by.
The Laws moved to France nine years ago. And its government pays students to go to university.
Jack, who is studying Portuguese, German, Italian and English, receives the standard grant of 400 Euros a month and a 200 euro monthly housing allowance. He doesn’t have to pay a penny back, nor does he have to pay tuition fees.
“I doubt the country can afford to do it, but it encourages its young people to get a good education,” explains former bus authority boss Terry, 68.
“The quality of life here is far superior to England’s,” “The peace, the quiet, the sense of community... It’s what you got in England in the 1950s.
“It’s got a great emergency health service and we pay into a private scheme to top it up. If you’re going to be ill, be ill here,” he says.
“And the French couldn’t be friendlier. The idea that they don’t want the English moving onto their patch is ridiculous. They like us buying their tumble-down barns and putting our kids in their under-populated schools. They see it as a boost to their local economy.
“There are a lot of ex South Yorkshire people in the Limousin. The singer in our local punk rock tribute band is from Heeley!”
It was Terry’s early retirement pot from the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive that got them here.
They splashed out on a holiday home in the Limousin 13 years ago.
Their quaint and rambling detached cottage, parts of which date back to the 19th century, sits in Bussiere Poitevine, 20 miles north of Limoges. It’s a beauty; the type budding ex-pats dream of. And it cost them just £23,000.
They found it via a French property sales exhibition in Solihull. It was one of a dozen they stuck pictures of all around their kitchen in Sheffield Lane Top. Day by day, they would tear down the ones they had gone off.
After renovation, the house became their getaway every school holiday. The family made the decision to move there lock, stock and barrel four years later.
Hilary, 58, a former Pitsmoor school clerk, explains: “I’m a city girl through and through, but I’d always longed to live in the country. In Sheffield we just couldn’t afford to do that.
“We had found the house and the life we dreamed of in France, so we went for it. All these years on, we haven’t had one single regret.”
Jack may one day need to return to the UK – he’s carving out a career as a recording artist and has already released an album. He sings Sinatra-style swing big band, in both English and French, with a remarkably mature voice.
But Terry and Maureen reckon they will stay forever. Don’t get me wrong, though, she says; she misses a night at the pictures and a day trip to Scarborough and still loves Sheffield; she reads The Star online every night.
But Terry says he misses nothing about UK life. He gets his summer fix of county cricket via the radio.
Everything else they get a yen for comes via Tesco. Hilary hates French supermarkets “with a passion”. They’re over-priced with too little choice, she says. She shops with local producers but heaven would be Morrisons at the end of the road.
She makes do with a company who deliver to her door the weekly online Tesco order she has dropped at a pick-up point in Essex. “It’s cheaper for me to buy our general groceries this way.
“Plus we get all the home tastes we hanker for. I get my bacon, teabags, sausages and gammon – and Terry gets his custard tarts, John Smith’s and Eccles cakes.”
Big appetite for British-style fish and chips and roast beef
THEY love their snails and frogs’ legs, do the French.
But in the little village of Compreignac not far from the city of Limoges, they also adore their Yorkshire puddings.
Fish and chips, done British chippie-style and complete with mushy peas, are firm favourites, too. And on Sundays, the traditional British roast beef with all the trimmings is a sell-out.
Taking their palates on a ferry journey of cross-Channel discovery is former Wombwell greengrocer Maureen Taylor and her husband Peter.
They took on the restaurant L’Escale in the centre of the village eight months ago, after it had closed through lack of trade.
The pair, who used to run a pub in Leicester, hadn’t upped sticks for France planning to spend their nights cooking, though.
They left South Yorkshire to live out an idyllic retirement, fuelled by an episode of A Place In The Sun.
The TV show had featured homes in the Limousin, the picturesque, sparsely populated area in the Massif Central.
“We couldn’t believe how cheap they were and how much land you got for your money,” says Maureen, a glamorous 63-year-old. “We had a look at properties on the internet and found one we really liked. It had its own fishing lake. Peter told me to get a flight booked; he loves his fishing. He used to be a semi-pro and it was his dream to live near water.”
Maureen didn’t want to make any hasty decisions, though; leaving three children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren was a big step.
“But we had a look on the internet five months later and the house was still for sale, so she gave in and booked the plane tickets,” says Peter, a civil engineer from Renishaw.
They flew out and viewed several properties in the more popular Dordoigne. But they didn’t pass muster.
The tiny one-bedroomed house in the Haute Vienne region of the Limousin did. Its setting couldn’t have been more perfect; set in stunning countryside yet just five miles from the airport at Limoges with direct flights back to East Midlands, it had three acres of land, including a one-and-a-half-acre lake stocked with carp, tench, bream and pike.
The price? Just 72,000 Euros – around £44,000 at the time. They moved out two and a half years ago and settled into French life immediately.
“It’s idyllic here,” says Maureen. “We love everything about it and never want to move back home.” They found retirement harder to handle, though. Having time on their hands was getting a bit boring. After months of deliberating, they accepted a property agent’s request to take on the empty village restaurant. “Everyone wanted to see it open again and the agent knew we had run a pub,” Maureen explains. “We agreed, but it was quite a scary prospect; we knew how particular the French are about their food. We had to do it right.” She and Peter aimed for a French and English clientèle. They learned how to cook a number of French classics; salade perigordine, beef bourgignon and pot au feu, which, says Peter, is exactly the same as a British beef stew.
He’s the master of the Yorkshire puddings, which villagers now clamour for, having had them for the first time one Sunday at L’Escale. He also makes a proper Yorkshire gravy, the way he has done since he was taught how at the age of 10 by a neighbour in Renishaw.
“They realised the puddings batter is exactly the same as theirs for crepes,” he says. “And they compare our stuffing to their farcie. They also like my steak and kidney pie, Lancashire hotpot and Cottage Pie, or hachis parmentier, as they call it.” They have got used to the fact that the French want bread with everything, their meat cooked rare and their cheese before their pudding. But on one thing, they stand firm...
“We lay the tables English-style, with separate knives and forks for different courses,” says Maureen.
The French prefer to use the same set right through the meal. But it drives me mad when they rest their dirty cutlery on my nice clean napkins.”