Class of ’89
Never mind a year in Provence – Debbie Folkes reflects on three decades in Calvados
A big year for Germany, Peter Mayle, FPN and a family from the Midlands
It was ‘The Year That Changed The World’ according to Time Magazine. Though Germany bringing down the Berlin Wall was somewhat more significant, for my husband Martyn and me, 1989 was our own momentous year as it marked the start of our French adventure.
That year we became the proud, though somewhat shell-shocked, owners of a maison secondaire in the Normandy countryside, inland of the D-day landings beaches. Peter Mayle’s memoir A Year in Provence first hit the shelves that year too, though nobody knew it would become a global bestseller.
Another publication that was launched in 1989 was French Property News. I have been a reader and, latterly, a subscriber, for many years and love reading the ‘real life’ stories, comparing experiences and the buying process. Did anyone else buy their French house after just one viewing, based on a gut feeling that it was right as soon as they walked in the door? We did. And I would do it all over again. Absolument!
Captured by Calvados Our French adventure began on 1 July, 1989, as we drove back to the ferry port after a holiday. It was a glorious day and, wandering into Bayeux late-afternoon, we idly looked in estate agents’ windows, spotting one house that we particularly liked the look of in a small village between Isigny-sur-mer and St Lô. At around £35,000, all fees included, it was the equivalent cost of a one-bedroom apartment back in the Midlands where we live. We arranged to view it, plus three others for good measure. I remember there were some real bargains to be had, though some properties optimistically described as “dwellings” had no roof, sagging walls and accessibility only at low tide!
With the optimism of (relative) youth at that time, we plunged into the viewings with no pre-planning and we basically made our minds up when driving to the ferry the next day. It all seems totally mad looking back, but we weren’t alone in what we were doing; the market was buoyant and lots of British people were buying property.
Plain sailing sale Just three short months later we were in the notaire’s office wading through the acte de vente. Halfway through, with the help of a translator, we asked about the results of the survey and searches. “What survey? What searches?” was the reply. “If you wanted those it was down to you to organise them.”
Panicky moment. Well, the house had been standing for 200 years, we reasoned. It must be sound, yes? We signed.
Navigation of the French legal system complete, we had lunch with the former owners, a Parisian doctor and his wife who were retiring to Brittany, and then scuttled off to remind ourselves of what we had actually bought.
New neighbours Although somewhat shabbier than I remembered, the house was pretty, covered in Virginia creeper that was beginning to turn red, and in a fairly good state.
With three bedrooms and a fourth to be finished, it was unfamiliarly large as we lived at that time in an apartment in the UK. There were unfamiliar night-time noises too, and we locked ourselves in behind closed shutters on the first night!
The house came with a small apple orchard and paddock, where a neighbour kept his sheep in return for keeping an eye on the house. We formalised the arrangement and it has suited us all to this day. Our neighbours have become firm friends and we have attended various weddings, birthday parties and christenings since. On one memorable occasion, an 80th birthday party, during a game of charades, my mime was a chicken laying an egg, to the amusement of the whole assembled company!
When we first arrived, it was clear that my schoolgirl French (and the ability to recite La Cigale et la Fourmi verbatim) wasn’t going to get me very far. But thanks to perseverance, a good dictionary, time with our neighbours and the good and patient help of a tutor, we can now hold our own in most situations.
Cross-channel exploration One big upside to buying in Normandy is, of course, its accessibility from the UK. Some years we have visited as many as 12 times, earning us a visit to the bridge with the captain on Brittany Ferries after 20 years of travel with them. Back in the early days there were more ferry companies operating on the western channel but some were fairly basic
and we now have the luxury of the larger ferries and the benefit of the high-speed boats in the summer. We are members of the Brittany Ferries Club Voyage scheme with the discounted rates it brings, for us and our family and friends.
In the early days we would drive miles getting to know the area, the beaches, towns, markets, apple festivals... you name it. These days we are more likely to be found closer to home and particularly in Bayeux, a place I never tire of. The Saturday market is an absolute go-to and our Saturday evening meal is always concocted from the best the market has to offer.
There are so many beautiful places to visit in Normandy but sometimes it’s nice to go ‘nowhere at all’ and sit with a beer watching the world go by. Invariably, we have friends or family with us. This is definitely a house and a region made for sharing.
If we do feel restless, we often go to the Belle Epoque resort of Dinard, across the estuary from St-malo, as our friends live nearby. Awesome experiences we’ve enjoyed close to home include the 50th, 60th and 70th anniversaries of D-day and the Tour De France which had stages in Normandy on three days last year. We were within feet of the Queen on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of D-day, as she walked with the then president, François Mitterand, to Bayeux cemetery and I also had the absolute honour of meeting some of the World War II veterans at Arromanches in 2014.
What’s new? Twenty eight years have gone by in a flash and we have seen lots of changes.
The house has been transformed, despite our early thoughts that ‘nothing needed doing’. Over the years, we’ve finished the fourth bedroom, refurbished the bathroom, added a shower room on the first floor, replaced the roof, tackled the garden and bought an adjacent field.
Rufus, our small chocolate cocker spaniel, arrived in 2009 and is now on his third passport. He is very much the local celebrity and is greeted warmly in every bar and restaurant; he’s usually catered for before we are allowed to order. Ever felt invisible?
My personal situation has also changed radically as I took early retirement in 2015 after 38 years in the insurance industry. It’s meant we have been able to spend much more quality time in France.
We have seen many more British buyers pursuing their own French dreams, peaking, I would say around 2007. Since then, our experience locally in Normandy has been a reduction in prices and houses staying on the market for a considerable time. Having said that, if you are buying then there are many bargains to be had, particularly beautiful country properties with land, which would remain a dream in the UK. Brexit and other politics aside, if you are looking for a relaxed way of life in a fabulous country, I would endorse France wholeheartedly.
At around £35,000, it was the equivalent cost of a onebedroomed apartment back home in the Midlands.
The ivy-clad facade of Debbie and Martyn’s house in Normandy Debbie in the property’s orchard
Debbie and Rufus enjoying the maritime air at Grandcamp
Making a home in Normandy
Debbie never tires of Bayeux market Exploring Bayeux Summer in Normandy The couple’s favourite restaurant, La Marée, overlooks the port in Grandcamp-maisy